When Christopher Sharp first visited Nepal to search for weavers to work with The Rug Company, he met with a man named Norbu.
“I got on really well with him,” recalls Sharp, who co-founded The Rug Company with his wife, Suzanne. “He was such a purist about the product. While I was there, I got him to make a few little samples, and the quality was unbelievable. So I said: ‘Norbu, I really want to work with you.’ And he said: ‘I’m not sure. Let me think about it.’”
A month passed, with Sharp wondering what had gone wrong. “And then I got a phone call, and he said: ‘OK, let’s start.’ The next time I met with him I asked what had happened. And he said: ‘Oh no, it wasn’t your fault. I had to check with my lama, to see whether you were a good guy or not.’”
Norbu had driven up into the mountains, parked his car, walked up to his temple, and as he had done before making any major decisions in his life, asked for advice from his spiritual guide. “He said there’s this guy, Christopher Sharp, and he wants to start a business, what do you think? And his lama apparently said: ‘This is the best thing that has ever happened to you,’” Sharp says.
The lama was right – it has been an auspicious tie-up for both parties. The Rug Company is now known for creating some of the best carpets in the world, and while it has partnered with some of the biggest names in fashion and design – Paul Smith, Alexander McQueen, Marni, Rodarte, Vivienne Westwood and Tom Dixon, to name but a few – it’s not just the contemporary, fashion-forward designs of the rugs that sets them apart, but also the quality of the product. “The first thing is the fact that all the rugs are made by hand. They are made in the same way that they were made 500 years ago,” Sharp says.
It’s a process steeped in history and romance, starting high in the Himalayan mountains of Tibet, where nomadic herders have been grazing their sheep, goats, yaks and horses for centuries. The sheep found here, at altitudes of more than 10,000 feet, produce a coarse, lustrous, incredibly thick wool, with high levels of lanolin, which is a natural stain barrier and keeps the wool soft and supple. Once the sheep are sheared, the fleeces are carried hundreds of miles over the Himalayas to Nepal, where the wool is washed by Buddhist monks in water straight from the mountains, then treated, spun, dyed and transformed into stunning carpets, all by hand.
It’s the quality and longevity of the products that makes designers from all walks of the creative industry so amenable to working with The Rug Company, says Sharp, recounting his first meeting with the late, great McQueen.
“I knew someone who worked there who was really close to Alexander McQueen, so I got a meeting. He was, typically, very impatient, with a small attention span. Suzanne and I went to the meeting, and he sat down and didn’t say anything. We thought, we’re not going to sell him by telling him he’s going to make loads of money out of this; we’re not going to flatter him; or tell him it would work really well with his designs. All we could do was explain to him how the rugs were made – the sheep on this Tibetan plateau, how the wool is sheared and taken over the mountain, washed in Himalayan waters and then hand-spun.
“He just looked at us, and didn’t say anything. I got about 80 per cent through, and he just stood up and walked out. And just as he was leaving the room, he turned around and said: ‘Yeah, it’s good; we’ll do it’. I think the fact that stuff is so well-made makes a difference.”
Other collaborations occurred more by chance, it seems. “The way we got Paul Smith is I was in his shop on a Saturday buying a shirt, and he came in. And I just went over and started talking to him. And it went from there.”
Alongside Marni, Paul Smith was one of the first big-name designers to work with The Rug Company, and is responsible for designing its best-selling rug, Swirl. He’s currently celebrating 15 years of collaboration with the brand with a new collection featuring six rugs and a cushion, all characterised by muted palettes and unregulated pattern compositions.
Upcoming collaborations include Christopher Kane and Elie Saab, which promise to yield interesting results. One collection is slated to be launched this September, and the other next spring, though it’s yet to be confirmed which will come first.
“To do a collection with someone involves a huge amount of work. Typically, it takes two years, so we have to be very selective about who we work with,” Sharp explains. “What we try to do is only work with people who are true designers. You never want to work with someone just because of their name. There is no point getting Brad Pitt to design your rug.”
The Rug Company may be headquartered in London, with 25 showrooms around the world, but it could be argued that its roots lie in this part of the world, because it was during a stint living in Saudi Arabia that Sharp and his wife first developed an interest in carpets.
In the late 1980s, he was working in television, and was offered a job in Saudi. “We lived on a compound, and there was very little to do, so in the evenings we used to go down to the souq, and we started collecting rugs. The souq was good because it was divided up, so you had the Afghan souq, the Pakistani souq, the Iranian souq, the Turkish souq and so on. And all of these guys had different rugs, and we would go and sit and talk to them and we began to build relationships with them. That’s how it all started.”
The couple moved back to London in 1997, and Sharp decided that he didn’t want to continue in television. “One day, I said to Suzanne: ‘I’m going to go and look at some rug shops, just to see.’ I went around, and found that they were terrible. So we decided to open a small rug shop. Originally, we were selling traditional Oriental rugs. But we changed a couple of things. One was that we priced everything, which in the rug industry in England was really unusual.”
About a year in, the couple became tired of hearing people say: ‘These are really nice; they are like the rugs my grandmother used to have.” So they decided to design a collection of contemporary rugs, which were a hit – although the weavers in Nepal were initially perturbed by these modern iterations. “They were a little shocked when we gave them the first designs,” says Sharp. “They were like: ‘Oh, these are very ugly. They are never going to work. We’ll make them, but they’re terrible.’”
At the end of 2015, The Rug Company opened a new showroom in Dubai, shifting from its DIFC location to a space in Al Serkal Avenue shared with The Odd Piece. It’s a shrewd move – this hip little corner of Al Quoz, particularly as it continues to develop, attracts a younger, more art- and-design-savvy audience.
“Our rugs, particularly in this market, are for the next generation,” Sharp says. “I think it’s hard to convince a 60-year-old chap who’s been buying Persian silk rugs to flip to these rugs. It’s so embedded in the psyche that they are valuable. Whereas their children want something different, I think.
“Traditionally there was this huge amount of kudos about Persian rugs, and you’d buy them as an investment. I think the challenge for us was getting people to see a modern rug in the same way. Having said that, I would bet that in 50 years’ time, a rug designed by McQueen and made by The Rug Company, will be collectible. I’d be extremely surprised if it wasn’t. The rugs will still be around; McQueen will be remembered as this incredible designer, and the quality is there.”
With a starting price of about US$2,500 (Dh9,183) for a three-metre-by-two-metre piece, The Rug Company’s beautiful creations are beyond the reach of many, something Sharp acknowledges, but they’re designed to last forever.
“We always joke to the fashion designers that these rugs are going to be around for 500 years,” says Sharp. “Their clothes will be gone, and they’ll be remembered as rug designers rather than fashion designers. Their legacy will be some rug.”
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