As shabby chic doyenne Rachel Ashwell launches beautiful new book, Prairie Couture, she chats to us about her style.

Disciples of the shabby chic movement, the aesthetic that has grown up and gathered momentum since the 1980s, know there is one name that will forever be inextricable from. British-born, California-based Rachel Ashwell’s world – elements of which are available to buy via Shabby Store and at her California shop of the same name – is a symphony in prettily distressed pastels, in faded florals and in soft beauty. As well as running her shops, both online and bricks and mortar across the pond, she has a legion of devoted followers on Instagram and is the author of a number of irresistible coffee table tomes chronicling things and places she loves.

The latest such is Prairie Couture, a book devoted to the Texan town of Round Top in Fayette County, where her biggest fans can live the shabby chic dream at The Prairie, Ashwell’s own B&B. But the book, she says, is as much an ode to her mother as it is to her home.

‘The Prairie Couture book will always hold a special place in my heart,’ she explains. ‘I renovated the property at a time when my mother had recently passed and so in my own way this book was a tribute and to her and where I poured my heart and soul. My mum was beautiful, soulful and inspiring, who taught me the beauty of imperfection, and I wanted this book to reflect her and all I learnt from her.’

Perhaps it was the seismic shift that accompanied losing her mother, but Rachel notes that its renovation also marked a change in her trademark style. ‘The photos shown in the book reveal a shift in my Shabby Chic aesthetics. Up until then, my palette had mainly been white and pastels. But this book is rich in colour and texture, and has inspired my design work for years to come. Someone once signed our guest book saying, ‘The Prairie must share the same post code as heaven.’’

Through the pages of Prairie Couture, Rachel takes global readers on a very local tour of Round Top’s legendary flea market. ‘I had been a long-time flea market shopper before I finally went to Round Top Texas, so I had a pre-conceived idea of what I thought I might find there,’ she explains. ‘But as soon as I drove my pick up truck into the first isles of the market I knew I would forever have a connection with this community. Twinkly chandeliers and distressed wooden furniture spoke to my heart as I walked fields. As they say everything in Texas is bigger. And this is no different: it’s over 30-miles of fields and barns, filled with treasures. My eyes are discerning and I can edit and curate as I go. But it’s hard to keep up with myself with the magnitude of beauties. Butterflies in my stomach are always present with excitement of all the treasures I know I will find.’

The B&B itself and its land, which she describes as ‘beautiful as it is soulful’, has inspired its own range of soon-to-launch products under The Prairie banner, a more rustic and primitive take on Rachel’s aesthetic but still romantic and vintage-inspired. To keep posted on these, and all Shabby Chic news, follow Rachel on Instagram, where the squares are an unadulterated celebration of faded gradeur-meets-timeworn-elegance. As she says, ‘Instagram has been such a valuable tool for me to communicate my philosophy of living a true authentic Shabby Chic life.’

Rachel Ashwell Couture Prairie by Rachel Ashwell, published by CICO Books (£25) Photography Amy Neunsinger © CICO Books

Who to follow if you love shabby chic, Rachel Ashwell style

1. Cabbages & Roses

The dreamily-named Cabbages & Roses was born as a mail-order business at founder Christina Strutt’s kitchen table in Somerset at the turn of the millennium. The interiors and clothes brand which has defined chic for the shabbily rustic cognoscenti ever since its inception has, in fact, so much in common with Rachel Ashwell that the duo recently collaborated on a selection of projects; Cabbages & Roses garments made up in Rachel Ashwell-designed prints.

‘We’ve done it on a wing and a prayer,’ says the self-deprecating former Vogue Living journalist Christina, whose legion of followers now extends across America, Japan and China, devotees keen to snap up a slice of the bucolic British romance via her fresh whites and faded florals. Now run as a family business with her daughter Kate taking the business reins, the company exists online and ships all over the world, while keeping a shop in Midhurst, Sussex (another in Shepton Mallet , Somerset, is in the pipeline). Do look out for Christina’s Good Web Guide guest edit on Wednesday.

2. Molly Mahon

The Sussex-based, self-taught Molly Mahon is at the vanguard of a new vogue for block printing. It fits, she says, with her life; just as her relaxed home is full of children and dogs, her block-printed fabrics are similarly full of the kind of imperfections that give them their charm. Her hand-carved block designs, created in her garden shed, are later printed onto wallpaper and fabric, and her Instagram feed attests to the sheer joy of colours and patterns piled up one atop the other.

A curious but winning mixture of the quintessentially English with influences from her Indian travels, her work is reminiscent of Charleston Farmhouse, the bohemian country home of the Bloomsbury set’s Vanessa Bell ad Duncan Grant, whose style has been much aped over the years. It makes sense, then, that you can join Molly at various dates through the year for block printing workshops at the Charleston, in Firle, East Sussex, itself.

3. Ellie’s Heirlooms

Ellie Pearce is a woman of many talents. A RADA-trained actor, she is often found treading the boards in lead roles at Shakespeares’s Globe, or appearing in television dramas. But not content with resting between parts, she set up Ellie’s Heirlooms, an aesthetically beautiful slow fashion label for women and children with impeccable eco-credentials, which repurposes antique linen into new clothes, embellished with her pretty, often nature-inspired, prints.

She makes to order and, in addition to her main collection, can handprint bespoke patterns, from London bus PJs for vehicle-obsessed kids, to dresses adorned with favourite flowers, all cut to measure. Her enthusiasm for the antique materials she uses – some of which would once have been part of a woman’s dowry – is charming and infectious.

4. Violet Dent

If you like Rachel Ashwell, you’ll like Cabbages & Roses. And if you like Cabbages & Roses, you’ll certainly enjoy the Instagram feed of ultra talented stylist, Violet Dent.

It’s little wonder why; for years, Violet worked as a chief designer at C&R, and is testament its family business-credentials; her mother – who now runs the equally dreamy interiors brand and outdoor swing seat company Odd Limited – founded the original Cabbages & Roses alongside Christina Strutt. Violet has now branched out as an interior stylist, her joyful maximalist aesthetic a happy antidote to pared back monochrome.

5. Willow Crossley

Fans of Rachel Ashwell’s floral predilections will adore Willow Crossley, an Oxfordshire-based floral stylist and former fashion journalist, with a growing number of achingly beautiful coffee table tomes under her belt.

Her defining aesthetic is loose, unstuffy and natural, with an emphasis on wild English blooms (think blousy cow’s parsley and fat cabbage roses). Her Instagram feed is pure joy; outrageously beautiful tables she’s styled for events here, astonishing floral installations there. You can’t help but smile.


My Web with Molly Mahon
A Visit to The Swan Inn
My Web with Willow Crossley

September 2019