An Easy Elegance

Heard the one about the waiter who wanted to be an actor? He finally got a part. As a waiter.

There is a similar inevitability to Rachel Ashwell's life: No matter what guise she assumes, she is who she is. Sometimes she is the artist, sometimes the tycoon. Yet the core character that shines through is a fearlessly creative entrepreneur. Offstage, she is a single mother who deliberately fashioned a career that would leave her time to be with her two children, ages 10 and 12.

Whether working as interior designer, author, merchant or television hostess, she operates with an unerring eye, unfailing confidence and an originality that initiates trends. These traits have sustained her Southern California-based Shabby Chic empire for 10 years, driving it toward the success few brands achieve.

The '90s commercial climate has been distinguished by carefully marketed personalities being used to sell merchandise. An identifiable star designer's name on a label--Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Martha Stewart--has become a metaphor for qualities such as class, sexuality or self-assurance, which consumers have come to believe are as attainable as a polo shirt.

Ashwell's following is overwhelmingly female. Many of the women who want to own some of her Shabby Chic home furnishings are also, consciously or unconsciously, buying a piece of the image she projects: a hard-working mother who values beauty, comfort and practicality but has neither the patience nor inclination to insist on perfection.

"I'll turn 40 this year," Ashwell says, "and I'm more and more aware that life is so damned short. We can't get hung up on this anal, perfect view of things because it truly doesn't matter, as long as you see the big picture.

"I get the nicest letters from women who just seem to like me. I think it has to do with the fact that they really feel I'm not snobby. Yeah, I'm divorced. My life isn't so perfect, and it's fine if it's not. You still can have style and beauty around you. And I think when I show them how to do that, I make them feel that their lives are OK too."

Her Own Home

in Malibu

The road to Malibu is a little shabby, a cluttered obstacle course of potholes and construction barriers. For the last 10 months, Ashwell has been remodeling the home she bought there after moving from the oceanfront cottage she had rented nearby for almost a decade.

The transformation of the new house, a light-filled warren of rooms surrounding a pool and robust garden, has been documented in her third book, "Home," which will be published next year. One of the book's themes is acceptance, an attitude Ashwell increasingly adopted as she decided which of the 50-year-old house's quirks she'd as soon live with as fix.

Not surprisingly, the house is a Shabby Chic lab, a place where her design philosophy takes three-dimensional form. Students of the style would note the pale palette; squooshy, oversized furniture dressed in droopy, white linen slipcovers; scruffy old lamps and chandeliers bagged on flea-market safaris; vintage wood furniture that, except for a few strategic dings and chips, has been coated in white paint; and colorful oils of plump flowers rendered by unsung artists.

Fat white candles and tarnished silver vases full of roses rest on tabletops. Like many things in the cozy living room, some of the blooms are past their prime. Their wilting petals don't diminish their beauty; the whole effect is an alluring celebration of age, a wizened rebuff to the slick, new-is-good aesthetic.

In fact, the Shabby Chic look is both grand and disheveled, rather like a once-elegant lady of the evening spied stumbling home at dawn, her makeup faded and her jewels askew.

Earrings Dress Up

a Simple Look

Early on a July morning, Ashwell wears no makeup, slim white jeans and a gray T-shirt. Antique crystal earrings lend a Shabby Chic flourish to her otherwise utilitarian appearance. Periodically, her son and daughter tramp through the room where she sits with an interviewer. Their mother working at home isn't an unfamiliar sight, and they are polite enough not to interrupt.

Yet Ashwell seems loathe to ignore them and makes an effort to include them in the discussion occasionally. As much as possible, she arranges her schedule around theirs and will take time off this summer to vacation with them.

"I manage to have a life, even though it's pretty jampacked full," she says. And does she make time to date? "No, I don't have a social life," she says with a grimace. "Zero."

Although she came to Los Angeles at 19, she still speaks with the accent of her native London. At first she found work styling wardrobes and rooms for commercials, specializing in period settings. No one who hired her cared that she had dropped out of school in her early teens.

What she lacked in formal education she made up for with taste, grit and inventiveness. In a way, she had grown up around professional foragers. Her father was a rare book dealer. Her mother collected, restored and resold antique dolls.

Ashwell found the dolls, with their beady glass eyes, creepy. "But my mother used to collect old lace, old straw hats, old ribbon and bits of old linen and make fabulous clothes for them in a very Shabby Chic sort of way," she remembers. "Other dealers would dress their dolls up in a very pretty, pretty way. She knew just when to stop in fixing them up, and I liked that she wouldn't make them quite perfect.

"Whether it was searching for a book or searching for the dolls or all the bits and bobs that my mother needed for them, it was a really interesting process going to the flea markets and just being around my parents finding stuff. The idea of my ever actually having a job was never shown to me. But I saw them both treasure hunting, if you like, and turning it into an entrepreneurial thing."

