July 26, 2004 12:00 PM

This time it would be different: Simple. Understated. For her third wedding (not counting the black and silver art deco extravaganza that was to be the Ben Affleck nuptials) Jennifer Lopez turned to pal Rachel Ashwell, founder of the Shabby Chic home decor empire. Though she had less than a month before Lopez and singer Marc Anthony were to wed, Ashwell orchestrated an English-garden-meets-L.A-casual vibe with little effort. Chairs adorned with tulle and tiny roses sprouted in Lopez’s Beverly Hills backyard. Tables with muslin cloths, vintage china and peonies delighted some 35 stunned guests. “I had all these things already,” shrugs the L.A.-based British designer. “I didn’t get anything special.”

But special is just how Ashwell’s fans would describe her and Shabby Chic, the home-decorating style she launched 15 years ago and turned into a design craze. Shabby Chic replaced the sharp-edged severity of the ’80s with rooms made for cocooning, with oversize, slipcovered sofas, distressed woods, faded fabrics, upscale flea-market finds and English roses everywhere. Ashwell grew Shabby Chic, which has counted Madonna and Oprah Winfrey among its fans, into a company that last year grossed $15 million, peddling everything from furniture to dinner napkins to nightgowns. She is the host of Style network’s popular Shabby Chic show, and her fifth book (Shabby Chic: Sumptuous Settings and Other Lovely Things) is due out in October.

And now the 44-year-old mother of two teens is spreading her Shabby Chic gospel with a lower-priced line of house-wares at Target. At her six stores and hundreds of retail outlets worldwide, Ashwell’s hand-finished bed linen sets (sheets, pillowcases, shams) sell for $1,000; at Target, the mass-produced version is $270. “There are hundreds of items. The fun thing is that there is so much that we can produce,” says Ashwell. “I design every little item myself.”

The daughter of Elliott Greenfield, an antiquarian book dealer, and wife Shirley, who restored antique dolls, Ashwell developed her eye in childhood. “I got an appreciation of quality from my dad,” she says. And from mum, “an appreciation of imperfection.”

She left England for L.A. at 19, and met her future (now former) husband, David Ashwell, while styling clothing for a PanAm ad. Ashwell found her market niche after they had children: Comfortable environments that were purposefully a bit worn at the edges. Despite having white sofas, she says, “I wasn’t a neurotic mother. They could bounce around as much as they liked.”

Washable white-denim slipcovers were her first idea, leading to a small shop in Santa Monica. “I had a really naive business plan,” says Ashwell, who never attended college. “I sold out the first week and had no inventory.” In 1990 Ashwell opened a second store in New York City. She began getting national press, and Shabby Chic was all the rage.

Now a new generation in Hollywood has discovered Ashwell. Lopez had her design the interior of her Pasadena restaurant, Madre’s, Reese Wither-spoon has bought Shabby Chic baby furniture, and, says Minnie Driver, “my bedroom is an ode to Rachel.”

Though it may seem that Ashwell is positioning herself as the next Martha Stewart, the idea makes her laugh—she swears she hardly knows how to cook. “One of my dreams is to do a Shabby Chic hotel,” she says. “But what I’m trying to do next is perfect my craft. I know how to do a great flower display. Now I want to learn how to grow the roses.”

Allison Adato. Ulrica Wihlborg and Alison Singh Gee in Los Angeles

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