Tuesday, April 12, 2011

La Princesse of Chintz

Becky Thatcher Smith. Shown here with her first collection, Les Princesses.
by Ronda Carman

I love a good story. And I especially adore one that inspires and motivates. I believe that desire is a strong motivator, yet seldom is anything accomplished without passion. This is a fact that Becky Smith, owner and president of Thatchers' Fine Timeless Fabric, knows firsthand. As is often the case, inspiration can come from anywhere, and for Becky it came in the form of a boudoir chair. In this case, it was a singular chair that sparked the imagination and set into motion a series of unforeseen events spanning three continents.

Becky's muse, "The Thatcher" chair. Shown in "Les Trois Princesses de la Mer" with heavenly Laduree macaroons.
Getty Images, Lilly Pulitzer by Slim Aarons.
Just around the turn of the last century, after the death of her husband, Babou Warfield (a relative of The Duchess of Windsor—a.k.a—Bessie Wallis Warfield) and Becky’s great-great-grandmother, founded The Warfield Shops, Inc. in St. Louis, Missouri. Ensuing a trip to Europe in search of beautiful fabrics, antiques and heirlooms for the fine homes of St. Louis, Babou decided to open her own interior decorating firm. This proved to be a bold and most fortuitous decision.

One of Babou’s beloved purchases, a classically designed boudoir chair covered in an elegant and fanciful fabric, would be the catalyst for Becky following in her Great-Great-Grandmother’s entrepreneurial footsteps. While seated in just such a chair, she came up with the idea for a timeless, well constructed, boudoir chair that a mother and daughter could share generation after generation. Having lost her own mother too early, and being a mother herself, the idea of this particular family heirloom held a special importance to Becky.

In creating such a chair there were a few nonnegotiable details and, above all, quality was paramount. The chair had to be crafted using traditional construction techniques: hardwood frames, eight way hand tied springs, jute webbing, horsehair padding, cotton wadding, hand tacking and muslin coverings. And, of course, it had to be covered in a fabulous fabric.

Once you meet Becky you quickly understand that passion and excellence drive her every pursuit. After the chair was designed, using her mother’s chair as a template, she began searching for the perfect preppy pink and green cotton glazed chintz fabric similar to the fabric used for her own childhood chair. Becky wanted something that evoked Slim Aarons' jet set era of the fifties and sixties. When her idea of the perfect chintz did not materialize, she decided on another course of action.

Aware that the original designers who created many of Lilly Pulitzer's clothing designs throughout 60s, 70s an 80s, were living in Key West, Becky took matters into her own hands and hopped a plane to Florida, where the first of many serendipitous events began to unfold.

With no appointment, or even a specific itinerary, she landed in the Keys in the early morning hours in search of remnants of Lilly Pulitzer fabric and Martha dePoo, one of Pulitzer's original artists. Martha, now a brilliant watercolorist, had recently shown a few paintings in an art gallery on the Keys.
Strike-offs of the first collection, Les Princesses, on balcony overlooking the Avenue Montaigne, Paris.
Not sure of how to spend the day, Becky phoned the gallery around 8:30am to inquire whether the artist’s work was still being shown. As fate would have it Martha answered the phone. Both puzzled and intrigued, she informed Becky that it was her day off (she was dropping off a painting) and that the gallery did not open until 10am; however, Martha agreed to wait if Becky came right away.

As Becky tells the story, “I threw down my double espresso from Bad Ass Coffee and ran directly to the gallery!” Martha and Becky then spent the rest of the day together. Becky was also introduced to another of Lilly’s original artists, Suzie Zuzek dePoo—Martha’s mother. It was then that Becky realized these artists still had so much more to give.
In the collection Les Princesses, "Le Mélange" is shown in a classic Porsche 356 Cabriolet, driven by Madeleine Smith. Palm Beach, 2010.
Sharing Becky’s vision for an exceptionally high quality fabric for the home, Leigh Martin Hooten, another original artist, along with Martha and Suzie’s encouragement, agreed to create new vibrant patterns. The designs would ultimately become the first collection for Thatchers’ Fine Timeless Fabric—“Les Princesses”.

Producing a fabric with quality equal to the artist's designs and Becky’s vision proved equally challenging. It had to be of the finest quality, especially if Becky was going to sell it to her friends. After searching the world for the best producers of cotton glazed, chintzed fabric Becky drew on her rich family history yet again.
Artist, Leigh Martin Hooten's original design - "Le Jardin des Princesses". Fabric screen printed, shown on tables at the 150-year-old French mill. Water color poster by Martha dePoo, artist. Inspired by French artist Raoul Dufy (1877-1953). Orignial artwork commissioned for the Paris Deco Off, Janvier 2011. Brunschwig et Fils, Rue du Mail, Paris.
When Babou Warfield founded The Warfield Shops, she purchased the building from the legendary fabric family—Brunschwig. The documents that named the revered mill where Colonel Brunschwig had his cottons printed were included in the sale, and was now a part of the Warfield family history. Once more Becky went into action and called the French embassy to find out if the mill was still in existence—it was.

During a family vacation, Becky made a visit to the 150-year-old mill in France; the same mill that produced fabrics for her great-great-grandmother, as well as Hermès and Versailles. When she arrived the American flag was flying at the entrance to the mill in her honor. The mill, now in its second-generation of ownership, was perfectly in keeping with Becky’s vision for creating the very best. The mill owner, recognizing the value of the artists’ work and Becky’s vision, agreed to print the collection. Holding true to creating only the highest of quality, each design is table screened, allowing the hand drawn motifs to be fully appreciated.
Becky and Mario Buatta at the Colony Club.
Insistent that the imaginative fabrics featuring mermaids, florals, calligraphy and classic medallions be fashioned in fabulous cotton glazed chintz, Becky consulted with the ‘Prince of Chintz’, Mario Buatta. A friend of the Warfield family, Mario graciously offered his support of Becky’s efforts and fabrics and, of course, advice on just the right mount of glazing.

Logo, Thatchers' Fine Timeless Fabric "intemporel".
At Mario’s insistence that Thatchers' have the widest possible distribution, Becky made a visit to the New York Brunschwig showroom. Once again, with no appointment and a plane to catch, Becky dropped off her only marketing piece—a gift-wrapped pink box. 

As luck would have it, Susannah Peardon, the wife of CEO Olivier Peardon, was at the showroom that afternoon. Becky told Susannah her story and that of the Brunschwig family connection. It did not take long for Becky to secure a contract with the legendary fabric house.

Becky insists that this story is not about her; rather it is about the artists, their designs, a high quality fabric, the history of the mill, the Brunschwig family and a boudoir chair. The story is alive because of the emotional bonds, devotion, a relentless pursuit and a family's love that spans several generations. In the words of Suzie Zuzek dePoo, “Your mother would be so proud!”

Thatchers’ Fine Timeless Fabric is now in 15 Brunshwig Showrooms, including Paris, London, and Melbourne.

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