Heading to New Mexico? Rent the Vintage-Furnished Ranch of a Beloved LA Fashion Designer
If the headline of this story seems to assume that you might, in fact, be heading to New Mexico soon, it’s entirely intentional: More than a century after Georgia O’Keeffe took her first trip to her eventual home of Santa Fe — to be followed by the likes of Agnes Martin, Bruce Nauman, and Larry Bell — the state is again becoming a haven for a new wave of creatives. During the pandemic, we saw friends decamping to everywhere from Montana to Maine in search of lower rent and more access to nature, but many were bound for Santa Fe and Taos, which had been attracting increasing numbers of artists and designers even before COVID hit. Today we’re featuring one of them — the Los Angeles fashion designer Raquel Allegra, who went to New Mexico a year and a half ago in search of real estate for a healing commune she was planning with a group of friends, but ended up buying her own sprawling 8,000 square-foot vacation home in Taos, where her neighbors include Petecia Le Fawnhawk and Mark Maggiori.
Allegra didn’t intend to end up with such a big house. In her home base of Topanga Canyon in LA, she lives in a relatively modest 700 square-foot cabin. But the first time she toured the Taos property, she had a powerful visceral response in which she felt the house calling her to transform it into something new, and she felt compelled to oblige. In the 7 months it took to renovate, she realized she could rent the house out on Airbnb during the times she wasn’t there, which would help her break even on costs. She also saved by filling up its cavernous 24 rooms (!) with furniture she treasure-hunted on the Nextdoor app back in Santa Monica and Malibu, where the wealthy often get rid of pieces for next to nothing. In that sense, her approach to the project wasn’t unlike her approach to her eponymous clothing label, which she started in 2002 first by deconstructing and tie-dyeing vintage t-shirts and then by upcycling disused tees from LA county jails. The home’s cozy interiors also echo what her line has since become, a full collection of sustainable womenswear that’s laid-back, gauzy, and mostly neutral-toned, with bright pops of color.
Allegra calls the house a “retreat,” and credits its 5 acres of lush desert-valley landscapes with helping her — like so many artists before her — creatively recharge. We recently spoke with her about Taos’s singular appeal, the house’s transformation, and why it’s been so important to her to be able share its restorative effects with guests. If this story inspires you to start renting your own space, visit this link to get started!
PHOTOS BY KATE RUSSELL
Can you tell us the story behind how you acquired this house, and what brought you to Taos?
The original idea was to get together with a small group of women and create an alternative-living community space. The woman that brought us all together was Sibyl Buck, who was a supermodel in the ’90s. When she stopped modeling, she started to focus on yoga and meditation, and she’s a very big counter-culture, alternative-living person. She lives two minutes away from me in Topanga and happens to be my best friend. We got closer over a period of time when I wanted to understand myself better; I’d gone through a bad breakup, and I knew I needed a deeper evolution. Because of her own journey around that, and her beliefs about the toxicity of urban living and the disconnection between nature and self, her idea was to create a space for healing, with different levels of experience based on what you could afford. So possibly a bigger house, and then smaller houses on the property, or maybe tents. But the group dissolved pretty quickly because I was the only person able to financially commit to it at this scale.
That’s what brought me to Taos, though, through the lens of looking at real estate. What happened with this house, though, is that I walked in and I started to cry. The house felt like it was calling for help. I know that’s a weird thing to say, but it had been built, renovated, and lived in by a man who was a bit emotionally dark and heavy, and you could feel that throughout the house. You could feel that it was made with love, but he’d lived in it for 10 years by himself after his wife had left him, and you could feel, in the environment, his unraveling. It was like the house and the land was just calling out to be rescued, and I just couldn’t turn away. I was so full of emotion, and it was so unexpected.
I live in a 700 square-foot cabin in Topanga, and that’s where I feel cozy and at home. I didn’t imagine myself living in this house full-time. I don’t need all this space. But the house said save me, and I said okay, let’s do this.
Did it need saving physically, too? What shape was it in when you bought it?
Yes. The amount of tiny projects that the owner had started and never finished in the house was dizzying. And I think that came from him being in a relationship with a very wealthy woman and her funding the building of the house, and you could see the difference as she moved out and he continued to build without her funds — there was a whole unfinished section that had plywood as floors and had holes in the ceiling. That was one of the bigger elements to wrap my brain around, figuring out how to integrate those spaces into the feeling of the rest of the house. It needed renovation everywhere. All the walls are plaster, and there were so many plants in the house, and there was so much water damage from them being watered. None of the switch plates matched, and most were broken. Every corner of the house needed something.
