Get to know… Fairfield home-goods designer Deborah Rhodes
FAIRFIELD — Deborah Rhodes sat at the heart of the New York City fashion scene in the mid-1990s. She was a milliner, a person who makes or sells women’s hats, and also designed hair accessories, handbags, and scarves out of her 10,000 square foot studio in the city’s garment district where she employed 35 people.
The New York boutique Henri Bendel, in addition to stores nationwide, sold Rhodes’ products and one day asked if Rhodes would make placemats from her hat material to sell in the store. Rhodes agreed and sewed some placemats on her hat machines. The product became her signature “original braided round placemat,” and they sold well.
“It was a product that took me straight into the market. It was something new, never done before, so I kept building on that,” Rhodes said. Rhodes’ turn towards home goods was one twist among many in her life up until that point.
Born in the South, between Nashville and Memphis in Tennessee, Rhodes said her hometown, “wasn’t the most exciting part in Tennessee but I had the benefit of all that music and the flowers and the hospitality. It’s something that stays with me.”
After earning a teaching degree in arts education, Rhodes decided to leave Tennessee for California to see what she could do out there. It was the 1970s and Rhodes said the women’s movement was in the heads of many women.
Deborah Rhodes | Linens and Luxuries
“We were going to do what we wanted to do,” Rhodes said.
Out in San Francisco, Rhodes waited tables, worked as a concierge at the Hyatt hotel, and one day was approached to model commercially for consumer products. Rhodes moved to Los Angeles where she appeared in television commercials and, as fate would have it, met her husband, an art historian and businessman, through a mutual friend and moved to New York City to be with him.
Hoping to return to her creative roots and not only model fashion, but create it, Rhodes started designing hats and hair accessories in New York City with her husband serving as the business partner in Rhodes’ burgeoning business.
It was the 1980s in New York City and Rhodes and her husband lived in Greenwich Village. “I loved dancing. I loved the clubs. I loved the whole scene. It was electric and there was a lot of creativity with the arts,” Rhodes said.
The club scene fueled the demand for Rhodes’ products. “People were really getting dressed up and going out so it was a fun and really good business,” Rhodes said.
After 10 years in the city, however, Rhodes became frustrated with the fashion business because it changed so quickly and preparing for five markets a year was tiring. Feeling claustrophobic in the city, Rhodes bought a weekend home in Westport.
By 1994 Rhodes and her husband were on the verge of starting a home goods-business and adopted their first daughter from Lithuania, where Rhodes discovered the linens business, and where she and her husband would return two years later to adopt a second daughter.
“Most people do it backward. They have their kids and then use their later time to go out and explore, but we just played for 10 years,” Rhodes said. With two young daughters in tow, Rhodes and her husband left the city and moved their business to Bridgeport.
Westport felt too attached to the pace of New York, Rhodes said, so the family moved to an old home in Fairfield’s Greenfield Hill neighborhood, where they’ve been for 18 years. “It just doesn’t feel so hurried,” Rhodes said of Fairfield, which she loves for its old-fashioned charm, horse-farms, music, restaurants, and beach.
Rhodes sells linens, napkin rings, table-runners and more and sells at stores across the country, including Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman, and Neiman Marcus. Globalization in the 90s changed the retail business and Rhodes said her U.S.-based factory could not compete in terms of pay so her company began to outsource its production.
Wood napkins made in Haiti, placements produced in the Philippines, and linens from Lithuania now make up Rhodes’ global production line. Still, Rhodes said many of her products are made by hand and a few items, such as her beaded napkin rings and flowers, continue to be made in New York by the same people who worked in her fashion workshop.
Rhodes’ products are full of color and many of those who work closely with her praise the products for their versatility, Rhodes said. During the creative process, Rhodes said it’s fun to pick different styles of homes and geographic locations from modern to seaside homes and imagine how her products may fit in.
Joy, in the end, is Rhodes’ goals for her products. “I want to do things that make people feel happy and with which they respond. Whether they bring it into their home or wear it on their head or set their table with it and invite in their family and friends, I just want to add a pretty, happy addition,” Rhodes said.
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