Now in her 25th year as a high-end event planner, designer, floral stylist, marketing and branding guru, Kate Stanley traded wedding gowns and tuxes for tasting rooms.
Stanley, who has lived in Calistoga for 17 years with a connection to the city that goes back generations, is renowned for elegant wedding planning and San Francisco corporate “wow” events, but has “quit” the wedding part of her business to focus on designing lasting spaces such as in tasting rooms and retail spaces, and the occasional event such as the Sept. 9 Calistoga Wine Experience in Pioneer Park.
Giving up wedding planning – her last one in December was a “Calistoga” style that she said was intimate, at the gazebo in Pioneer Park, and included great food from Calistoga Kitchen, and simple charm – has freed her weekends and made a difference in her lifestyle.
“It changed my life,” she said of not planning weddings, which before meant working long weekends and dealing with the stress of mothers of brides and the brides themselves who have dreams of creating a wedding fit for a princess.
Now, she’s ready for a new chapter that still includes certain corporate clients, some local groups such as the Calistoga Winegrowers, and now, wineries. Stanley didn’t know when she was drawn to Calistoga many years ago that she had a familial connection to the city.
“My great grandparents used to come here to Calistoga for their summers,” said the fourth generation San Franciscan.
Stanley is known by San Francisco elite as a go-to person for creating something spectacular out of nothing, for producing extravagant events such as weddings with brag-about budgets that included $40,000 alone for Stanley’s floral designs, and putting on parties and corporate events for big names like Levi Strauss and Nike.
Gail and Carmen Policy – Carmen Policy of NFL leadership fame, including time at the helm for the San Francisco 49ers – consider Stanley “a friend of the family” after working with her professionally for about a dozen years, he said in an interview.
The Policys have hired Stanley for numerous events from small to large, including their daughter’s wedding, as well as design and adornment of their home, intimate party planning, and shopping for certain items such as fabric and linen for their home, Carmen said, adding that his wife, Gail and Stanley get along “famously.”
“They are really like peas in a pod,” when working on an event or any project together, he said.
Stanley has “an innate talent and a great eye, an artistic flair” coupled with a “sort of whimsical personality,” Carmen Policy said.
Along with great NFL and corporate success the Policys are known for their philanthropy – for example, they endowed the Carmen and Gail Policy Clinical Fellowship at the Georgetown University Law Center, which promotes advocacy of civil rights issues – and they have trusted Stanley to create charity and fundraising events for them.
“When Gail puts her neck out on” agreeing to help organize events such as a “member of charitable committees or boards” she will say “if we really want to make it special we ought to have Kate Stanley involved,” he said.
Golden Gate Capital, a private equity firm in San Francisco, relied on Stanley to put on their most important events for them for 17 years, even becoming a mentor to the firm’s event planner.
“I’m always offering myself” to come and volunteer and learn from Stanley, and to be “around her creative energy” during events that aren’t even part of Golden Gate Capital, said Jenn Ngyuen, the company’s event manager.
“She’s really good at interpreting what we need and executing in a really elegant way. She’s over the top and really creative,” Nguyen said.
There have been multiple times that Stanley wowed the crowd, she said, and one time in particular an invitation Stanley developed really stood out.
“An invitation can really set the tone,” Nguyen said. And one event that Stanley created was an invitation to a corporate event that was to be held at the California Academy of Science, where the company contracted to reserve the entire space. Stanley created a scientific-themed card that included a “mini exhibit” of little bugs and butterflies, so impressive Nguyen said one of their founders “called it out” in his thank you speech because he liked it so much.
During a boom in her business Stanley was working 90 hours a week, with a lot of that time spent arranging spectacular Napa Valley weddings. After a long day of creating a memorable day for a bride, groom, their families and guests, Stanley and her crew would go have dinner together, and then she would send them home, she says.
But she didn’t leave Napa Valley to go back to San Francisco where she, her business and employees lived. She would head to Calistoga to spend the night.
