Shabby Chic Is Chic Once More

Rachel Ashwell

Rachel Ashwell

By Warren Shoulberg

Its very name has become almost a generic term for an entire design category. Yet the genuine article—the proper name behind the generic—has seen its ups and downs over the years, even virtually disappearing from most of the market place for a period of time last year.

But Shabby Chic is back, it’s back in a big way and if things go the way as planned, the brand could be bigger than it’s ever been.

Created some 20 years ago by Rachel Ashwell, Shabby Chic started an entire design craze, best known for white, overstuffed and slipcovered sofas matched up with whitewashed furniture that had a certain vintage charm. Shabby Chic stores started to blossom and the brand was eventually tiered, with one level turning up at Target in soft home.

The whole thing came crashing down last year, a victim of overexpansion and the collapsing economy. It looked like Shabby Chic had whitewashed its last dresser.
Enter Brand Sense Partners, a brand marketing firm headed by Ramez Toubassy. He knew a good brand when he saw it, he says, and he also knew what a bad business model looked like.

“The business model was broken,” Toubassy told HFN recently on the eve of the launch of the company’s first wholesale products, furniture that debuts at this month’s High Point Market.  “But part of the appeal of Shabby Chic was that it hadn’t missed a beat with the consumer.”

Even though the home business was going through tough times, Brand Sense got the Shabby Chic name and along with it, its most valuable asset, Ashwell herself.
“We think it’s a perfect time to relaunch this brand. Home is cyclical, but we like the business.”

Set to debut this month are case goods and occasional furniture from GuildMaster and upholstery from Miles Talbott. Toubassy says licenses for other products such as lighting and rugs are in the works.

These products represent the middle of a three-tier structure Brand Sense is creating to position the brand at multiple price levels and channels of distribution. Below it is Simply Shabby Chic, the captured-brand soft-goods program at Target and above it Shabby Chic Couture, three flagship stores in Los Angeles, New York and now London featuring more high-end and one-of-a-kind products.

Ashwell had just returned to New York after overseeing the opening of the London store when HFN caught up with her. “My focus now is to make sure these stores are like little jewels,’ said Ashwell, British by birth but half-American by parentage. “That’s where’s it’s best spent, not looking at a balance sheet.”

Ashwell has steered Shabby Chic through all its incarnations and says, “Some days I think, ‘Why didn’t Shabby Chic really break out?’ and other days I’m amazed at the success it’s had.”

Why has the brand endured? Authenticity and functionality are the two keys, she says. “I have never signed off of my passion for it and people want to know there’s a real person behind the brand.

“But it’s also a functional way to live. If you don’t like the look, that’s another thing, but that look has evolved into something more.”

The signature slipcover sofa and distressed white furniture are still the face of Shabby Chic, she says, but “I don’t think it all has to be about white.” To that end, many of the new products in the London store are in more smoky tones of gray and teal and dusty pink, “even a bit of mauve.”

The look has clearly evolved. “There are only three little pink flowers in the new collection.”

But, she said, “the mushy, loose look” of the upholstery will not change.

Ashwell is, of course, happy the brand has lived to see another day. “The customer doesn’t understand what happened to Shabby Chic. I’m very grateful we’ve had a new lease on life.”

She says it once again gives her the chance to do what she does best: “To inflict my passion out there. This is my time.”

Posted in News, Retail.

Last updated: April 12, 2010