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February 7th, 2021

Laura Ashley had begun to print textiles in 1953 but her fashion label really took off in the 70s…  A couple of years ago we all started wanting it again  [this image copyright Jane Ashley for Laura Ashley]

In the 70s this young company was operating out of a small factory in Wales. Laura and her husband Bernard Ashley had tapped into the ‘can do’ spirit they found there, recruiting from the local people –  Meirion Rowlands, a sheep shearer who started as a pattern cutter and Phil Morris and Brian Jones who became novice designers.

The Welsh longhouse that was the Ashley’s first family home near Carno.

Everyone helped with everything, loading the delivery vans with garments, then piling into the pub  – the Aleppo Arms – at the end of a big production run. There were staff football matches with factory girls playing shop girls and the works canteen served healthy roasts and vegetables – Laura banned chips. ‘We respected them, they respected us. There was no us and them.’

The four Ashley children gradually took up key roles and responsibilities. Jane, the eldest, became the company fashion photographer, her brother Nick worked as design director; these are their stories.

IN GOOD COMPANY, 1977  – by JANE ASHLEY

The company my parents, Laura and Bernard Ashley first set up in 1954 was called Ashley Mountney –  both their surnames, reflecting their equal contribution and talent in design and business. When we relocated to Montgomery and started the factory in Carno in 1962  – and the company became Laura Ashley Ltd –  they were in very good company. The opportunities for employment there were few and the clever and creative local people who came to work for us put their heart and soul into it.

An early printed smock and the first Made in Wales brand label

I believe this ensured the company’s success. My parents built on this solid foundation and as the company grew those who worked in the shops and design studios were just as integral: in Wales, there was Meirion, Phil, Brian and Emlyn, in London, Lynda, Jaqui [Smale], Antonia,and  Moira.

Nick and Jane Ashley at Carno studio, 1975

An original print for Jane Ashley’s fashion shoot endorsed by her father  –  ‘You are the best!’  [this image copyright Jane Ashley for Laura Ashley]

We loved growing up and going to school in mid Wales in this warm, close community. It was an honour and privilege to be part of it, in this place and at this time. The Welsh culture of music and verse was very strong and inspiring. the landscape of mountains and mists. My parents’ plans and dreams for their company grew, business was discussed at every meal time and from an early age we were encouraged to put forward our opinions; I am sure we were very precocious! From about the age of 14 when my mum was making dresses I would sit in on the design meetings, by 18 I was the target audience for the clothes.

 

1970s cotton printed with a foliate pattern , made up into a maxi skirt, home made.x

In 1973 my parents sold their Welsh longhouse near Carno and bought Rhydoldog, a country house half an hour’s drive south. It had many more rooms and so the wallpapers and home furnishings began.

Furnishing fabric print from the early 1970s

The downside, as anyone knows who has built a business from scratch, is the stress my parents were under, mainly because the company hadn’t been financially secure up until then and they had always found it hard to get backing for their work. As children we were encouraged to contribute creatively and put forward our own ideas, sometimes we were caught in the crossfire and we learned to rise above it. There were some difficult, draining times, but as the company became successful the joy of the results of their hard work and creativity lifted us all up. This pot pouri of effort and shared purpose won us the Queens Award for Industry in 1977. How proud we were when it was presented in the factory canteen in Carno and we all ended the evening singing in the Aleppo Arms.

[this image copyright Jane Ashley for Laura Ashley]

1977, then, seemed to me to be a pivotal year for Laura Ashley Ltd. I had been working as the in-house fashion photographer/art director for 5 years, developing ideas with my mother for campaigns based on our shared love of early black and white photos of Welsh life. Between spring 1976 and the winter of ‘77 the business was powering forwards and for 8 months I found myself in the forefront of what was arguably the most interesting design movement then. I was at a London art school and knew many of the emerging punk musicians. I went back and forth from the factory to the Roxy Club and took experimental fashion photos in both. I was inspired by their music and style, I didn’t want to miss what was happening in London or at the factory, so I spent that year rushing between both places. I was thrilled to be in the middle of two of Britain’s style eras! Very conflicting styles, of course, but the energy in the Carno factory easily matched that in the Roxy Club.

