A city boy with southern charm
By Stephanie Peters
Photos Michael Weschler
Published Fall 2013
After visiting a variety of elegant equestrian country estates, we thought it would be fun to switch gears and visit an equestrian living in the city. Who better to meet with than talented designer and consummate style maven Carson Kressley. Crossing the threshold of Carson’s Manhattan apartment instantly transported us into a vibrant world of colors, patterns, family treasures, and horses — lots and lots of horses. More succinctly, it’s the ultimate equestrian haven. Not until you glance out the window and notice the iconic Chrysler Building and urban skyline do you remember you are in the middle of New York City.
Make no mistake. Carson is mad about horses, and fashion, and textures and clutter. Beautiful, sentimental, visually arresting clutter that Carson confesses to love. He delights in surrounding himself with layers of rich images and meaningful substance that weave a tapestry of a life well lived. Carson explained, “I like layering and collecting things from travels and family history. It’s rich and authentic and it tells your story.”
And it is a fascinating story. Most of us, including the EQ editors, know Carson from his Emmy-Award-winning show, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, his season on Dancing with the Stars, or Carson Nation, which aired on the Oprah Winfrey Network. But those immersed in the world of American Saddlebreds know him as an experienced and gifted horseman, whose impressive equestrian resume includes myriad awards, including a prestigious World Championship in 2009.
The ebullient Carson loves to talk about horses. They seem to be at the core of his persona and his apartment, and his passion for them seems to spill into so many aspects of his everyday life.
Carson’s passion for horses began at an early age. He grew up in a small town just outside Allentown, Pa., and lived in a farmhouse next door to his grandparent’s home and pony farm. He grew up thinking everyone had ponies grazing in their front yard. As Carson flipped through his album of black and white photos of his family’s farm and old ads from his family’s pony sales and auctions, he joked and asked, “Is this from out of Mayberry, U.S.A., or what?”
But Carson wasn’t satisfied with ponies. While attending a horse show featuring Shetland ponies and Hackneys, he noticed some Saddlebred horses. He loved the horses’ elegant necks and high-carried tails, with riders dressed in top hats and formal coats, and he immediately knew, “That’s what I want to do.” He saved all of his money and, at the age of 13, bought his first American Saddlebred for $1,500 — and that included the saddle. Saddlebreds are often referred to as the “peacock of the horseshow,” but Carson, the ultimate style-centric equestrian, considers them supermodels or high-geared Maseratis.
He now owns 12 Saddlebreds, including brood mares and foals. He stables a few in Kentucky, while the others are in New Jersey and at his farm in Pennsylvania.
From the age of 17 Carson has been driving to Kentucky for events and training. He describes Kentucky as the epicenter and mecca of the Saddlebred world. “I can probably drive there with my eyes closed,” he said. “I can tell you where every Biscuit World is on Interstate 79 in West Virginia.”
He considers his years of competing to be hugely beneficial. Carson said, “It was a big bonus for my career,” explaining that it helped to make him a people-person and build his confidence when meeting new people — attributes critical to his line of business outside of competition. “I was in the ring with William Shatner and Misdee Wrigley Wright (of Wrigley’s Gum), and I thought that’s cool, no biggie.”
Carson has a strong emotional affinity for the southern charm and rich traditions of Kentucky. He loves the sense of family and friends within the relatively small, southern-rooted, Saddlebred community. “It’s still very social,” he explained. “Even though it’s competitive in the ring, you become friends and attend their weddings and other family celebrations.”
His fondness for Kentucky has worked its way into his Manhattan décor — so much so that he has called it “Kentucky Regency.” It’s a sort of hybrid of a glamorous, gilded, Hollywood Regency style with the antique silver and warm wood accents of Kentucky, all topped with layers and layers of artwork. He said, “I’m a southerner at heart, and Kentucky has been really good to me.”
Carson’s other description of his imaginative décor is “a high-low decorating mix.” He prefaced this by saying that he is the kind of guy who will buy something small, such as a bracelet, and build an entire outfit around it, admitting it’s a bit backwards.
He pointed out two horse prints, elegantly framed in gilded silver and hung on either side of the headboard in his bedroom. He found them at T.J. Maxx years ago and bought the pair for $45. He said, “I loved the silver gilt thing, and they inspired the whole room.” In contrast, he admits to spending ridiculous amounts of money on other things — a silver powder-room ceiling, for instance.
Regardless of his witty explanations for décor, his apartment is an inviting, fanciful, and divinely equestrian environment. He credits this to his credo, “Decorate with the things that you love. If you love it, it’s going to work together.”
Carson has a wealth of ideas and hints when it comes to looking polished in the ring and about town. He is, after all, a style consultant and the wunderkind of makeovers. Don’t think for an instant that the EQ team didn’t put a little more thought than usual into what to wear to the interview.
When chatting about his approach to equestrian attire, he said, “I am a traditionalist. Everything we do in the horse world is based on tradition. It’s all about being old-fashioned,” he added. “If it weren’t for tradition, we’d be driving cars around the ring. You need to start with a framework of traditional elements and keep them workman-like. Keep things clean, tidy, and sleek.” Carson is also a traditionalist in his everyday wear, leaning toward classic designers such as Ralph Lauren, Etro, Gucci, and Hermès. The towering stack of signature orange Hermès boxes on the windowsill gives credence to that claim.
To add a touch of personal style in the ring, Carson will embellish his riding jacket with a colorful lining or monogrammed buttons — typically not visible to the judges or anyone else — but just enough to give him a slight boost in confidence.
He offered valuable advice for looking polished on a budget. “Buy the best off the rack but invest in tailoring for a perfect fit,” he commented. “It doesn’t matter if it’s 20 years old and not made of the most luxurious fabric. If it’s tailored well and clean, you’re good to go.”
He is gracious, engaging, and wildly sentimental. He speaks of authenticity in fashion and décor — a mind-set that seems to carry through in his character. What struck us most was his humility as he answered our relentless questions about the shelves of framed awards, ribbons, and trophies. Sitting prominently on the shelf was his Emmy, yet he ignored it and reached for his grandparents’ engraved, antique silver platters or the silver cups he was awarded for sportsmanship.
There were photos of Carson with Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, and President George H. W. Bush, but instead, he chose to page through photo albums filled with images of his family’s life with horses. Recently added to the albums are photos of his niece, who is now competing and excelling. She represents the family’s third generation of Saddlebred enthusiasts.
In addition to his multitude of interests, Carson is also quite the history buff. He serves on the board of the American Saddlebred Museum and can easily provide an array of intriguing details about the colorful history of this unique breed. Given his proximity to New York’s Central Park, we found his narrative about the evolution of Saddlebreds as “park horses” enchanting. When cars became the preferred method of transportation, the Saddlebred horses, originally hooked up to carriages, became park horses, a stylish, fancy mount for ladies and gentleman to ride through the great city parks of New York, Chicago, or St. Louis. It’s fascinating to envision the Astors and Vanderbilts and other New York socialites, dressed in full regalia, riding their Saddlebreds along miles of groomed bridle paths in glorious Central Park.
Surrounded by Manhattan skyscrapers and enveloped in his horse-inspired haven, this charming, witty, and multi-faceted urban equestrian seems content and at ease living the city life. There’s a certain comfort in knowing that at any time he can take to the road in his Range Rover and head east, west, or south to the southern allure of his beloved Kentucky and Saddlebreds—with perhaps a stop at Biscuit World along the way.
Be sure to watch a video of our visit here: At Home With Carson Kressley