If you need encouragement to pursue your passion, have a talk with Kristie Stewart. After working as a lawyer for over a decade, she left the legal field behind in search of a career that made her happy. Years later, a love for art and interior design led Kristie to selling oriental rugs on Instagram and online and to the launch of her business, LillieKat Rugs – which is named for her two daughters. With business booming, Kristie eventually opened a brick-and-mortar showroom in Pepper Place in January 2020. Today Kristie says she’s happier, healthier, and wealthier than she ever was practicing law. We’re excited to introduce our newest FACE of Birmingham, Kristie Stewart of LillieKat Rugs.
LillieKat Rugs is a retailer of modern, vintage, and antique handwoven rugs from around the world. How did you decide to turn your love for interior design and oriental rugs into a business?
I had quit practicing law, but I’m a worker. I have two girls, and I wanted them to see me working. I wanted them to see me making my own money. I felt that was important. My mother was a schoolteacher, and I watched her work. I was home for three or four years and being at home was wonderful when the girls were younger, but as they started to get older and they were more independent, I told my husband, I have to find something to do.
I was always helping friends pick out stuff for their homes. Then we built a house and we started doing the interior design. I had a connection who knew someone in Turkey I could order rugs from. I just wanted to order rugs for my house because the stores around Birmingham were a little expensive and we were bleeding money. But one day, it dawned on me at 3 o’clock in the morning that I could order rugs and sell them on some platform and make maybe $1,000 a month just to have something in my pocket. But it grew from there and just exploded.
Why do you think oriental rugs are a good investment for a person’s home?
These rugs last for generations so you can pass them down to your children. Just like a piece of antique furniture, it’s a piece of history. And to know that this rug was handmade in a village in Turkey or India or Morocco or whatever region it comes from, is so fascinating. What I especially love is when I find a rug that has the weaver’s name on the back. They sat for months and wove that with their hands and dyed the wool with vegetables and then let it fade to a particular color. Those people are artists.
What are your top tips for buying an oriental rug?
If you can afford to hire a designer to help you, do that. A designer can help you find a rug that will work with pieces that you have or wallpaper that you’ve already picked out. If you’re in a fresh canvas, start with the rug and build a room around that rug because that’s a whole lot easier. And I love using Pinterest and Instagram for inspiration.
How did the pandemic affect your business?
We signed the lease on the showroom in December 2019 and then COVID hit. I was scared. But my business actually grew about 50 percent. I think people were stuck at home and they were bored, and I think people with the funds to be able to purchase things during COVID – because, of course, it was financially strapping for a lot of people — they were looking at their homes and thinking “I want to replace this rug.” And there were designers who couldn’t go into their normal stores to shop for rugs because they were closed. I had the website, and I was still shipping rugs. COVID was horrible, but I did not suffer from it, and I think that’s because I had strong online spaces both with Instagram and with the website. I feel so lucky about that.
What’s the best advice you have to offer?
Do what you love, and everything will fall into place. I really believe that because when I was a first-year law student I knew I shouldn’t have been there. But I was 22 and I was living for other people, and I was miserable.
I make more money now than I ever made practicing law and I’m selling rugs! If you just do what you love, everything else will work out. You’ll be happier and healthier. I wish it had happened 20 years ago. But I feel so blessed that I could have a second chance in life, that I could reboot myself after 40.
You’re originally from Hattiesburg, Mississippi. What do you love most about living in Birmingham?
It’s a big city but it has a small-town feel to it. I love the different communities, and they are all beautiful places to live. And it’s centrally located. You can get to Atlanta or the beach really quickly.
What was your last best meal at a Birmingham restaurant?
We went to Automatic Seafood on our wedding anniversary. We had calamari for an appetizer, a nice piece of grouper with okra, and the ASO Sundae was divine.
What is your favorite hidden gem in Birmingham?
I love Maison by Pam Evans in Mountain Brook Village. She finds vintage and antique pieces that are so unique, and she’s one of the kindest people I’ve ever met too.
Where did you go on your last vacation?
We just got back from Martha’s Vineyard. It was phenomenal. We had the best time.
What is your favorite local boutique?
Etc Jewelry. I love going in there and looking at their pieces and trying to convince my husband to buy me something.
What’s on your bedside table?
Pictures of my girls, a tiny steal cross that I got when I went on a church retreat, Jesus Calling, my Bible and I’m currently reading Elton John’s biography, Me.
What is your go-to birthday present to give?
Name three things you can’t live without.
GOOPGLOW Overnight Glow Peel, Baobab candles, and my cell phone.
All images courtesy of Laura Jett Walker.
Want to meet more inspiring women from around the South? Visit our FACES archive — HERE!