Interior designer and author Rachel Ashwell remembers as a young girl her mum delicately repairing abandoned vintage dolls at home and then taking them to sell at London's Cambridge Passage antique emporium. She recalls some of the dolls as being "a bit frightening" but mainly giving her lifelong direction.
"Antique dolls were all the rage at the time at the markets," Ashwell says. "Some vendors were restoring them to complete perfection with fancy clothes and fashionable wigs. And I realized: My mum's purpose was to embrace the imperfections. Even though threadbare, her dolls had character with those imperfections."
And so were the first inspirations for Ashwell's 25-year discovery to define shabby chic. Steps to success quickly hastened after landing a TV show on the Style Network and career-changing praise from Oprah Winfrey. (Oprah named a gift of shabby chic T-shirt sheets from Ashwell as one of her "favorite things" after the designer's appearance on the show.)
Ashwell follows her mantra of "imperfection is beautiful" today with her online business and couture Rachel Ashwell Shabby Chic boutiques in Santa Monica, San Francisco, New York, London and Japan. Her partnership with Target for Simply Shabby Chic products continues to thrive as well.
Ashwell visits Dallas on June 25, first as keynote speaker at the Total Home & Gift Show at Dallas Market Center at noon, which is followed by a signing of her latest book, The World of Shabby Chic, in the Charles Ray & Associates showroom. Ashwell will also hold a book signing at 6 pm that evening at Blue Print. The events are open to the public but RSVP is required at email@example.com.
Ashwell spoke with us via phone from Round Top back in April, where she was been busy tending to her bed-and-breakfast, The Prairie, as well as taking in lots of shopping before and during the antiques extravaganza there. Ashwell offers highlights of her career, turning points and tips for budding shabby chic enthusiasts.
CultureMap: How do you define shabby chic?
Rachel Ashwell: Just as with the dolls, it's embracing the imperfections and even highlighting them. The furniture, even with chipped paint, is comfortable in its age and is full of energy with memories. Of course, there's a smoky palette of pinks, grays and blues; floral fabrics; the wow of white; the right patina; and, most of all, its an interior of unintimidating comfort. Think fresh flowers, soft lighting and chandeliers.
That refined elegance is the chic; it becomes shabby when somewhat tattered yet beautiful details are combined into well-considered layers.
CM: What is the most popular item you offer through your shabby chic business?
RA: Even in the beginning, when I opened my first store in Santa Monica in 1989, which is still my hub, I started with slipcovers. I didn't invent them, but I tried to approach them in a different fashion. So I turned to white denim.
People thought I was crazy at first. They asked, "What about pets and children with little sticky fingers?" Well, I have two grown children now who had little sticky fingers too. My pre-shrunk, pre-washed white denim slipcovers are still a favorite.
CM: How did you "discover" Round Top and The Prairie?
RA: While raising my children in California, we'd all get in the car on weekends and head out to look for treasures at the flea markets. It eventually became not so easy just to pop out with the children, and I learned of the fabulous markets and flea markets in Texas. You can fill up an entire container after a few days shopping there to fill your inventory for the next six months.
I stayed at this same B&B when I was first visiting the markets, and the owner came to a point where she was ready to sell. I now own Rachel Ashwell's The Prairie. It's beautiful, with several houses for lodging on about 46 acres. We host many events too, such as weddings, workshops. I do have a souvenir store there too, but people can order items from the boutiques when visiting the shop.
CM: Would you share a few of flea market shopping tips?
RA: I'd say first of all, have an agenda. Know beforehand what it is you're looking for. Now, if it's shabby chic, color palette and patina are important.
For all items, you'll get a better deal if you pay with cash, and yes, it's expected to bargain a bit.
Always get electrical objects rewired.
Make sure you have a vehicle to carry away your purchases.
And, possibly most important, less is more. You can enjoy things more if you don't have too much of it.