“I was staying in Calistoga every weekend,” she said, staying overnight at Calistoga Hot Springs. “I was there every weekend.”
Then her mom suggested that for the amount of money she was spending at the hotel she could put toward a mortgage on a home, and she should consider buying a home in Napa Valley. It took her two years to find her home on Cedar Street, her most coveted location in town, though she was also looking in Sonoma, but always coming back to Calistoga after a home search, she said.
And when a friend called her and said she found the “place for” her, it took only a look in the front door of the Cedar Street home for Stanley to know that was the house. It’s a home she still squeals in joy about and come Sept. 9, she may have the shortest commute of her life, for the second time in her career.
Stanley is putting on the 2nd Annual Calistoga Wine Experience in Pioneer Park, located on the same street on which she lives, providing it her signature look of class, elegance and simplicity.
“She is one of those rare talents often underestimated as she runs around town looking like any other local. But, give her a problem that needs a brilliant, visual solution and voila —- problem becomes beauty,” said Nancy Putney-Abernathy of Blackbird of Calistoga.
Putney-Abernathy might not know it, but “looking like any other local” might just be the driving force that drove Stanley away from her start in advertising several years ago.
“Literally one morning I pulled up my nylons just above my knee and said ‘that’s it, I can’t,’” Stanley says of her time with one of the hottest advertising agencies in the country at the time – hot enough to be the agency that kicked off Apple’s ad popularity, and was part of Nike’s campaign in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
“I didn’t belong wearing make-up and putting on a suit.’”
Stanley doesn’t claim to be behind those campaigns, instead she says she was “incredibly lucky” to be a part a team, and was a “gofer” in the beginning, part of the marketing strategy team who went out and conducted marketing research then later “learned how to bring in new accounts to the agency” and said she got “a crazy education” there.
“I absorbed it all,” she said of her time working with the agency that taught her about market research, branding, re-branding, advertising, design and marketing.
Putney-Abernathy’s Blackbird store occupies the space Stanley once used as a “super cool craft” store in the front where Stanley operated her event business in the back. But, like the first store she opened in Larkspur, Stanley “hated” running the retail side. She loves the creative design side, but in spite of the business and economics degree she earned in college, operating a retail business is not where her heart is.
It’s no surprise since art and design are where she was meant to be since she started “collecting pamphlets” to “RSID” (Rhode Island School of Design” “since I was in 8th grade, but my Dad said ‘no’ that’s not a school,” she said.
Later, she thinks her father might have felt “guilty” for not supporting her artistic aspirations – she wanted to attend RSID or Parsons School of Design — and funded her first venture in business, which was a booth at a flea market in Sausalito that in less than a year, because people were telling her she should get a store, actually turned into a store that also was a quick success.
But she “hated” running the business side of it, and “really loved” the design side of it, ultimately closing the store, and moving full-force into the wedding and corporate event planning business that developed from it and would carry her career.
She’s been featured in glossy magazines such as Town & Country, InStyle, Martha Stewart, Vera Wang’s Wedding Book, People, Bride, Victoria Magazine, Home & Garden, Architectural Digest, and Real Weddings Book for work that included openings of “operas, symphonies, ballet, movie opening at Lucas Films” and many other high-profile events in, and around the Bay Area according to Stanley and other sources.
But a difficult and emotional time for her and her family forced her to take a couple years off. She sought solace at the “Table of Knowledge” – a moniker for a group of friends who meet regularly at Calistoga Roastery – where she developed lasting friendships, connections, and those with whom she can playfully be herself – something Carmen Policy said is part of her charm, and strength in knowing how to get along with everybody.
After her morning coffee, time in her garden helped her recover. Now she’s raring to go transforming tasting rooms from bars into sitting areas with comfortable seating and fully rebranded gift shops, and spending her weekends in a kayak instead of wedding venue.