Ashley, Laura

views updated May 17 2018


Welsh designer

Born: Laura Mountney in Dowlais, Glamorgan, Wales, 7 September 1925. Education: Attended Marshall's School, Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, until 1932; mainly self-taught in design. Military Service: Served in the Women's Royal Naval Service. Family: Married Bernard Ashley, 1949; children: Jane, David, Nick, and Emma. Career: Worked as secretary, National Federation of Women's Institutes, London, 1945-52; founder/partner, with Bernard Ashley, Ashley-Mountney Ltd. printed textiles, 1954-68, in Kent, 1956-61, and in Carno, Wales, from 1961; opened first retail outlet, London, 1967; Laura Ashley Ltd. established, 1968; Geneva and Amsterdam stores opened, 1972; Paris, 1973; first U.S. shop, San Francisco, 1974; New York store opened, 1977; son Nick Ashley took over as design director, 1984; Laura Ashley Foundation created, 1984; company went public, 1985; shops topped 550 shops in 63 countries, 1993; Bernard Ashley resigned from board, 1998; stake (40-percent) of company sold to Malaysian United Industries, 1998; North American stores sold, 1999; flagship Regent Street store redone and reopened, 2000; plans for 100 home furnishings initiated, 2001. Awards: Queen's award for Export Achievement, 1977; Bernard Ashley knighted, 1987. Died: 17 September 1985, in Coventry, England. Company Address: 27 Bagley's Lane, Fulham, London SW6 2QA, England. Company Website:




Laura Ashley Home Furnishings 1981, Carno, Wales, 1981.

Laura Ashley Home Furnishings 1982, Carno, Wales, 1982.

Laura Ashley Home Furnishings 1983, Carno, Wales, 1983.

Laura Ashley Home Furnishings 1984, Carno, Wales, 1984.

Laura Ashley Home Decoration 1985, Carno, Wales, 1985.

Laura Ashley Book of Home Decorating (with Elizabeth Dickson), Carno, Wales, London & New York, 1985, 1988, 1990, 1997.

Laura Ashley Home Furnishings 1986, Carno, Wales, 1986.

Laura Ashley Home Furnishings 1987, Carno, Wales, 1987.

Laura Ashley Complete Guide to Home Decorating, Carno, Wales,1987.

Laura Ashley at Home: Six Family Homes and Their Transformation (with Nick Ashley), London, 1988.

Laura Ashley Guide to Country Decorating (with Lorrie Mack and Lucinda Edgerton), London, 1992.

Leitch, Michael, The Laura Ashley Book of Anniversary Delights, 1993.

Laura Ashley Decorating with Fabric: A Room-by-Room Guide to Home Decorating (with Lorrie Mack and Diana Dodge), New York, 1995.

Berry, Susan, Laura Ashley Decorating with Paper & Paint: A Room-by-Room Guide to Home Decorating, New York, 1995.

, Laura Ashley: The Color Book, Using Color to Decorate Your Home, New York & London, 1995.

Laura Ashley Decorating with Patterns & Textures: Using Color, Pattern, and Texture in the Home, London, 1996.



Carter, Ernestine, Magic Names of Fashion, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1980.

Dickson, Elizabeth, and Margaret Colvin, The Laura Ashley Book of Home Decorating, London, 1982; New York, 1984.

Gale, Iain, and Susan Irvine, Laura Ashley Style, New York &London, 1987.

Sebba, Anne, Laura Ashley: A Life by Design, London, 1990, 1991.

Evans, John, and Gabrielle Stoddard, Laura Ashley: Fashion Designer, Caerdydd, Wales, 1996.

Stegemeyer, Anne, Who's Who in Fashion, Third Edition, New York, 1996.


"Queen Victoriana," in Sophisticat (London), November 1974.

"The Laura Ashley Look," in Brides (London), Spring 1975.

Dumoulin, Marie-Claude, "Chez Laura Ashley," in Elle (Paris), 11October 1976.

Gould, Rachael, "From Patchwork to a Small Print to World Wide: How the Laura Ashley Family Business Grew Up," in Vogue (London), 15 April 1980.

Cleave, Maureen, "Makers of Modern Fashion: Laura Ashley," in the Observer supplement, (London), 12 October 1980.

Sheffield, Robert, "The Twist in the Tail," in Creative Review (London), January 1984.

"Young Nick," in She (London), April 1984.

"Cut From the Same Cloth as Mom and Dad, Laura Ashley's Kids Get All Wrapped Up in the Family Business," in People Weekly, 24 September 1984.

