TWO OF A KIND
It’s easy to assume that all designer collaborations start with a flurry of phone calls between each party’s PR squad. But The Rug Company, one of the most successful examples of a home brand collaborating with designers in recent history, is doing things a bit differently.
Established in 1997 by Christopher and Suzanne Sharp, The Rug Company started out as a London-based brand that sold traditional Persian and Turkish carpets, a passion fueled by the couple’s stint in the Middle East. Eventually, it expanded to include original pieces that Suzanne designs with their team in-house. Craving fresh inspiration by 2000, there was a light bulb moment: Why not invite some creative friends to try their hand at rug design? Ten names, including interior designers Nina Campbell and Nicky Haslam and fashion designer Cath Kidston, kicked off the brand’s Designer Collection.
The parameters were simple. Each designer was tasked with creating “the perfect rug for the perfect client.” “We ended up with 10 points of view and 10 fantastic rugs,” says Christopher. Several of those designs have survived the 15 years since, becoming a part of the brand’s core offering, while new pieces have been added steadily through the years.
After the initial Designer Collection, partnerships organically fell into place – 40 to date. A collaboration with Marni came about through Lucinda Chambers, fashion director of British Vogue, who also happens to be a friend. Christopher recalls seeing the first samples from the Marni partnership, stopping to catch his breath, even after all this time. “That was the moment we knew we were onto something special,” he says. He describes what came next as a fever, with press, clients and what felt like the whole of London buzzing over the brand.
Soon after, Christopher and Suzanne were shopping for shirts in Paul Smith’s boutique when the designer introduced himself. Another friend of a friend mentioned Giles Deacon had some ideas he wanted to run by the pair and passed along his number. And just like that, two new partnerships were born. “It’s all been very friendly,” Suzanne explains. “Not at all corporate.”
If The Rug Company takes an unorthodox approach to courting talent, its business strategy would make a traditional CEO shudder. “There’s never been a master plan,” admits Christopher of their go-with-the-flow attitude. Even the creative process varies with each collaborator. Some arrive at their studio with endless ideas; others invite designers from The Rug Company into their archives and give them free rein to search for inspiration.
Christopher and Suzanne agree that fashion designers are the easiest to work with. “For product designers, every piece is a part of their heritage – they think into the future. Fashion designers are used to doing a collection and wiping out pieces along the way. They’re used to being criticized.” Case in point: Paul Smith. “He has endless ideas,” Christopher says. “When you hesitate or say you’re not sure about something, he’ll toss it straight into the bin. He’s got so much material, for him it’s like, ‘So what?’”
Unsurprisingly, there are no strict deadlines, seasons or collection quotas for The Rug Company. Its acclaimed debut collection with Alexander McQueen took three years, from initial conversation to production. A collection with Vivienne Westwood is in the works after a five-year hiatus, as are new partnerships with New York-based menswear designer Thom Browne and Beirut’s hometown hero, Elie Saab. All are near-guaranteed homeruns for the brand when they launch. So when will that be? Christopher turns, teacup in hand and grin on his face: “Whenever they’re ready.”
—MacKenzie Lewis Kassab