Mikael Kennedy is standing in a small, sun-soaked room surrounded by antique rugs. It's clear to any visitor to his north-east Los Angeles store that Mikael is a man who lights up when he is in his element – that is, when surrounded by his exquisitely curated collection of handmade Afghan, Persian and Navajo textiles.
Inside the King Kennedy showroom, many of the rugs proudly display signs of age: threadbare sections, slight repairs or tears, patches faded from the sun. Others have imperfections woven into them – some are genuine errors, the rest deliberate reminders of the weavers' hands. ‘Each piece here has a story to tell or an evident history of where it's been or come from. There's great beauty in that,’ Mikael says.
When trying to explain to others what he does, Mikael finds that it helps to reference vintage jeans. These days, people will sometimes search worldwide for the perfect pair of Levi's; they might be looking for specific frays or shades of indigo, or they might be looking for the right level of distress. ‘When I talk to people about what I do, the comparison is helpful. I’m like, “Yes, that's it, but for rugs!”’ Mikael explains.
The analogy is also apt because Mikael formerly worked in New York as a fashion photographer. ‘I would have these vintage rugs in my studio, and I found that lots of people who visited would gravitate towards them, and I'd tell them all about them,’ he says. King Kennedy Rugs was started as a side hustle while Mikael was working full-time as a photographer.
Sourcing rugs involved making friends with third- and fourth-generation rug dealers in New York, to whom he remains closely connected, as well as scouting for specimens whenever he was on a shoot in a different city. After eventually amassing a collection he was proud of, he started selling the rugs on Instagram and from the trunk of his vintage Mercedes as he drove around town. Mikael even reupholstered the car in rugs.
‘I think I was one of the first to use social media as a platform for selling, and people were popping up in my DMs and comments saying, “I'll take that one and that one.” It helped that vintage rugs were becoming more of a respected aesthetic in the design world. Timing is everything,’ he says.
Many of King Kennedy's clients were initially from the fashion world, with names like Ralph Lauren, Club Monaco and Burton looking for vintage carpets for their shops and promotional photography. Such clients remain, but King Kennedy today has a much broader audience, in line with Mikael's ethos that vintage rugs should be available to everyone. There's been a groundswell of word-of-mouth buzz about the ‘rug guy’ who sells one-off, quality pieces that won't break the bank. ‘I'm really at the bottom of the vintage and antique rug market price range,’ Mikael says. He's right: in this industry, some special pieces can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars, while at King Kennedy prices are mostly between $950 and $2,000. The most expensive in the current collection is a 12ft Tabriz rug that Mikael values at nearly $13,000.
Three years ago, with his Instagram shop booming and a rapidly growing dissatisfaction with the grind, Mikael decided to leave New York with his wife and family and settle in warmer, sunnier Los Angeles. ‘When I moved out here, my east-coast friends told me I'd go soft, and I said: that is quite literally the point! This is home now. There's a lightness to life and ease to creating out here that I didn't feel on the east coast,’ he says.
The move to southern California marked the end of his full-time working life in New York and a commitment to making King Kennedy Rugs a success. ‘It wasn't part of the plan, let's say that,’ he says. ‘But I reached this point where I was so passionate, the traction was there, and I just thought: well, this is a sign, I need to follow it through.’ He opened a small, appointment-only shop that he shares with another rug business in Los Angeles' Eagle Rock neighborhood. He has a handful of people sourcing rugs for him – three in New York City, one in Chicago and another in Pakistan.
He says he sees the business of antique rugs ‘becoming a more hip business. I get a lot of young kids coming through now. And there's that lyric from a Drake song: “Leather with that woodgrain, Persian rugs on wood floors.”’
Perhaps inspired by this, the brand has now expanded its horizons to include a clothing and footwear label. ‘I guess I never fully escaped fashion,’ Mikael says, walking over to a rack of jackets and a shelf of chunky shoes in the store's bright front room. ‘It's another way to broaden the appeal of this industry, to make the rug business more modern.’
It's also a way to transform damaged Persian carpets and give them a new life in the form of garments and shoes (think: colorful, one-off bomber jackets, ankle boots, mules and tote bags, all made out of heavy ornate rugs). At the more expensive end of the range is a series of ‘tactical vests’ that retail at $18,000.
For the fashion pieces, he almost exclusively reuses Persian rugs. ‘The Persians, Turkish, Armenian makers – they have traditions of reusing rugs,’ he says, ‘so I see this work as paying homage to that.’ The Navajo and Afghan Pictorial rugs, on the other hand, do not get touched, even if people ask. ‘Those are people and cultures that my country has screwed over, so I think it's inappropriate. There's also no history of them being reused,’ he says.
Mikael is aware of the tensions inherent in being a white guy profiting from vintage carpets – many of which are created by Indigenous artists or makers (many of whom are no longer alive) in other parts of the world. For Mikael, being ethical in this space involves small but important gestures: working alongside third- and fourth-generation rug dealers, not repurposing rugs from certain cultures and keeping the traditional names of rugs as opposed to the increasingly common practice of anglicizing names. ‘These are other people's creations – it's their art – you cannot wash away the history of the work,’ he says.
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