High Prices, Safe Bet

Rachel Ashwells soporific new sleepwear line

Only God, or perhaps his only begotten son, Jebus, can make a flower.

Only designer Rachel Ashwell can sketch that flower in a host of heavenly, washed-out pastel hues straight off Grandma's vintage tablecloths, print it on fabric and have it sewn into pajamas.

And then sell those jammies for $135 a pop, which is what happened when her new line of sleepwear officially went on the market last week with a nice little in-store promotion at Fashion Island in Newport Beach.

"I sometimes wake up in the morning and think, 'Is there any new way I can design a flower?'" the willowy Ashwell said, in a semi-rare in-store appearance, her English accent elevating mere quotes into pearls of wisdom. "For a while, we had polka dots, and stripes do all right, but my base is only interested in flowers." Hey, if you've got a good line, stick with it.

The turnout at this unfortunately timed event was pretty substantial—all well-kempt 30- and 40-something moms, several with toddlers in tow, who had braved rush-hour traffic—but Ashwell, though capable of commanding steep prices for her Shabby Chic line of home furnishings that turns 15 this year, is no Martha Stewart.

You know what? She's close. And that's the question, still: As Martha Stewart gets ready to be sentenced next month for insider trading, who will fill her mules? It could very well be Rachel Ashwell. She wears mules, and when I saw her, she also wore one of those shrunken blazers that are so hot right now.

She's got her own TV show, low-priced merchandise in a chain store, Target, and even her own namesake stores. Her accent makes words like "jersey," "poplin" and "hobnail," the name of a vintage glassware line she's knocked off, sound so exotic.

All that's missing is the preachiness, the unspoken message that she's somehow better than you 'cause she can plant an herb garden, host an authentic 18th century tea party or make a Halloween costume from a series of trash bags.

That's a good thing for Ashwell, who clearly doesn't aspire to fill either Lynda Carter's bustier or Martha's chambray work shirt. Her wares—her new line of pjs, camisoles, slips and robes that had their soft opening last month—are usually sold no build-up required, and she doesn't get all schoolmarm-ish.

Becoming Martha Stewart would require her to get her hands dirty—to do things like chop the cabbage for a salad, paint a room, and maybe plant some ranunculuses once in a while.

She doesn't do that yet. And when I asked Ashwell what lay ahead, she said she's working up a new way to paint flowers: still on the plant or vine.

If you've got a good line, stick with it.

It turns out, though, she was being either coy or disingenuous. Just a couple of days later, her reps sent me a picture of Ashwell's new venture, which drops later this month: she's "designed" a longboard, in conjunction with Walden Performance Long Boards of Ventura.

I'm guessing that company founder Steve Walden, the "father of the modern longboard," according to Longboard Magazine, might have had a thing or two to do with the shape, how long it is and which fins go where.

And Ashwell? Well, it's a floral surfboard. You figure it out.

 
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