By Patricia Sheridan
Shabby Chic, a trend that became a lifestyle, weathered the return of “Mad Men” and midcentury modern, bankruptcy and confusion to emerge with its soul intact.
Rachel Ashwell is the sheikha of shabby, the founder and creator of the look that embodies timelessness, romance and cozy comfort. She says she nearly named the company Slip, which would have been a big one.
Her new book, “The World of Shabby Chic: Beautiful Homes, My Story & Vision” (Rizzoli, $45), looks like a coffee-table book but reads like a memoir. Filled with photographs and explanations of the whys, hows and what-ifs beginning with her English childhood, it involves you in her journey before your first cup of tea is brewed.
“I do like to story-tell, and when I look back at all my small careers that led up to this big career, it was all really versions of telling stories,” says Ashwell. The tale behind the Slip company name is a reasonable one; slipcovers were the first products she made.
“I wanted a machine-washable, preshrunk slipcover custom-made for my sofa,” she explains in the book. At the time, they didn’t exist.
Her dream as a child was to be part of Hollywood. She left school at 16 and saved enough by working to come to California. With a little networking, she found the expat British community and began working as a stylist. Marriage and two children were the catalysts that moved her into the slipcover business. She wanted a family-friendly home, thus washable slipcovers. She made one for herself, and all of her friends wanted them.
“Beauty, comfort, function” became the company’s tagline as well as its mantra. Her “white” period started before she was married, when she rented a home with a bunch of boys in the Hollywood Hills. She painted everything white, which might seem counter-intuitive, considering her housemates.
“For me, because I am quite shy, white felt safe as far as not committing to anything. In actuality, to commit to white is quite a statement. To walk into a full white room is like WOW!” she says.
Ashwell fell into bankruptcy in 2009 when the housing market and stock market nose-dived together just as she was persuaded to expand and open more stores. In 2010, she bought The Prairie, a bed-and-breakfast in Round Top, Tex. Guests fell in love with Shabby Chic again.
“I call Shabby Chic a movement,” she says. “The preconceived aesthetic of Shabby Chic is flowers, whether fresh flowers or printed (on fabric) and a very soft palette. But because it is functional, it is very easy for it to slip into all types of homes, a modern home, a traditional home, a bohemian home.”
The book illustrates this notion, showing shabby seamlessly integrated into many different environments. Ashwell loves to see it mixed with heirlooms, flea market finds and a personal sense of style.
“I think because it has such flexibility in aesthetics and also price point, it is the engine that just keeps going.”