By Wendy Donahue
The company has built a reputation in part for rug motifs conceived by Alexander McQueen, Paul Smith, Diane von Furstenberg and other fashion stars. Expanding internationally, it opened stores recently in Toronto and Chicago, raising its number of locations to 16. New York, Los Angeles and Miami are among them.
The fashion distinction wasn’t the founders’ intention.
Christopher and Suzanne Sharp had traveled the Middle East, the Mediterranean and India, where he had produced television documentaries; she was a decorative painter. Having developed an eye for traditional rugs, they opened a London store stocking them in 1997.
“People were coming in, not particularly excited. They’d say, ‘These are the rugs my grandmother had,’ ” Christopher Sharp said.
The couple decided to create their own contemporary collection; Suzanne designed some motifs. Ten interior designers in Britain were invited to contribute designs in 2000.
“That went very well,” Christopher Sharp said. “Then, we knew someone who was designing for Marni who said, ‘Why don’t you have us do a collection?’ Marni was our first fashion designer.”
Not long after, Sharp was in Paul Smith’s shop having a suit made, which led to the company’s most famous fashion partnership so far: Smith’s “Stripe” and “Swirl” rugs have become iconic to the interior design world.
When Vivienne Westwood conceived her British flag motif in 2005, the company ordered 10 rugs; they sold out in four days.
Von Furstenberg’s “Climbing Leopard” motif, on an emerald green ground, has been a top seller. “It’s amazing how much people go for fantastic, quite bold, elaborate designs,” said Amanda Price, vice president of brand communications. “Handknotted rugs, they’re made to make a statement, and they’re made to last in the most original way. If you’re going to invest in one, you want it to be something fabulous. That’s why the fashion designers have been a great collaboration.”
A Paul Smith “Love Too” wall-hanging for The Rug Company appeared in Carrie’s apartment in the first “Sex and the City” movie; a Marni rug appeared in the second.
Fashion and interior designers such as Kelly Wearstler aren’t the only fount of ideas.
“What has kept it fresh is it’s always going in so many directions; we have fashion designers, product designers, textile designers, all applying their different skills to one medium,” Sharp said.
As word has gotten out, many designers have come to the Sharps; some are politely declined.
“We’re not necessarily looking for the next big designer,” Sharp said. “We’re looking for something that hasn’t been done.”
One reason the rugs are an attractive proposition, especially for fashion designers, is that the constraints are fewer than in the clothing business. The new collection with McQueen, who died early this year, took three years to put together.
“We showed him what we could do,” Sharp said. “We told him, ‘If you don’t like what we produce, you can pull out at any time.’ We don’t mind how much it costs us to make; it doesn’t have to hang together as a collection.”
Featuring skulls, feathers, hummingbirds in ethereal flight and a serpent in gold military brocade, McQueen’s four motifs aren’t stateside yet; they recently arrived in the London store.
Most of the company’s rugs require four months to make; McQueen’s take eight because of the high knot count, demanded by their intricacy. That also makes them particularly expensive. Yet the company already has one custom order for an 18 x 22 McQueen rug that will approach $135,000.
Using wool, silk, pashmina, mohair, The Rug Company’s rugs are made in Nepal, India and China. Shoppers are urged to try them out at home before buying. Some order custom rugs, changing the fiber from silk to wool, for example, or the background color.
“There are many ways to make rugs quickly, but we use the techniques that were used 100 years ago, but apply modern design. The wool is handspun. The whole process is handmade,” Sharp said. “It’s wonderful when you can combine craft and design.
“When we started, the rug business was pretty retrospective; it was about selling antique rugs. I like to think people will look back on this period 50 years from now and it will have been a renaissance.”