Interview: Rachel Ashwell, Founder of Shabby Chic

I've been privileged enough to chat with Shabby Chic's creator, Rachel Ashwell, about how her business has changed over the twenty years and how one could endure and thrive in the home decor space.
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Seven years ago, I began what would be an auspicious journey -- I ripped off the Band-Aids, dove into shallow waters and decided that living life perpetually anesthetized was not a life worth living. In plainer terms, I ended a nearly two-year addiction to cocaine, and in four years time, I would be completely sober (from the sauce). I remember those early days in 2002, living in that strange apartment above a restaurant, whose waiters chorused the Godfather theme, returning from an abrupt leave to a graduate program when I hadn't a story in me to write. The barren, clean kitchen, the ominous bedroom window that looked out into darkness, with the only sign of a life a woman who sang arias into the darkness.

One day I turned on the television and watched two shows back-to-back, and I set down my remote, cleared the table, lit the burner, and began to cook. Come weekends, I slipped into nearby SoHo and pawed beautiful linens and a store that projected an idyll - bliss in a duvet. The two shows were Nigella Lawson's Nigella Bites and Rachel Ashwell's Shabby Chic -- both made home more than a place where one's mail was forwarded. They made home a place one could harvest. I was a teenager who made boxed brownies with hard-boiled eggs, and grew into a woman who fashioned French pastry, living for the next delicious, homemade bite.

I also started to care about the things in my home, desiring them to beautiful and functional, and Rachel Ashwell's cool, calm style was seductive to a woman who grew up in dark and frenzy. Over the years, I've shied away from the overly precious florals of Ashwell's designs and focused more on the concept of remaking and revitalizing beautiful, pre-owned items. There is patina in objects others have loved. Pleasure in coveting a frock once treasured.

Over a month ago, I had the opportunity to attend the opening of Ashwell's latest location on Mercer Street in New York's fashionable SoHo and meet the creative genius responsible for bringing an British aesthetic to American home decor. A marked departure from the almost clinical, medicinal feel of her Santa Monica and Greene Street locations, the Mercer store feels like a lived-in home. The ambient lighting, the close-knit recreation of bedrooms, boudoirs and dining areas, the racks of fanciful vintage gowns, the mismatched table settings and epic blooms, imbues the new space with a warmth that I hadn't quite seen in Ashwell's former incarnations. From candlesticks to plush bedding, her items make it such that you never want to abandon your home.

It's as if Rachel Aswell's brand was reborn, shabby made chic (if you will) again. And I view her couture collection much like investing in the bones of one's wardrobe -- I spend a considerable amount of money on a good coat, slacks, handbag and proper black heels because I know I will own these items for at least a decade -- you acquire a cozy couch or an armoire or a refurbished table and mixing it with your flea market and Ikea finds. Or perhaps mixing her more affordable Target line (the woman can make a mean lamp base) with her higher-ticketed items.

And as I am about to embark on what might be another remarkable life change (keeping mum for now), I found myself eager to redecorate and reinvest in my small patch of real estate, my proverbial harvest. I've been privileged enough to chat with Shabby Chic's creator, Rachel Ashwell, about how her business has changed over the twenty years and how one could endure and thrive in the home decor space.

I admire your passion for remaking and revitalizing beautiful, pre-owned items. From your days on the E! Channel when you frequented flea markets to your well-edited collections at your varying Shabby Chic locations, your aesthetic is traditional, calming and beautiful, for there's a patina in objects others have loved. Pleasure in coveting a vintage frock once treasured. How did you find your passion? After all these years what keeps you motivated and creative?

My passion found me. I've always been interested in theatre details, ruffles, pleats and fabrics, handmade qualities and one-of-a-kind items. Also, my English heritage makes me attentive to detail especially anything falling into the realm of classical and historical, beautiful and function, and comfortable but imperfect. I find beauty in imperfection. All these authentic qualities inform my decorative philosophy and guide the aesthetics that manifest in both my Shabby Chic Couture and Simply Shabby Chic for Target collections.

What keeps my passion is my love for the process and the end result. I'm always evolving and reinventing, but I'm committed to my values. I still love to search of the treasures at flea markets -- that keeps me refreshed.

As we're in the midst of a precarious economy, many are finding, ironically enough, that now is the best time to start a business. As someone who is a successful entrepreneur, can you speak to the process of how you launched the Shabby Chic brand?

When I opened Shabby, I knew very little about business although I was always frugal and I organized my personal monies well. The most important element in an entrepreneur, I believe, is to have a service or product that you fully believe in--one that you think is unique and needed. Business is hard and passion drives the engine when money is scarce. And unexpected challenges occur. Start small but strong and don't over invest -- start with the bare necessities. It's always easier to grow than to shrink.

Can you speak to how the new "couture" line evolved from the original Shabby Chic model?

