Laura Ashley was famous for her tiny floral prints, loose-fitting dresses and a style of interior decoration (along with fabrics, wallpaper and accessories) that seemed to turn every American home in into an English country house. Ashley and her husband, Bernard, started their business in 1953 when she was pregnant with their first child. The first fabrics she designed — inspired by Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday and printed by her husband on their kitchen table — became fashionable scarves. Over the next 35 years, the business grew into a multimillion-dollar corporation that endures today. I found out more about the Ashleys' intertwined life and business from Martin Wood, author of the new book, Laura Ashley.
Martin Wood will speak at Richmond Academy of Medicine Alliance Foundation 48th Benefit Antiques and Fine Arts Show on Friday, Feb. 5, at noon at the Commonwealth Club. For more details, go to ramaf.org, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 551-3723.
Q: For those who haven't read your book, could you talk just a little about what the Ashleys' business did for the Welsh people and how employing local workers fit in with their philosophy?
A: The Ashleys moved the business to Carno [in Wales] in 1961, buying a house/shop in Machynlleth. At the time Carno had a population of 400-plus souls and no work, save hill farming. The local people saw what the Ashleys wanted to do and how it might help them. They threw in their lot with [them], and this helped make the business a success. They worked 4 1/2-day weeks, so people had time to work their farms, which were probably not profitable. The Ashleys believed in taking work to where there was a pool of labor, and so they brought employment and prosperity to many communities in rural Wales. It was a potent philosophy, but it reflects an attitude that was common. Wealth brings in its wake responsibilities — noblesse oblige.
Q: Laura Ashley grew up at a time when women were supposed to stay at home and raise the children. Do you think she had difficulties being taken seriously in the fabric business because she was a woman? Or did she mostly stay out of it in the early days and concentrate on design?
A: I think the "woman's place is in the home" school of thought had declined markedly because of the Second World War. Initially when they began, their fabrics were marketed as "Bernard Ashley Design" or "Ashley Mountney" [Laura's maiden name]. It was only when they began producing tea towels that they became "Laura Ashley." Bernard thought it very demeaning to use his name on a tea towel!
Also, Laura wasn't really a designer. She was a critic. She had a magical ability to spot a trend or a fashion before it had become either, and that was really the secret. I doubt, speaking as a textile designer, that she could have designed a fabric from scratch. The surviving sketches — two or three — for fashion items are rather crude.
Q: When did the business really take off? How did it affect the family? It must have been jarring for her, coming from a relatively modest background, to eventually be in the position to buy a French chateau!
A: I remember Sir Bernard telling me that they produced scarves, placemats, etc., and some furnishing fabrics, "but nothing much sold" until the tea towels. They really made the money, and that is when the business took off. It went from a turnover of £2,000 in 1955 to £8,000 in 1960. They bought a Welsh estate in 1973; I think it was a 1,000 acres. They became wealthy very quickly, really. It bought the family an enviable lifestyle.
Q: The company's move into fashion seems almost accidental. How involved was Laura in fashion design?
A: The fashion side of the business sort of started itself. They began to produce aprons and then they made a "smock." This was a dead ringer for the 1959 sack dress designed by Balenciaga. They sold their aprons and smocks to the trade — and most of the dresses were directed at trade fashions. It was only in 1968 that they opened the Pelham Street store. Laura was involved in the nuts and bolts of the fashion designs, and it was her intuition that guided the business. I think Sir Bernard told me she had a 75 percent hit rate, which is remarkable.
Q: The Ashleys began with fabric, moved into dress design and then finally into home décor. Did they continue to use any patterns from the early days? Was one pattern enduring? And is there a collection of Laura Ashley patterns that can be seen by the public?
A: They produced fabric and wallpaper in 1955 which coordinated. They changed their focus because fashion sold — so they concentrated on this aspect of the business and didn't go back into furnishing fabrics until 1973. They developed the home-furnishings side of the business really because it is a more stable product area — fashion is very fickle. Get your colors wrong and you're sunk, probably for more than one year, too. The patterns evolved partly as the times moved on, but also as Sir Bernard acquired more sophisticated machinery. Some patterns remained in production for a long time, such as Nutmeg [a small spot design]. Campion [a small sprig pattern] came in and out of production, while Wild Clematis was an enduring pattern and much loved. Alas, there is no public collection of Laura Ashley patterns, and I wish there was.
Q: Would you say that Laura Ashley's passion was ultimately interior design? Or was there another aspect of the business that was really her focus?
A: I think she had a split focus, really. Laura was interested in interior design, but this interest developed as she became richer and had bigger houses to play with. Lets face it: Most people love doing up houses. It's great fun. But she was interested in fashion and period fashion, too. I suppose if anything she was really interested in patterns. She loved finding patterns and hunting for them, and she was very good at this. The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire told me it was instructive to see her sorting old fabrics: "Yes, no, maybe, yes, no …" And she was quite certain about what would and what would not sell. Again, it is that magic quality of having an eye and an instinct for the market.
Q: How active was Sir Bernard in the business after his wife's death? Did it bounce back after the sale in 1998?
A: Laura died very tragically and suddenly [in 1985, of a brain aneurysm suffered after a fall on her 60th birthday]. Sir Bernard remained involved in the business, but he probably took his eye off the ball. The business was very much a partnership, and with Laura gone Bernard had lost his other half. Laura had been against floating the company [taking the business public] on the London Stock Exchange — "the accountants arrived like undertakers," as an employee remarked — but Bernard had been mad keen. It brought in professional managers and altered the ethos of the business. I suppose for Bernard with Laura gone, the fun went out of it for him. With Bernard doing other things — trying to forget and move on with his life — the mice took over and things went a bit wrong, but times had changed. Laura would probably have seen that and adapted more than the corporate crew did. Who knows? Anyway, eventually Bernard sold out to a Malaysian conglomerate that now owns the business.
I think what Laura and Sir Bernard achieved was quite remarkable. They were both an amazing pair, and while I never met Laura, I did meet and get to know, albeit slightly, Sir Bernard Ashley. I found him good company and also stimulating company. Never dull and always ready with an opinion, whether you liked it or not! It was fun for me. May they both rest in peace.