Slesin, Suzanne, "Laura Ashley, British Designer, is Dead at 60," in the New York Times, 18 September 1985.

Dickson, Elizabeth, "Laura Ashley: Her Life and Gifts, by Those Who Knew Her," in the Observer, 22 September 1985.

Sulitzer, Paul-Loup, "Laura Ashley: Une impression d'éternité," in Elle (Paris), 4 August 1986.

"The Ashley Empire," in the Sunday Express Magazine (London), 25September 1988.

Ducas, June, "Inside Story," in Woman's Journal (London), October 1988.

"Laura Ashley, A Licensing Legend," in HFDThe Weekly Home Furnishings Newspaper, 26 December 1988.

Finnerty, Anne, "Profile of Laura Ashley," in Textile Outlook International (London), January 1990.

Fernaud, Dierdre, and Margaret Park, "After Laura," in the Sunday Times (London), 4 February 1990.

Grieve, Amanda, "Clotheslines," in Harpers & Queen (London), April 1993.

Bain, Sally, "Life Begins at 40 for Laura Ashley," in Marketing, 13May 1993.

Levine, Joshua, "Wilted Flowers: Laura Ashley Holdings Plc.," in Forbes, 10 April 1995.

Flynn, Julia, "Giving Laura Ashley a Yank: Anne Iverson Has Restored Profits and Refocused on the Home," in Business Week, 27 May 1996.

Lee, Julian, "The Floral Dance," in Marketing, 28 August 1997.

White, Constance C.R., "A Makeover for Laura Ashley," in the New York Times, 19 May 1998.

Hosenball, Mark, "Rendering Unto Laura," in Newsweek, 8 February 1999.

Smith, Alison, "Laura Ashley Shows Flower Power," in the Financial Times, 27 May 2001.


Welsh designer Laura Ashley developed and distilled the British romantic style of neo-Victorianism, reflecting past eras in clothing, textiles, accessories, and furnishings and did so demonstrating classic country styling. Her approach to design was inspired by her environment, the surrounding Welsh countryside, and her yearning to return to all things natural. Integrating ideas adopted from the designs and qualities of past eras, she combined elements to create a look of nostalgic simplicity and naive innocence. Floral sprigged cotton fabrics, often directly adapted and developed from 18th-and 19th-century patterns, paisleys, and tiny prints worked with romantic detailing to create a style that was original and easily recognized.

Ashley's style possessed old world charm with individual rustic freshness, reflected in traditional beliefs of bygone days. Victorian nightshirts, Edwardian-style dresses, the introduction of the long smock in 1968, delicately trimmed with lace, pin-tucked bodices, tiered skirts, and full puffed sleeves became her trademark, aimed at the middle market and retailed at affordable prices. Laura Ashley Ltd. rose from the modest beginnings of a small cottage industry, producing a simple range of printed headscarves and table mats in the Ashley kitchen, to the development of a company that became a huge enterprise of international renown. It was a fairy story in itself.

Ashley's self-taught skill produced ranges of womenswear, childrenswear, bridalwear, accessories, and furnishings. She established home interiors consisting of coordinated ranges of bed linens, wall tiles, curtains, cushions, and upholstery. Her brilliant concept of fabrics, her discerning research of past eras for new inspiration, and her study and reinterpretation of antique textiles led to the considerable success and endurance of the Laura Ashley label.

Traditional floral prints combined together, printed in two colors and various color combinations, distinguished her work. Through the technical expertise and experimentation of Bernard Ashley, Laura's husband and business partner, came new developments and improved machinery, which in turn extended versatility. New and subtle color combinations were produced, often to Laura's own design. Natural fibres, crisp cottons, and lawn fabrics expanded to include ranges in twill, silk, wool, crêpe, velvet, corduroy, and eventually jersey fabrics.

Along with the 1960s youth revolution came a move towards romanticism, conservation, and world peace, an alternative to modern living, pop culture, mass-produced clothing, and vivid Parisian fashions. Due to her convincing beliefs in past values, quality, and the revival of romantic simplicity, Ashley's success was overwhelming. Bernard's business acuity and Laura's determination led to the development of excellent marketing techniques. Retail settings, complementary to the old world style of neo-Victorianism, promoted a look of individuality and quality.

Throughout the 1980s the Laura Ashley style retained its unique and easily recognizable image, even after the real Laura Ashley's tragic death, after a fall, in September 1985. The Ashleys' son, Nick, took over as design director in the year before his mother's death, and the Laura Ashley style evolved, extending to all ranges to incorporate contemporary fashion ideas, including the introduction of jersey for practical and easy-to-wear clothing. In addition to Nick, the other Ashley children, Jane, David, and Emma, all had roles within the family business.