Decades later, Jane Ashley’s iconic, Punk image –  featuring Viv Albertine, later of the Slits, modelling a three-tiered printed cotton halterneck dress, and Paul Simonon bassist with The Clash  –  made the front cover of The Independent’s Saturday supplement [this image copyright Jane Ashley for Laura Ashley].

Viv Albertine (with Paul Simonon) modelling a late 1960s smock dress, mid 1970s. The design evolved from a 1959 gardening smock popular with Home Counties ladies that was later adopted and adapted as a sack dress for younger, groovier women. [this image copyright Jane Ashley for Laura Ashley]

Later photo shoots were inspired by our discussions about artistic circles in history, like the Pre Raphaelite movement, and the Bloomsbury Group.

Pre Raphaelite fashion shoot [this image copyright Jane Ashley for Laura Ashley]

Budgets were always tight or non existent in the early years and so I would use friends and family as models.

Fashion shoot, Lucy and Tim at Rhydoldog, 1976,  [this image copyright Jane Ashley for Laura Ashley]

In 1983, me and mum and Nick were working together. ‘For a few years I’d been reading about the Bloomburys, their life and work. Nick went down to Charleston and talked to Angelica Garnett. We licensed The Bloomsbury Collection in 1984, ‘West Wind’ and ‘Daphne & Apollo’ two of Duncan Grant ‘s designs were in production in 1985 as well as other patterns.

On the chair, West Wind, designed by Duncan Grant and reproduced by Laura Ashley, photographed in the Sussex house he shared with Vanessa Bell, Charleston Farmhouse. To get the colours right the hems of some of the curtains and loose covers were unpicked to find the unfaded original tones, which proved so garish that the fabrics were printed in half-way, compromise shades.

The Dining Room curtains at Charleston made by Vanessa Bell, in Duncan Grant’s Yellow Grapes design, reproduced by Laura Ashley ( and still for sale in the Charleston shop.)

Queen Mary, designed by Duncan Grant and reproduced by Laura Ashley.

I was lucky to have grown up behind the scenes of a British brand. It was like being in the cockpit of Concorde as it took off. My parents never imagined they would have such success. One old friend from their younger days came to visit and said my mother seemed almost apologetic at the success of Laura Ashley!

Nick and Lucy, [this image copyright Jane Ashley for Laura Ashley]

They are on record as crediting their employees in this success. A great part of my parents’ skill sets was to hire people with potential and then to give them free reign to fulfill it.

So they were – literally –  in good company.

Text by Jane Ashley, 2021. From 1995-2020 Jane Ashley ran The Ashley Family Foundation, the charitable foundation set up by the family after her mother Laura’s death in 1985, a role now taken on by her sister Emma Shuckburgh, her cousin and her son.

Jane Ashley’s photograph, publicity poster for the Norwich shop.

 

NICK ASHLEY, ON LAURA ASHLEY

At the end of WW2 my mother went to Italy and noticed a lot of young ladies wearing large bright printed cotton scarves, on the head, or as a wrap at the beach. She thought this was a nice way to cheer up the drab demob outfits back home.

On her return she set about printing some scarves of her own, her friends liked them and my father got roped into screen printing these scarves on the kitchen table, then hanging them up to dry all over the flat. My father took a suitcase full to Harrods, sold them , and by the time he had walked back to his flat ( it was not close but he could not afford the bus fare) the phone was ringing for some more.

They expanded into home products, oven gloves, aprons, tea towels, all fresh cotton with simple screen printed motifs in limited colours. This was the early Fifties and most of the shops were full of nylon clothes and bright primary colours, so the Ashley’s cottons and natural colours came as a fresh , slightly nostalgic reminder of a gentler past. My parents had no money at all at the time, but what little they had went into buying fabric, dyestuff and screens. They did not even “ waste” money on accommodation, as children, we were housed in two ex army “ pup” tents at a camp site by a river, we loved it, blissfully unaware that we were technically a homeless family.

