Rugs are by no means a new thing. Ask any interior designer — or historian. One of the oldest rugs, called the Pazyryk carpet, ever discovered surfaced in 1949, and now resides in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Estimates pin it to the 400 or 300 BC, but it could be even older, since it was found frozen and pretty well preserved.
The ones LA-based photographer Mikael Kennedy sells under his label, King Kennedy Rugs, aren't nearly as old, but their unique patterns are just as rare — plus, the sun fading, subtle rips and artistic tears, you know, the things that also set a pair of vintage jeans apart from another dated the same year, make them all the more interesting. Like someone who idolizes Levi's 501 jeans, for example, Kennedy collects certain kinds of rug but rarely are they mint condition. (If he were dealing pristine Persian rugs, they'd sell for 4 to 10 times more.) Refining his search even further, and establishing a sort of brand for himself in the process, he picks ones with visible signs of wear exclusively. With the right look and feel, they can fetch up to $14,000 dollars. Most of his, though, are a fairer $950 to $1,500 dollars.
"I began collecting rugs in my travels as a professional photographer seven or eight years ago. I was drawn specifically to the threadbare pieces, the ones that showed signs of their age," Kennedy told VoyageLA in 2019. "The first rug I ever bought was a caucasian prayer rug from 1890. The rug was worn bare where someone’s hands and knees had been places for decades. It blew my mind to be holding a piece that old, one that someone had put so much love and care into making and then into using. I was hooked."
His fascination quickly grew into consulting gigs, finding grails for collectors and a stockpile of a personal collection. Finding rugs for Club Monaco's London store proved far more formal of a gig than selling rugs out of the back of his diesel Mercedes, which is how, all the way back in 2009, Kennedy first started. Over time, projects for J.Crew and Ralph Lauren, and collabs with Padmore and Barnes and 18East, put Kennedy's operation in front of the right people. Now, it's not hard to get your hands on Kennedy's curated collections; he's grown quite a bit, and "interior design aesthetics have also changed with more people looking for this look," he says, making them popular source material for other mediums. He uses damaged rugs to make custom bags, bomber jackets and chukka boots, which start $525 (bags) and max out at $5,800 (a bomber).
His experiments began with two GMT (German military trainer) style sneakers, dubbed Alpha and Bravo, with Venice brand No. One Systems. Those sold out fast, and No. One no longer exists. But, sensing an appetite for this type of footwear and apparel, Kennedy doubled down on designing his own original concepts, which would use damaged rugs as raw material. Now, he sells one-of-one tote bags at Todd Snyder, bomber jackets at Nordstrom, vintage automotive floor mats there, too, and 20 custom chukka boots with Padmore and Barnes in his own online store.
But he knows the rugs themselves aren't his doing. He referred to his collection, including the ones he sells, "someone else's art," in an interview with GQ. He's also been quick to call out ill-intentioned attempts at exploiting the Persian style rug's popularity on Twitter. It's important, he'll tell you, that the rugs he sells retain their original names, because he works with third and fourth-generation rug dealers, all of which are now located stateside. (It's still illegal, because of sanctions against Iran, to import these rugs.) He's even gone to bat for other sellers when the Trump administration's sanctions on Iran inadvertently triggered a ban on Persian rugs on resale sites like Etsy. (He too was permanently, without reason, banned in the sweep.)
As for his rugs repurposed, he's honoring long-held Iranian, Persian (because they are not technically interchangeable) and Turkish traditions, not anglicizing them. "There’s a long tradition of reusing damaged carpets to make things. Rug dealers/artisans have been doing it for centuries, making pillows, bags, furniture etc," he says in response to conflicted could-be customers. Plus, it's impossible to send a rug to Turkey for repairs, he says, a process he otherwise calls "common practice."
Just as gallerists rely on artists, Kennedy trusts his network of 3rd and 4th generation dealers here in the US for his supply. It's their access, after all, that forms the foundation of King Kennedy Rugs. But it's the operator's eye for color, pattern and texture, however, which he calls "maps of human existence," that's made the brand a thing — and super popular. It's commonplace now, at least in part due to Kennedy's cool new brand, to see Persian rugs pop up on the sets of fashion photoshoots, in place of mats in vintage cars, in imagery pinned to popular mood boards and repurposed as an accessory, coat or boot. And while there have always been stores you buy rugs at, it isn't as rare anymore to have heard of a rug brand.