27 years ago, when Rachel Ashwell opened her first Shabby Chic store in Santa Monica, CA, "the world," she says, "was a very different place." It was August, 1989. There was no Instagram. Computers weren't yet a household mainstay. Google (b: 1998) was not around. At the time Ashwell was recently divorced and looking for a career path that allowed her to balance being a "young mum of two teeny children," who were six weeks and two-years-old, with work. A store "seemed like the perfect path."
Raised in an artistic and cultural household by parents who made money by way of flea markets, the designer learned the world of searching for treasure at an early age. At 16 she left school to become a stylist and "create worlds of fantasy." She used her background, her talents and know-how, her proclivity for hard work, and opened a "little store," on a "wing and a prayer." She didn't have a traditional business background, but in many ways this made her fearless.
"My mission," she says, "was simple: to bring a world of beauty, comfort and function to the home furnishing retail market." The first store had anchor products of washable slipcovered upholstery, vintage accessories, and sun-bleached fabrics.
It became a movement, spawning she says, " a whole new way for people to decorate and live." Shabby Chic was a retail success. Everyone from Julia Roberts to Oprah came calling. The E! Network offered Ashwell her own show which ran from 1998-2003, and by 2008, her children grown and about to head off to college, she was thinking, "what's next?" She hired a CEO, met with investor groups, and signed on to a plan that would expand the business from six to 57 stores in five years.
Then the financial crisis hit and Shabby Chic filed for bankruptcy in 2009.
"In 2007 I decided to bring on investors who had the capital and strategic skill sets I didn't have. Sadly the timing of the economy was wrong, and so after 18 months the new strategy fell apart."
It was a devastating blow.
"I was in disbelief; first to myself and many of my fans, as this was a beloved brand that was still so alive and had more beauty to share. But after months of trying to salvage portions of the company," she recalls, "it was all lost."
But part of the Shabby Chic dynamism is the acceptance of imperfection. For Ashwell, though this shock came during a time when she also suffered the loss of her mother and the hurdles of broken romance, it was her "lesson in learning to let go, grieving, finding faith and finding my strength."
In many way this was the same approach she took toward her company: accepting that life and people are not perfect. "How we live in the privacy of our homes," she explains, "is a manifestation of that philosophy. Learning to accept that things don't go as planned allows us to see the beauty of what isn't perfect."
This she believes is why Shabby Chic has resonated so profoundly with its customers over two decades. That, and an honest determination from its founder.
"While I watched my castle crumble, somewhere in my broken heart I knew somehow we would come back. Shabby Chic was my family."
"Learning to accept that things don't go as planned allows us to see the beauty of what isn't perfect."
Looking back and given the chance to do it again, she says, "I would have let my voice be heard when my instincts had something to say. The investors were wise schooled men and so I trusted they knew more than I in 'scaling a company.'"
But fear has never ruled her roost. "I left school so young and really had no traditional education, and my way of learning is by trying and doing. The good side of that is fear doesn't fester."
So she tried, did, lost for a minute, but got back up. "One has to expect to make mistakes," she notes, "and somehow lessons have to be learned, if not in the classroom, then in life." Today, Shabby Chic is on a journey back to the top where Ashwell's instinct is to stay true to her brand, even if it seems out of fashion.
"My gut is saying, The World of Shabby Chic is still relevant and to stay authentic. Less in more, small is ok too.....just be true." Adding that, "This year Pantone has stated pale pink and pale blue is in, so 2016 we are on brand!"
2016 also includes expanding Simply Shabby Chic ™ at Target, from bedding to other areas of home. A collection called Shabby Chic by Rachel Ashwell Chalk & Clay Paint, which grew from customer requests over the years to learn how she selects and uses paint. She's also "letting Rachel Ashwell come to the light from the shadows of Shabby Chic. I will be launching the Rachel Ashwell lines of furniture and bedding in 2016. This will be at a couture level, not compromising on any details, the crème de la crème of my world."
It's a world where mistakes don't mean failure. Where rough patches are smoothed over with "friends, mentors," a lot of hard word, and the occasional "good, sad movie."
It is a world where bigger isn't always better.
In addition to her other projects, Ashwell is opening, "The world’s smallest furniture store on Lexington Ave in NYC. Just 250 square feet. But my goal is to tell my visual story, curated intimately but proudly. For me I am happy sitting with the stars, the moon can be for the big boys."