Eccentricity Is Often Rewarding

26th April 2013

A quintessentially English brand celebrates its 60th anniversary this year…

Nathalie Bonney takes a look at what made Laura Ashley so popular in the first place and how it has managed to stand the test of time.

In order to survive on the UK high street today, retailers must adapt constantly – customers are fickle; fashion trends are ever-shifting – not to mention keeping up with competitors. Despite its occasionally genteel and mumsy image, Laura Ashley (a force in home interiors as well as in fashion) is still going strong six decades after its humble kitchen table beginnings – and that suggests ther’s more to the brand than the print fabrics, frou-frou blouses and smock dresses with which its name was once synonymous.

At the launch of its latest spring/summer fashion collection, media were cooing over Laura Ashley’s tweed pencil skirts, lace separates and colour pops. Cosmopolitan magazine may seem an unlikely title to feature the Laura Ashley of yesteryear but fashion editor Shelley Vella has no qualms about the brand today. “It’s picked up on the key trends that are perfect for Laura Ashley. The colour pops were really nice, the Lemoncello collection was very cool: little lace skirts, little block colours but done in a very Laura Ashley way.”

Homes and interiors press meanwhile were wowed by the sumptuous fabrics, different tones and cute homeware items. The Marina lampshade, with a kilner jar-esque base that homeowners could fill with sweets, postcards or whatever else takes their fancy, caught the attention of high-style magazine Elle Deco proving that Laura Ashley is very much in fashion at the moment. And although at first glance the brand is anything but out of the ordinary, it’s the small flourishes such as that Marina lamp or the 1976 photo of punk band the Clash all dolled up in white Laura Ashley shirts that highlight the chain’s ability to stand out. In the words of Laura Ashley herself, “Eccentricity is often rewarding”.

The first ever Laura Ashley print – maroon-red geometric squares – was nothing like the type of flowered pattern more typically associated with the brand. “The tea towels, placemats and scarves from the 1950s are much more graphic and very different to what you’d expect,” explains Angela Jeffery, a Laura Ashley archivist. After a 1953 Women’s Institute exhibition on traditional handicrafts at the Victoria and Albert museum, Laura and husband Bernard were inspired to print their own fabrics. Wanting to produce their own patchwork quilts, but unhappy with the fabric on offer, the Ashleys spent £10 on wood for a screen, dyes and linen and after much research printed their first scarf in 1954 on the kitchen table of their small London flat. They combined their surname and Laura’s maiden name, and Ashley Mountney Ltd was born, although it wasn’t long before they changed to the more feminine and more appealing ‘Laura Ashley’. The couple expanded from geometric print scarves to tea towels and placemats, selling great batches to John Lewis and Heals among others. In 1955 they moved to rural Kent where extra living and working space gave them the chance to expand the company’s offerings.

After nearly being wiped out by a flood, they moved to Wales, where Laura had been born, to Macchynlleth. They set up their first shop selling an eclectic array of local honey, walking sticks and their own products. Laura turned her attention to clothes, producing utilitarian smock-like shirts intended for work and gardening – but when women started to wear them for fashion rather than for function, the iconic Laura Ashley silhouette (Victorian tailoring eroded by rural influences) was crystallised.

Describing herself as ‘a 19th century person living in the 20th century’, Laura sought inspiration from the past but still strived to create a look not seen before. A browse through the archive is proof of this: patterned shift dresses from the 60s, alongside bloomer knickers, 80s Princess Diana-inspired party frocks and even Elizabethan-style gowns with padded hips and boning. “I had to do something that was completely different… because I knew in my heart that was what people wanted,” she said.

Today the marrying of new and old is most apparent perhaps not in the fashion collection but in a homeware range based on designs by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, leading Bloomsbury artists of the 1930s. Over 25 years ago, just after Laura’s death in 1985, the brand was involved in the restoration of Charleston Farmhouse, the Bloomsbury Group’s country home in Sussex, and was granted the right to recolour and use certain designs. They featured in the range in the late 1980s, but have been archived since and are now being reintroduced to coincide with the 60th anniversary. Laura Ashley’s Bloomsbury collection was much loved on its initial unveiling and its reissue, in the same delicious shades of jade, plum, primrose and steel grey is almost certainly going to engender a similar response. A real interiors statement, the collection presents kitchen, living room and lifestyle furniture and accessories in an individual fashion, while quirky fabrics and wallpapers complete the look.

After Laura’s death, the company suffered serious losses (around £4.7million) under Bernard’s eccentric management. Over-eager expansion and a reluctance to welcome new ideas and fresh talent kept Laura Ashley in a creative and financial rut that, quite simply, customers didn’t care for.

It was a wake-up call, and in recent years the brand has had something of a renaissance, embracing the old but also looking ahead. It’s launching an anniversary collection of wallpaper, fabrics and gifts in its autumn collection and a limited edition run of the very first Laura Ashley scarf design. Fans will also get the chance to peruse its archives – from bridal wear to patchwork quilts – in a special exhibition to be held on 13/14 June in London (details should appear on www.lauraashley.com by the end of April). A Laura Ashley hotel, in Elstree, is also due to open its doors to guests in August. With its merging of heritage and innovation, it seems this brand should celebrate being 60 years young rather than 60 years old…

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