For the next twenty years my mother designed, my father printed, my uncle helped with the printing, my grandmother helped with the sewing.

‘Daisy’ prints designed in the 1950s, Bernard Ashley was the colourist.

Yns Las, 1973: ‘This was shot on a local Welsh beach by my older sister Jane, we cast her friends as the models, they were an artist, an actress a dancer and a photographer..with me making a cameo appearance in the flat cap second from left,’ [this image copyright Jane Ashley for Laura Ashley]

My older sister had a camera thrust into her hands and set off with myself and a bunch of pals to create the black and white revivalist style photos that explained “the look” which was tied into a certain lifestyle, a very simple life, mainly in the country, with healthy food and hand made clothes, that could also be worn in town… with rolls of furnishing fabric that could be turned into curtains and bed covers, in fact anything that required lots of printed fabric, as this was all produced in-house in our own factories in Wales.

The designer Cath Kidston (far right) was one of the many among friends and family who modeled for the company, [this image copyright Jane Ashley for Laura Ashley ]

My mother was highly influenced by her travels abroad as a teenager ( she had volunteered into the Special Overseas Envoy aged nineteen, and worked as an armed de-coder based from a safe house near Brussels). In her spare time she snooped on farmhouses and Chateaux, the simple but elegant fabrics and furniture, the crisp linen and the sparkling glass, everything that made for an immaculate home, but of course it was all quite expensive, so the opportunity was there to make the same products, but at a lower price. She thought it would be nice to sell elegant chintz fabrics, or simple “peasant” prints all at low prices, so that anyone could be an interior designer, no restrictions, this tied in with the D.I.Y boom in the Seventies, and then it really took off.

1972, a new range of furnishing fabric patterns, advertised in Homes and Gardens magazine, early supporters of their brand.

My father then realised that he was only one step away from designing,making, distributing and selling all under one roof, in other words, a vertically integrated company. This brought the prices right down, and the profits right up. No middlemen, this meant that the customer could manage to afford fabrics and clothes that were previously only available to wealthy people, now everyone could live like Royalty, and they did. On a global basis, we were opening shops and factories at a crazy rate: in one week we opened seven shops, then continued until we had five hundred worldwide. My older brother got press-ganged into expanding into the American market, this was a fabulously successful venture, my younger teenage sister contributed by designing a teenage collection for her and her pals, then her pals pals.

Detail of a 70s midi dress with a medievalising heraldic Griffin print

My mother’s design philosophy was very simple: more dash than cash. Everyone has style, she used to say, if exposed to nice things, it costs nothing to research, and most things can be home made… even for a castle.

Laura Ashley’s sketches for dresses and blouses, winter 1974.

Bath, the Museum of Costume: Laura Ashley used their archives and others  to source some of  her designs and copied garments dating from the late C18th and C19th, five of which were put into general production.

My mother was not interested in fashion or ephemeral things,she had a deep love of costume and dressing up, so when forced by the customers to make “fashion” she used costume designers and makers to put the collections together. The result was cotton ball gowns for five pounds each. Young girls were buying these by the armful for parties, events or just because the sun came out. The mothers then followed suit in the same styles made shorter for daywear. Everything on sale in our shops was printed and sewn in our thirteen factories in Wales, most of the sewing was done by women who until that point had not had much opportunity to earn an income, so it was very empowering for them to earn their own money and spend it on … anything they wanted.

Mid 80s, Welsh cottage kitchen styled by Ashley, before and after.

The massive expansion carried on until 1985 when my mother lost her life in an unfortunate accident, that was the end of it.

Nick Ashley, 2020.

Nick Ashley continued to work in fashion, with Dunhill, Tod’s and Private White V.C.

