AT Offline: Rachel Ashwell of Shabby Chic

New York City 10.14.09

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September Guest: Rachel Ashwell of Shabby Chic
AT Offline: The NY Design Meetup
Attendance: 117

Today I wanted to take the time to highlight a really fascinating evening that I spent with Rachel Ashwell of Shabby Chic last Wednesday. In what is becoming a bigger and bigger forum for Apartment Therapy, my monthly Design Meetups are allowing me and the growing group of design enthusiasts and designers to get up close and personal with those who are really driving the creative side of the business.

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This last week we had a packed house of over 115 people in Shabby Chic's new store on Mercer Street. Wine and nibbles were flowing and Target had graciously put a Shabby Chic gift (from the Target line) on everyone's seat. We started by giving ten minutes of group therapy to Georgia Browne from Long Island (you can see her living room here), before Rachel and I got chatting.

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The lowdown here is that Rachel opened her first Shabby Chic store in Santa Monica twenty years ago, and after a long and dizzying ascent (notably partnering with Target in 2004), her company took on an equity partnership in 2006 that took it even higher until the recession blew out their tires and the company went bankrupt in the spring of 2009. She has just in the past two months started up again with new energy, new backers and two new stores. On her 20th anniversary she's back with vigor.

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I was able to pull Rachel's life story out of her as well as what has happened with her and her company in the past year, and you can read all the notes below (thanks to Neige Larue and Kayne Rourke). Rachel also lead us through a slide show of her inspiration, which included stunning photographs that explain where she draws her inspiration for this classic style from.

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• The picture of this room above is one of my greatest sources of inspiration.

INTERVIEW

MG-R: Where did Shabby Chic come from?

RA: Around 1989 I put together a style of chic and scruffy things and thought those two things made the perfect combination.

MG-R: Why did you come to the US?

RA: For two reasons – first, I wanted to visit Marilyn Monroe’s grave… Second, I was interested in writing for the movie industry… but I was only 19 so I started working as a freelance stylist. I left school when I was 16, which is fairly common in England if you don’t have money behind you, so I decided to make life my school. My dad was an antique book dealer, and my mom was an antique doll restorer so I learned from them an appreciation for old scruffy things. Styling is one way into the world of interiors, and I was used to creating temporary little worlds for editorial purposes, but I only specialized in vintage.

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• Marie Antoinette is one of my biggest inspirations…

At 27 I had a couple of babies and I didn’t want to leave the kids, or go back to long hours so I decided to open a shop. People would come to my house, see my slipcovers and people asked me to do it for them. Slipcovers - at the time, wasn’t something people did. People thought slipcovers were those plastic covers. It was mostly flea-market found upholstery, stuff found or sourced. A void in the market was having really great fabrics, so I would go around buying fabrics and I would ask… what would happen if I washed this? It all started as something very authentic; there was no business plan and no agenda. My motto was beauty, function comfort… and it still is.

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• Quintessential shabby is white ruffles, crystal, touches of gold, but thrown in there is something folksy, moments of rawness, like a cement crackle wall. I think folk, modern, and shabby all go together peacefully, all work nicely.

MG-R: Where did the name come from?

RA: I had conceptualized everything but I didn’t have a name for it. I was looking through a magazine, Country Life Magazine, it’s a real estate magazine that features all of these old estates in the countryside of England. I was looking at an article and it was the way a house was described in this small little article.

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MG-R: Walk us through your first 10 years in business:

I opened my first store in Santa Monica and got a few unstructured partners and opened 6 stores over the next 10 years with a $100K line of credit for each store. First was Santa Monica, then New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Malibu then Newport. I was buying product, refinishing and stocking the stores and eventually learned that I needed to start making things. Then, the TV show and Target came along. They were all wonderful. Target has been a great company to partner with. They have a real respect for who their designers are, they respect what we do, and have respect for who their designers are, give us the space to do it in. The let us be cohesive, it’s a great counterbalance to what I do.

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• Ruffles – Ruffles to me is life.

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CROWD QUESTIONS

Q: The evolution is clear, Shabby has gone in and out of style. What have the cycles been? Where are you now?

RA: When I first opened there was a hunger in the market for comfort, but it was very romantic and girly. Now we are mixing cleaner modern shapes with shabby elements. Simpler lines, but with comfort.

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• The theatre/ballet is a huge inspiration for me…. Marie Antoinette, Laura Ashley and Ralph Lauren flowers inspire me. My new obsession is this Russian Folk Image. I see my whole new line in this folk peasant vintage way.

Q: Where do you find good flea markets?

RA: You should check thrift stores, garage sales, Salvation Army, Ebay, estate sales… I can find treasures there, especially in big cities but a lot of it is what you do with what you find.

Q: How did you learn to make furniture?

RA: Trial and error – I had to learn the hard way. I have been very lucky with my career. I opened my first store in 1989, the first book was published in 1996 with Judith Reagan. She walked into my store and asked, do you want to do a book? Same with E!. A producer walked into my store and offered me a show. I work bloody hard once I get the opportunity, but I was lucky.

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• My house in Malibu. I love how worn all the different textiles are...

Q: How do you balance motherhood and work?

RA: I don’t have a great social life… I was proud to have dinner with my family and drive the carpool every day… When they were younger I would pack my kids into a double stroller and take the kids to the flea market.

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• I love this picture of France's president and first lady because of what they are wearing...the old fashioned ornament and the ruffles in the ribbon that runs to Carla Bruni's waist.

Q: You mentioned the line of credit you had when opening your first store – do you feel like
you were just taking a leap of faith when you started?


RA: I Started small and really only wanted a little corner shop in Santa Monica. I Had no fear at 20!
And now, as then, it’s hard work, but I just have to keep moving forward. At this point, I “have” to do it – it is my art, and my voice. Also, I couldn’t let business die without dignity.

This store (NY) is much smaller now, but still allows the brand to survive and it helps to gauge people’s interest. Shabby Chic is still a luxury item, however, and the recession does not make business easy.

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• My mom was a doll dealer and at this time dolls were a big thing in England. All her peers would buy new fabrics to repair dolls, my mom would go buy crappy pieces of fabric and ribbon. She taught me the beauty of imperfection and when to stop. I wouldn’t have learned how to do this without my mom.

Q: How do you maintain originality?

RA: Wood pieces are all originals. Most of them are one-of-a-kind. Fabrics – work hard on techniques (sewing / dyeing / seams). All hand-made. If it’s handmade, it’s original.

Q: On your flea market finds, do you have difficulty maintaining inventory?

RA: YES!

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• This is a restaurant that I designed for Jennifer Lopez, with a Shabby Chic/Cuban theme.

Q: How do you bargain at a flea market?

RA: Experience helps, and I don't really bargain very hard. Before I started my store back in the 80's, I imported linens from England and sold them at the Rose Bowl. Also, having respect for the sellers give you perspective on "bargaining." It is very hard work – I have a great respect for flea market purveyors. Since I know how much goes into the buying and selling of items, I don’t really bargain. My bottom line is that If I really can’t pay what they are asking, I respectfully ask if the seller will take less. That's what works for me.

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• My father was American, from Chicago, and my mom was from New Zealand… I enjoy grounding my design with heritage, heritage of faith or country. They are ingredients that make up who I am.

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Maxwell left teaching in 2001 to start Apartment Therapy as a design business helping people to make their homes more beautiful, organized AND healthy. The website started up in 2004 with the help of his brother, Oliver.