Monday, January 02, 2006

Business: The Sunday Times of London, Rachel Ashwell/Shabby Chic

How I Made It: Rachel Ashwell, founder of Shabby Chic
Julie Earle-Levine

AS a child, Rachel Ashwell didn’t really appreciate being dragged through flea markets on cold Sunday mornings.

Her father was an antiquarian book dealer and her mother bought, restored and sold antique dolls. While rising in the dark, dressing sleepily and hurrying to the markets was sometimes fun, often it was not.

All those mornings spent watching her parents find and buy “treasures” would, however, eventually provide the business know-how she needed to start her own home furnishings company, Shabby Chic.

Ashwell started selling vintage clothing from stalls in flea markets as soon as she left school.
She said: “Following my father around the markets taught me how to make quick decisions. My mother taught me how to restore without ruining the integrity of the piece, and without taking it so far that it was this slick unrecognisable, new thing.”

She learnt how to notice quality and detail in the blink of an eye, such as the fine leather bindings and plates of illustrators like Beatrix Potter. She also developed an instinct for knowing what to restore and what not to restore.

Ashwell soon discovered there was a lot of interest in what she was doing, and ended up writing several books on treasure hunting and how to buy and repair flea-market finds.
After a few years, however, she decided to go to America, where she found work as a stylist for film and television companies.

Ashwell said that when she arrived she had little money, but remembers “just driving around Sunset Boulevard in the sunshine, seeing big houses and cars, and thinking this is the land of opportunity”.

While she was out there she met a commercial director, got married and had children. Suddenly her priorities changed. She said: “When my kids were young I decided I didn’t want to go into the long hours of the film industry and thought I should have a little shop, a store where I could sell lovely, pretty furniture.”

At that stage, she had no real business plan. But she had started making furniture slipcovers for friends and before long her technique of “making more from less” became her style trademark and spread to lighting, frames, bedding and baby furnishings.

She opened her first Shabby Chic home furnishings store in 1989 in Santa Monica, California with $30,000 (£15,800) worth of stock, which quickly sold out.

With no formal business training, she had to learn quickly as she went along. She said: “Ignorance is bliss. I knew about fabrics, and vintage, but nothing about business, and my lessons have been my experiences. Now when I open a store I know I need expenses and working capital, but the first store I worked out on a piece of paper. If a table sold, it didn’t occur to me that I needed another one.

“When my first store opened I had no big agenda. I didn’t need to make trillions. In a funny kind of way the innocence of how I did it, rather than being big and slick, was what spoke to people.”
Her Shabby Chic home accessories, which were based on fabrics, furniture and bedding found at flea and antique markets, soon attracted a strong following, not least among celebrities. Ashwell’s accessories can be found in the homes of stars such as Jennifer Lopez, Madonna and Oprah Winfrey.

She now has five more stores, in Chicago, San Francisco, Malibu, Newport Beach and New York, and annual sales are more than $10m.

In addition, she is creating a line of more affordable items for Target, the American department store, and she supplies her accessories to hundreds of stores around the world. Ashwell also has her eyes on new categories, such as gifts and sleepwear. Six months ago she launched Rachel Ashwell Shabby Chic stores and products, which will be the couture end of the business.

Despite the company’s growth, Ashwell still does all the designing and buying for Shabby Chic, which has grown to 125 employees.
She said: “I want to make sure I keep on the front line and that there is a real human being behind the brand.”

Ashwell is herself “shabby chic” and wears cashmere sweaters and second-hand Levi jeans bought at markets, not department stores.

Now in her forties with two children, she believes the secret of her success has been to expand the business at her own pace. “One of my beliefs is that I enjoy growing at the rate of what I feel financially and artistically I can understand,” she said. “I am not a business person. I get the president of the company to handle that.”

She hopes that her 17-year-old daughter might eventually become involved in the business, just as she followed her parents’ careers.

“I can’t believe it has been 14 years. I still love it, and feel like I started it yesterday,” she said.