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at the people who pull our lives together.

An Easy Elegance

It's been 10 years since Rachal Ashwell launched Shabby Chic and assured us that nicked furniture and sloppy slipcovers are OK. The look is as strong as ever.

July 29, 1999|MIMI AVINS

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.

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