But the things the prior owner did manage to do here are so incredible. He’s a rock mover, and he uses giant rocks to build water features, like the giant ones you’d see in Las Vegas. So the property is full of these giant rock walls and rock waterfalls, and there are giant rock steps placed at the river’s edge, so you can walk on these stone steps into the river.
They do make the house feel very masculine from the outside, so that’s one of the things I’m working on most immediately with a permaculture landscapist, to add more of a feminine feeling. There are these giant rocks and wood pillars sticking out of the ground, almost like giant phalluses, and I can’t wait to topple them and turn them into circles where people can gather, rather than giant statements of masculinity. I met a woman on Instagram who’s a marble carver and had created this beautiful marble bust, and I was so inspired by it that I asked if she’d create one for me. We’re putting it in the front garden, so there will be this beautiful, ancient-looking bust in white marble with these beautiful wings, on a basalt pedestal. So there will be this beautiful, feminine, quiet statement in the front yard, which was really calling for that. I want the interior and the exterior to be in harmony.
How much time have you been spending at the house? And why did you decide to rent it out on Airbnb the rest of the time?
I spend about a week out of every two months here. Having my company in LA really holds me there, but as a creative, it’s also incredible to be able to leave LA for a week and be in nature. It almost feels like I’m off the grid when I’m here. I spend time sleeping. I spend time sitting outside and just watching birds and deer. There’s something so calming about the environment that when I do go back to LA, and into my more intense day-to-day work schedule, I’m recharged, and my mind is more open. I see things from a more stepped-back perspective. I’m a better-balanced person, a better boss. Little stuff doesn’t bother me as much. It really helps me with my overall perspective.
Having this space to come to is really invaluable for me, but I couldn’t just have it and have it sit here empty. Working on the house for 7 months, I had all of that time to imagine what the best way to have the property pay for itself would be. That’s all I wanted, for it to be able to sustain itself. Airbnb felt like a logical thing to do, to have people rent the home and get to enjoy it, and that helps to pay for it. My deepest desire is for people to be here to enjoy it. I also think it will continue to evolve; Sibyl and I have discussed what it would look like to have retreats here, and reach out into that community. So it’s more of a long term investment for me where I get to benefit personally.
You said your real estate hunt brought you to Taos, but why Taos in particular?
That was Sybil’s doing. Taos has long been a place where artists have been called to come and create and work, from Georgia O’Keefe to Dennis Hopper. There’s something so special about the landscape here, with the oppenness and the sky and the gorge of the river that runs through it. It has a certain feeling and wildness. Valdez specifically — where the house is — is a canyon, nicknamed the Witches’ Canyon, and there have been a lot of generations of women here working the land, and having a deep relationship with it, and understanding how through that relationship we can heal ourselves, which is something I believe in.
Taos is also changing a lot, developing. Lots of stores are opening here. I have lots of friends who have moved here from LA in the last year, during the pandemic. My model muse moved here with her husband at the end of last year; another friend who helped me load the truck and move out here ended up moving here a year later. Patecia Le Fawnhawk just moved here with her husband and baby. We all had ladies’ dinner last night. There’s a whole crew of women here that I love.
The thing that’s different about this valley is that it’s not your classic sagebrush terrain that most of Taos is. It’s a lush valley that benefits from all of the melting snow. So there are giant willows on the property. It’s lush and green and feels totally different. The house is completely surrounded by aspens. It doesn’t feel like any other place in Taos.
The interior of the house, though, does have a signature New Mexico style. Were those amazing archways and curves all there when you got it? And how did you approach your own design process?
Inside the house, the shapes were all there, but it was also covered with giant-man leather furniture. The previous owner was a big guy, and it was like a man cave in here. Even though the rooms are big, the furniture was way too big for the rooms, even. When I first saw the house I felt like it couldn’t breathe — it just wanted to be emptied and cleansed and thoughtfully filled with more of a gentle touch.
When I started, I knew that I would be spending time here, but I also knew I would be sharing it. So I wanted to furnish it in a way that didn’t feel precious, so that when guests were here, they could really enjoy themselves and not worry about breaking something. I wanted there to be an ease with the furniture in the house, so people could really just be comfortable and have a relaxing time. I have a hard time with environments that are too stiff or too precious, so that was my original lens through which I made all the decisions about the furniture. I wanted guests to just live and be comfortable. The most important part of decorating the house was finding that line between having things I love, and that feel good in the space, but that if they get ruined, okay, so be it, it’s not the end of the world.