A deliberately rumpled room set created for the 1987 catalogue

 

 

POSTSCRIPT: BIBLE OF BRITISH TASTE WRITES –

In the 70’s my big sisters ‘got’ Laura Ashley. They’re wearing it in our family photos of the time, one in a tie-front tobacco-coloured velvet smock, another in floor-length ruffled-bridal-white cotton. By the 80s, Sloane Rangers were customers.  Princess Diana  – then a nursery school nanny – was in diaphanous Ashley-sprigs for her famous press call and there were  the beginnings of taffeta meringue ball gowns for dressing up. By the time I grew up the fashion brand’s moment was passing and I never wore it. But these clothes left their lasting impression.

My friend Isabel Bannerman, garden designer, writer,  beautiful model for all 12 months of the Laura Ashley calendar in 1982.I found it when I was staying with her and Julian at Trematon and became determined to feature Laura Ashley on the bibleobritishtaste;

Isabel Bannerman, being December.

Isabel Bannerman, black silk moire ballgown from the Venetian Collection, 1982.

Laura Ashley – the brand expands in the early 80s  but reassures its original , core customers

The showcase early 80s interiors designed for the Ashley’s town house , 23, Campden Street, Kensington, using C19th document chintz patterns.

The 90s rejected retro patterns and colour for modern Minimalism – when Tony Blair replaced John Major as Prime Minister the Daily Express headline was: “Downing Street chucks out its chintz”.

My photograph @bibelofbritishtaste , Laura Ashley’s descendants snapped  at my friends the Bannermans ‘ farewell garden party at Hanham Court, the initial inspiration for this article on the bibleofbritishtaste.

But Laura Ashley was and still is a BELOVED BRITISH BRAND ! Five or six years ago and slightly ahead of the curve  I wrote about Ashley for a series in Country Life magazine called Great British Taste-Makers. Now ‘Cottage-core’ and the trade in vintage Ashley is flying  and high fashion has been producing Ashley rip-offs for the past 18 months. My friend Zita trawls ebay for Ashley’s Colefax-chintzy curtains, which, she says, are still absurdly cheap.

GKMW in Solveig Stone’s vintage Laura Ashley cape c.1974, a very kind present

Chloe, Gucci, and Shrimps have all made Ashley look-alike  ‘Prairie dresses” named for the children’s books about an American pioneering family  by  Laura Ingalls Wilder. The groovier young style their mother’s vintage Ashley as workwear;  their mother’s friends  suddenly get nostalgic for old frocks pushed to the back of wardrobes or bundled into the attic. My daughter has  her aunties’ old Ashley and a fabulous mushroom-corduroy cape that she was given two summers ago by Solveig Stone (of Compton Marbling), who put her bridesmaids in Ashley for her wedding then. The shoppers of the 70s and 80s craved Victoriana and we’re back there now  – but with our consciousnesses raised – I hope.

Last year the 67-year-old brand was bought by an asset aquisition and investment company,  Gordon Brothers, along with its archives and related intellectual property  –  the invaluable back catalogue of vintage Ashley and all the document textiles that Laura Ashley so diligently collected and used as her design sources, including hundreds of antique quilts, amazing pieces of folk art from the 19th and 20th centuries whose individual scraps she mined for pattern repeats.

Victorian patchwork quilts from the Laura Ashley archive.

The British multinational Next has been awarded the deal to relaunch the Ashley brand and a flagship store in the Westfield Centre is planned. Which sounds so ‘2020’ and counter-intuitive now? If Laura Ashley were instead resussitated as a company practicing its founder’s thrifty values, recycling  and reworking its classic designs and patterns sustainably in British workshops, I think that would be a really good news story. But I don’t think it will happen.

 

With very grateful thanks to Jane Ashley, Nick Ashley, Cath Kidston, Isabel Bannermen and,  Martin Wood author of the excellent survey and source book, Laura Ashley, ( Frances Lincoln 2009).

10 responses to “Why we loved Laura Ashley, all over again.”

