Shabby chic queen 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 still 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 thread-bare, her dolls had character with those imperfections."
"For all items, you'll get a better deal if you pay with cash, and yes, it's expected to bargain a bit."
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 and San Francisco, and in New York, London and Japan. Her partnership with Target for Simply Shabby Chic products continues to thrive, as well.
Ashwell is one of three interior design luminares, along with Jan Showers and Barbara Westbrook, featured at this year's "Leading in Design Spring Design Market 2015," with a panel discussion set 11 a.m. April 7 at The Houston Design Center. Ashwell will talk about her recently published book, The World of Shabby Chic: Beautiful Homes, My Story & Vision, and meet with fans later for book signing and for one-on-one conversations.
Ashwell spoke with CultureMap via phone from Round Top, where she's 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.
"Have an agenda: Know beforehand what it is you're looking for. Now, if it's shabby chic, color palette and patina are important."
CM: What is your 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. "White?," people would ask me. '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.
"And, possibly most importantly, less is more. One can enjoy things more if you don't have too much of it."
CM: Would you share a few of your shopping tips for flea market- and market-goers?
RA: Certainly! 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 re-wired.
Make sure you have a vehicle to carry away your purchases.
And, possibly most importantly, less is more. One can enjoy things more if you don't have too much of it.
CM: Would you like to offer any other advice or information?
RA: Yes, and that's to continue to share my journey. My followers are faithful on Instagram, Facebook and other social media outlets. I am known to be very approachable, and shabby chic is like a family.
My book outlines many of the chapters in this journey, but this experience has been and continues to be like raising my children: Holding hands throughout the process.
The Spring Design Market, April 7 and 8, offers more free lectures, design seminars, continuing education and open houses. To sign up for any event, call 713-864-2660 or visit the website to fill out the online registration by clicking here.