When her children were born, Ashwell retired. But after her divorce, she says, "I knew I had to act on my feet because I believe it's good for a woman to take care of herself, if she possibly can. I had these babies, so I didn't want to go back into the profession I'd been in, because the hours were terrible."

The hot look then in interior design was inspired by Santa Fe. Ashwell rejected that and decorated her home in a livable way that pleased and made sense to her, using flea-market finds she valued for the character and workmanship unique to the past, and slipcovers she could wash when a child's sticky fingers soiled them.

The style had a certain Old World, old-money charm married to a lightness and bigness that reflected the Southern California landscape. Ashwell's friends, who immediately understood the appeal of decor user-friendly for dogs and children, wanted her to make their homes shabby chic too.

Borrowing for

Her First Store

In 1989, Ashwell borrowed $50,000 from her ex-husband (since repaid, she says proudly,) and opened a store on Santa Monica's Montana Avenue, where strollers were as plentiful as disposable income. The store was stocked with used pieces of furniture she'd had refurbished and covered with fabrics she'd stained with tea in her washing machine.

She scattered the tattered, cracked and peeling spoils from flea-market hunts around the shop, not sure whether wicker lamps and odd pieces of vintage china would provide ambience or be for sale. In three weeks the store was empty, and Ashwell knew she had discovered an audience hungry for the type of instant taste she served up so well.

"She honed in on a style that's all about comfort," says Elle Decor editor in chief Marian McEvoy, acknowledging Shabby Chic's staying power. "It's not about cost, not about a particular country or period. It's not a scary design statement. It seems to make sense for a lot of people's daily lives."

The original Shabby Chic store still stands, next to two additional spaces that sell antiques and accessories, two lines of upholstered and reproduction furniture, a bedding collection, fabrics by the yard, lampshades, a group of products called Shabby Chic Baby, the Shabby Chic books she's produced, even cotton backpacks and makeup bags designed by Ashwell.

Another company-owned store is in Chicago, and there are franchised Shabby Chic shops in New York and San Francisco. Almost everything for sale in the Santa Monica flagship is wholesaled to 200 stores around the country, some of which have Shabby Chic in-store boutiques.

Although Shabby Chic has been expanding rapidly, and projects sales this year of $10 million, according to company President Brian Dell, it's still run by a tight team of key players, including Ashwell's older sister, Deborah Greenfield, who illustrates the books. Thirty employees work out of the corporate office in West Los Angeles, including a president and national sales manager.

In October, Mervyn's will begin selling candles, towels and bedcovers under the label Treasures by Rachel Ashwell. Ashwell designs the items, which are then manufactured and distributed under a license arrangement. She expects to be involved in similar deals for tableware and cutlery.

Ashwell's name will become better known and consequently gain clout in licensing circles, after the fall debut of "Rachel Ashwell's Shabby Chic," a series of 65 half-hour shows she's hosting and co-producing for E! Entertainment's new Style network.

Despite such multimedia exposure, there was never a master plan for growing the business, or for turning Ashwell into a funky sophisticate's Martha Stewart.

Instead, every time Ashwell perceived a void in the market, she found a way to fill it. For example, when acquiring enough vintage yard goods became difficult, Shabby Chic Fabrics, offering facsimiles of aged, weathered cloth, was born.

"I don't do what the Pottery Barns and the Crates & Barrels do, which is see what the trendsetters are doing, of which I'm one, and then market it," Ashwell says.

One need look no further than Shabby Chic's Santa Monica neighborhood for a legion of imitators. Some of them have adapted Ashwell's look, but at different quality and price levels. A Shabby Chic sofa, with down-filled cushions, sells for about $3,000, and a one-of-a-kind wicker floor lamp would be tagged at $875. Fabrics range from $24 to $120 a yard.

"When my ideas were copied, at first I got kind of cross, of course, because I felt that although I've made a very nice income from what I do, if I got a penny for every slipcovered sofa that's been created since Shabby Chic did it, I'd be incredibly rich," she says.

"What I learned early on is it's important to stay a few steps ahead, and you can't be something to everybody. I am the high-end, high-quality furniture maker. Even though superficially people have copied me, the real thing does have an edge. Even if it looks identical, something that isn't real Shabby Chic doesn't have my little soul in there, somewhere."

That soul is the element no marketing strategy could have devised. Ultimately, Shabby Chic, the style born in L.A. that won't die, has thrived because it is more than intentionally sloppy slipcovers or pastel, flowered pillows. It is a flexible, attractive, often quirky approach to home design with an authentic personality behind it.

"It's understanding the beauty of imperfection," Ashwell says. "That philosophical base can be applied to all kinds of things. Everything you do. What you wear. How you live. I know now this isn't a fluke. It has substance to it, and it can continue."

Mimi Avins can be reached by e-mail at

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