Anyone who follows noted fashion publicist Kelly Cutrone on Twitter will know that she recently bought a country house on six and a half acres in upstate New York. A few weeks ago, the enthusiastic new homeowner posted that she was "loving my new Vivienne Westwood rug from the Rug Company ... that's Love with a capital L." Cutrone also included a picture of her purchase, a dramatic design featuring oversized white magnolias on a black backdrop.
When Kelly Cutrone, a woman who moves in the fastest of lanes, gets excited about a carpet, you know that carpets are having a moment. What distinguishes the Rug Company, which has just made its debut in Canada, is its strategy of enlisting top fashion and interior designers to create exclusive, frequently exquisite patterns for the firm. When the company tapped one of its first fashion-world collaborators, Marni's Consuelo Castiglioni, back in 2000, it took people a while to come to terms with the large-scale floral prints she produced, co-founder Christopher Sharp says from London. But attitudes have clearly changed. In Canada, Kate Thornley-Hall of Toronto-based Source UK calls on leading Canuck fashionistas, from Izzy Camilleri to Arthur Mendonca, to design for her. Polish-born Jakub Staron, whose latest rug collection was unveiled at top Toronto furniture retailer Elte last week with all the fanfare of a fashion show, is a close follower of fashion trends and runs his namesake business like a fashion house. "Every six months, we present collections that go to stores," he says. "There are 600-plus designs a year and six to eight new collections a season."
Who knew, prior to Sharp's bold launch of the Rug Company 11 years ago with his wife Suzanne, that fashion and rug making could be so simpatico? Sure, rug craftsmen had been stitching intricate and beautiful carpets for centuries, but they typically adhered to long-held traditional techniques and patterns. In the 1960s, design visionaries such as Australia's Florence Broadhurst, whose creations are available in Canada at Toronto's Modern Weave, expanded the repertoire, marketing rugs with bold modern prints featuring geometric, fan and floral patterns. The Sharps, however, were itching to contribute something new to the industry. "When we started, we were making copies of old rugs and it was quite boring, to be honest," Christopher recalls. After he and Suzanne hooked up with Castiglioni, they were instantly wowed by her designs for them. "It was fantastic - like nothing we'd ever seen," he says. It also opened the floodgates to other trademark collaborations and to a new relationship between the carpet and fashion worlds in general.
"If you're a collector and you're really into fashion, to have a Paul Smith or a Vivienne Westwood rug is an investment" akin to buying art, Cutrone, referring to two of the fashion luminaries on the Rug Company's roster, says by phone from New York. The latest addition to the Rug Company's ever-growing designer series is a collection by Alexander McQueen, who died in February. Last night, a cocktail reception was held for the line, which includes a gold raised-silk serpentine design on black, a hand-knotted pattern of McQueen's signature skulls and a composition of electric-coloured hummingbirds in flight, at Avenue Road, the high-end Toronto retailer and the Rug Company's new Canadian home. When Avenue Road moved into its grand new showroom earlier this year, owner Stefan Weishaupt devoted a gallery-like setting to Rug Company carpets. Browsing its wall of samples is like consulting a fashion who's who, from Castiglioni, Smith and Westwood to Diane Von Furstenberg and Lulu Guinness. Contributors from outside the world of fashion - Tom Dixon, Kelly Wearstler, Eva Zeisel, Ron Arad - are equally illustrious. Forthcoming members of the club include porcelain master Jaime Hayon and clothing designer Giles Deacon, whose debut collection for Ungaro was widely praised in Milan last month.
On the phone from England, however, Christopher Sharp is adamant that strong design has always superseded star power, citing the importance of a contributor like McQueen's artistry rather than his celebrity to the ultimate success of a rug. "When we went to his studio, there were all these dresses that looked more like installations and we knew we were in presence of someone very special," he says. "The craft aspect was what was important to him and we convinced him that we really cared about it. We told him, 'You don't have to think about this as a collection. You don't have to think about a budget or the customer.' And it took him a couple of years to make the rugs. But that's such a wonderful way of working."
On this side of the pond, Thornley-Hall introduced her fashion series of rugs, featuring designs by Canadian talents such as Bustle, Smythe and Virginia Johnson, more than a year ago. Staron, who has been working with rugs in one form or another since his teens in Krakow, also takes inspiration from the fashion world to create his gorgeously varied designs. "I read every issue of Vogue and W," says the designer, who's based in Stamford, Conn. "My favourite pastime is going through stores and looking at textures and colours." Inspiration aside, designer rugs can take anywhere from four to eight months to complete, making them indeed akin to piece of couture. Another common thread: cost. At Avenue Road, for instance, the starter price for a six-by-nine-foot McQueen rug is $15,145.
"You have to get to a place in life where you can throw down that kind of money because they're not cheap," says Cutrone. But as Sharp points out, today's fashionable, fashion-inspired rugs may reflect trends as clothing does, but they are also likely to far outlive them. "In 50 years, we will look back on this as an iconic time in rug design and people will be buying them at auctions. I honestly believe that," he says. "When you combine ... craftsmanship with a brilliant designer, it's really a wonderful and an unusual opportunity."