Couture is the crème de la crème of all my lessons of 20 years; the best of the best, and in some instances, products that a bigger company could never justify producing. Rachel Ashwell Shabby Chic Couture consists of one store in Los Angeles, one in New York and, in January 2010, I will open in London. Additionally, over time, a few select licensing partners will help distribute my vision internationally into higher-end markets. My hope is that couture will be profitable, but couture is also my art, and where I can manifest my vision. From there I can then redesign for other tiers, taking into account production costs and abilities - and also reach a broader audience. So, moving forward, Simply Shabby Chic for Target will remain as our mass distribution and other tiers in various product categories will be licensed globally. I will oversee all, and everything will start from the vision created at the couture level.

I had the opportunity to visit your new Mercer Street location in New York's fashionable SoHo district. Immediately, I felt the décor was markedly different than the airy, dare I say sterile environment of your Santa Monica, Malibu and Greene Street locations? The space felt cozy, as if I were in a real home rather than a recreation of one. With the new line, was reconcepting the store space part of the vision?

So happy to hear of your experience of the Mercer Street store. It was actually based a little more on my vision as far as the experience goes, with the Greene Street store, 20 years ago. However, the merchandise has evolved a little. Yes, I want the stores to feel like a true home, either the more feminine or the primitive raw aesthetic. Over time, accessories such as stationery and apothecary items started playing a larger and larger role. And as much as I loved these categories for my store, it takes away from the true living experience. It can also distract the customer from being able to see and feel the furniture. So the balance was still to create the warmth, but without the depth of product. Also, having more one-of-a-kind vintage items than ever before, there is only a limited depth of any one item that I can stock. (Still, I'm having a hard time keeping up the demand for vintage).

What's your strategy for thriving in the midst of a precarious economy where discretionary spending is tightening and consumers are less likely to shop as freely as they used to? Is it the concept of acquiring "forever" or investment pieces? To that end, how does your more accessible Target line complement your new "couture" line?

Yes, it is for sure a time that people are being much more selective with their spending, not just because money is tight, but also because they have gotten out of the spend, spend, spend mode. Something has to have real value or meaning in order for people to part with their money. I am noticing quality is playing a big value. I have displayed in the stores the components of the inside of our furniture, to show its construction. There is true interest in this. Nostalgia also plays a role. My products remind people of the past, and I think the value there is the customer knowing it can be part of their future and their children's future - that it's heirloom quality. Customizing the furniture and making it their own, is another quality that is making people feel unique. And with our vintage accessories and furniture, people are connecting with the one-of-a-kind aspect. I have always been a believer in blending my products with my Simply Shabby Chic for Target line and also flea market treasures. That is what my aesthetic is all about: a $300 flea market table with a dinnerware set from Target, sitting on an antique rug from my store. That's what makes it all work perfectly. I just shot a commercial for the Target website, demonstrating this lesson and everything complimenting everything so well.

Is your customer the same today as when you launched?

In 20 years, obviously there are some generational differences. Lots of toddlers that came into my stores with their mums are they're now coming in with their own toddlers. But when Shabby Chic is in your blood, it stays. It evolves, but the need for beauty, comfort, and function is just the way we are wired.

Looking back at the evolution of your company and brand, is there anything you might have done differently in all the years you've been in business? Any critical lessons learned?

My biggest lesson was to learn that even though I didn't have a conventional schooling in business, somehow intuitively I knew a lot. And over the years I passed this power over to many. And in the end, I could've believed in myself a little more for that piece of the puzzle. The design part has always chugged along and never caused too much damage, it's the other piece I didn't protect so well.

What is the most challenging aspect of operating in the home décor space?

Because home décor includes such big items, it's cumbersome and expensive to move, larger spaces are needed, and shipping is always filled with problems. I often said selling t-shirts would be so much easier but from an aesthetic I have always beat to my own drum, and it keeps on beating and people keep on connecting.

How have you as a designer changed over the years? How has Shabby Chic, as a style of décor, evolved, aesthetically?

Like everyone, I have mellowed, I have matured and I have edited my life. My palette is much smokier. There will always be a place for baby pink and blue, but the dusty palette of mauves and teals show my mellowing. I have become very attracted to wood showing its age with knots and rings -- sometimes dark, never shiny. This has opened up a window for the shabby man customer, who's drawn to our mellow leather sofas and chairs.

And as you noted, there is less in the store. But what is there is the magic -- the true value.
Anything new on the horizon for 2010?

In 2010 we will open our first international store in London; I'm going home. After 30 years, and so much shipping to London, it is time. I also hope to put pen to paper and write my story. We will be partnering with some licensors globally to spread our story in various tiers and product categories, some familiar, some new. We will add new products and patterns to the Simply Shabby Chic for Target collection. I will continue avoiding mediocrity and will only work in the realm of magic.