To me that sentiment really relates to your clothing — it’s stylish, but decidedly comfortable and easy to wear.
Yes, I guess it does. I really live hard in my clothes. I do everything in them. I’m a big gardener, and I don’t mind wearing things that have dirt stains on them. Also, I started my company by recycling t-shirts from the prison system in southern California — I’ve always been inspired by things that exist already, and having a relationship with that thing, whether it’s a t-shirt or a home. And listening to that thing tell me what it wants to become.
You also recycled existing furniture into the house. Can you tell us about your process of furnishing it?
When you have big rooms, you need big furniture, and big furniture is expensive. I did a bunch of treasure hunting, and have been slowly putting the house together. Some of the pieces I bought in Taos, and some in LA. The foot chair in the bedroom (above) is a piece I bought from my friend Jonathan Pessin, who has a vintage gallery in LA called Not For Sale. Since I began spending my weekends gardening instead of flea market strolling, he’s been my window into treasure hunting. We both love furniture with personality. Many of my favorite pieces in my Topanga home are from him.
There are also three African Sanufo beds in the house, made by the Sanufo tribe out of a single carved tree trunk, so there are no parts that have been connected. It’s like furniture that’s also art, that also feels indestructible. They’re made from one of the hardest woods, called ironwood, and they’re heavy as hell. And yet as big as they are, the forms also have this femininity because of the way that the wood is arched and curved. They’re still very soft. One of the beds I use as a coffee table, and one of the beds is so big that when I’m here with groups of friends, we’ll lay someone down on it and do energy work on them. One person can lay down and two people can sit on either side of them, and you feel so supported by this giant piece of wood.
Besides those beds, most of the bigger pieces of furniture I found on the Nextdoor app, around Topanga. I picked those pieces up over a handful of months while I was doing construction on the house, and when enough of it was done, just before the snows came, I transported them to Taos. I was able to find insane furniture for really low prices. My giant orange sofa is probably a $5,000 sofa, but I got it for $300. So many people who live in LA have so many resources that if they want something new, and want to get rid of the old thing, it might as well go on the street. So I really got lucky. The green chairs are from Craigslist; Sibyl actually found them. The rounded dining room chairs around that big copper dining room table, I found those on Craigslist too — they came out of a big cruise ship. They were $12 each. This house was so big that I knew I had to be really clever about how I was getting the furniture. There’s just so much already made, why not keep it and move it around and breathe new life into it?
One thing I noticed in the photos are the amazing carved-wood shutters. Who made those?
The shutters open and close the main bedroom off from the atrium, which is the center of the house. A local artisan carved them many years ago — they were already here when I bought the house. There’s a tradition of carved-wood doors in this part of the country, a tradition that takes many different forms. I recently commissioned a friend of mine, someone I met here, CJ Burnett, to hand-carve the door for my dishwasher. It’s funny, but it’s so beautiful. He and his brother are artists, and carved all the doors for the restaurant his family openened, and they’re so insane. Someday I hope to have him carve all new cabinet fronts for the kitchen. For now though there’s just one. I have so many dreams for this house, like making all the bathrooms special.
When you’re hosting guests, how much guidance do you give them about the house and how to experience it?
I’ll tell them about the property and the land, and things I think they should do. I have stand-up paddle boards by the pond, because it’s really fun to paddle around while the sun is setting. The swallows dip and dive and eat bugs above you. This house is the very last house at the very tip of the canyon, so there’s no other property between the house and the sunset. It sets just in between these two big hills, and there’s big green pastures and fields in between you, on the paddleboard on the pond, and the sunset. So that’s super special. It’s real soul food. There’s a giant sleeping porch outside the main bedroom, and I offer to set up beds outside so you can sleep outside and have the sounds of the river while you’re sleeping. I engage with each group or each person in a different way. I don’t do one thing for everybody, but feel the group out, or whoever’s making the reservation. I see what they’re looking to do and I respond accordingly. I have lots of favorite restaurants, and a dear friend who does horseback riding lessons.
As a host, I stay very connected to the people who stay here. I do most of the communication with them, to make sure they can have the most special time here possible. There’s something for me in it that really is a give-back, and that give-back is really valuable to me. With clothing, half the conversation I have with myself when I’m making it is, will a woman feel good wearing this? Will this bring her comfort? So creating this space and knowing people are coming into it and getting this really special feeling, it all comes from the same place for me — it’s about the way I care for people, whether I know them or not. I have a lot of caring instincts. That’s really part of it for me.
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