  1. MB says:

    I’m eternally grateful that you’ve written this article. One of my worst childhood memories was walking into a room full of Laura Ashley dresses. My mother and I were invited to a lunch at her bosses house. We didn’t have a lot materially. I was wearing a dress that my mother had made me because that is what we could afford. The mothers and daughters were all dressed in matching Laura Ashley dresses and were cruel. Nellie Olsens for sure. My mother was so uncomfortable, we left early, tried to laugh it off. That moment had a lasting impression on me. It opened my eyes to class and cruelty for the first time. All these years later, it was a delightful and healing to read about handmade dresses and the Welsh countryside. Empowering women of all talents and backgrounds. How amazing would it be to bring it full circle and back to the makers here in the U.K. Many thanks, MB

  2. Zoe Crouch says:

    An interesting article. I loved my Laura Ashley bed set, purchased in the early 1980’s at The Bay hear in Ottawa, Canada. It was cream an mauve floral, I wish it was still available.

  3. Dana says:

    I wore Laura Ashley for my “going away” dress when we were married 43 years ago. I still have and use a tissue box cover. I wish I still had a blue print lampshade. I did a dining room and upstairs hall in Laura Ashley wallpaper. That hallway still remains a perfect moment in my mind. I worked hard to be able to afford these things but you’re right when you say they were affordable. Lampshades like that now- well, they don’t exist but if they did either the quality would be poor or they wouldn’t be affordable. Laura Ashley did original , or adaptive, designs that were timeless and affordable with effort and I’m so glad they’re back- for my generation and others.

  4. Leah Archer says:

    I first came across Laura Ashley as a v young child whilst on holiday in Wales . We made a special trip to the shop in Machyllineth and my sisters and I were bought little pinafore dresses it must have been about 1966 . I think we had fish and chips too . Then later in the early 1970s we had midi and Maxi dresses made with fabric bought from the shop in Sloane Street where they also sold bags of squares of cloth for patchwork but we used to make dolls dresses . Then 1976/7 I discovered punk and went to Art School in the late 70s and 80s by which time it was for the Sloaney girls . I recently saw a fabulous young woman wearing one of the milkmaid dresses with a blue Griffin print outside a vintage shop in Hackney . I knew all those 70s prints so well . It was a last hurrah for home made dresses. Everyone wore it and we were not posh !

  5. Rosie Harris says:

    My favourite dress from my teenage years was a halter neck maxi dress that i bought in 1974 with the “earnings “ from 10 A’s in my O-levels. I loved that dress and wish I still owned it , and could fit into it… Laura Ashley was part of my life – bed linen from 1985 is still going strong in our holiday house in Cornwall. Thanks to the Ashley’s for all that design excellence.

  6. James Harold White III says:

    My sisters worked at Laura Ashley and Laura Ashley Mother and Child at Saddle Creek in Memphis, TN between ‘88 and ‘91. I would stay up well past midnight as an eleven and twelve year old scouring the home furnishings catalogues dreaming of being able to afford fabrics to mix and match. Flash forward to 2020 and I became very nostalgic. I have papered my bedroom, study, hallway, and bathroom in vintage Laura Ashley. Have collected all of the 80’s home furnishings catalogs and some of the 90’s ones. I am patchworking with Laura Ashley fabric currently and have bought a fair amount of vintage fabric which is or has been sewn into various projects. And the bedding! I get to play decorator with all of the bed linens I have acquired! Truly a dream come true.

  7. Louisa Wilson says:

    What a fantastic article and so interesting to learn about the history of the brand. I was one of three girls and we all wore Aurel Lashley (as the baby sis called it) frocks to parties in the 70s. I still remember the prettiness and simplicity of those clothes.

  8. Patricia Taylor says:

    Just finished the article and I am now going into the store under the eaves to find the Laura Ashley black cotton maxi dress that I so loved and still do. No sprigs of flowers just plain black. I wore it with a silver buckled black velvet belt and I had so many favourable comments when I wore it. Couldn’t get into now but I have an 18 yrs old grand-daughter who loves it so it looks like it will live on !!

  9. Francine Read says:

    I was bought up on Laura Ashley! The walls of our house were papered in its little sprigs and we were dressed in it….matching walls and dresses such a strange concept now….,my first ball gown was from Laura Ashley and my first Saturday job was in their Victor Hugo shop in Paris….absolutely HATE what they make now……hideous high streety rubbish……let’s start again.

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