In the 1990s the company lost its way; its lovely clothing was perceived as outdated and frumpy and the Laura Ashley image suffered considerably. Amid a series of executive changes, restructuring, and loss of market share in the years following founder Laura Ashley's death, the company finally regained its footing by retooling its image, updating its clothing, and expanding its home furnishings collection. A series of coffee-table books, which had been published annually in the late 1980s, grew to include how-to guides on home decorating in a myriad of styles from the Laura Ashley Guide to Country Decorating in 1992 to the Laura Ashley Decorating with Patterns & Textures: Using Color, Pattern, and Texture in the Home, in 1997.

Selling a 40-percent stake in the company to Malaysia United Industries in 1998, for $74 million, gave Laura Ashley a desperately needed infusion of cash. Next came the difficult decision to close many of its manufacturing facilities in Wales, then the sale of its underperforming North American stores to an investor group funded by Mayalsia United. By the start of the 21st century, Laura Ashley's Regent Street flagship store had reopened after a ceiling to floor refurbishment, and the company announced plans for its own website as well as opening 100 home furnishings stores by 2005. Rejuvenated and in the black after years of losses, Laura Ashley has regained its status, rediscovered its identity, and repositioned its signature style.

Carol MaryBrown;

updated by NellyRhodes

Laura Ashley

views updated May 09 2018

Laura Ashley

The British designer Laura Ashley (1925-1985) achieved renown for her genteel, Victorian inspired fashions in women's clothes and for her English Country manor style of furnishings for homes. Through her designs, books, and stores, she may be said to have served as an arbiter of fashion and life style.

Laura (Mountney) Ashley was born September 7, 1925, in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, and died September 17, 1985, in Coventry, England. She was buried in Wales, where she was educated and grew up and where she established her world famous business of designing, manufacturing, and merchandising women's clothes and household items.

Her name had in her lifetime become synonymous with small, repetitive overall patterns; the use of natural fabrics; and a graceful simplicity in women's styles. Her dresses and blouses were noted for their Victorian-like high necks and full sleeves, the severity relieved by lace and ruffles. Particularly characteristic was her soft, floppy, wool felt hat with a broad flexible brim that could be worn down over the eyes and ears or pushed back so as to reveal the forehead. It became common to speak of a "Laura Ashley look," a term applied to her garments, fabrics, and interior designs and even to the appearance of the young, expressionless, fresh-faced women who modeled her clothes.

She married Bernard Ashley in 1949. On a kitchen table in their flat in the Pimlico section of London they designed placemats, scarves, tablecloths, aprons, and dresses by the silkscreen method. They soon moved to a country home in Surrey and in the late 1950s to Carno, Wales, now the headquarters of the firm's international operations. She concentrated on creating the designs and her husband on printing and merchandising them.

Her life in the Welsh and English countryside, amidst farms and villages, clearly influenced the combination of Puritan function and Victorian nostalgia of her designs. "Living quite remotely as I have done," she once said, "I have not been caught up with city influences and we just developed in our own way." She declared about her success: "It's not really a question of inspiration. What you make as a designer is an expression of yourself. I love music and painting and I prefer life in the country." Another time she said: "The idea of four babies, cooking, sewing, and looking after the home suited me perfectly." Of fashion she remarked: "I don't like ephemeral things; I like things that last forever…"

A major influence on her dress designing was her uniform as a Wren in World War II. She said about it: "The uniform was a very good quality navy gabardine and you could press it and wear it with a clean white cotton shirt and collar and tie. There was a nice, cheeky little hat and comfortable black leather shoes."

At another time, she said: "I reckon that women looked their best at the turn of the century." She studied 18th and 19th century prints in museum collections for her miniature floral patterns. "No one wants to live with a design that jumps out at them," she explained. Her colors, too, were subdued.

Her success was quick and extraordinary. Her fabrics were first sold in two of the smaller but highly fashionable London department stores, Heal's and Liberty's, both of which had a tradition of featuring thoughtfully designed and esthetically pleasing objects. Liberty's, for example, continued to offer fabric and wall paper in patterns originally created by William Morris, the 19th century English poet and book and furniture designer.

Toward the end of the 1960s Ashley opened her first retail store in London. It was marked by natural wood floors, cabinets, and counters; trim painted in a deep blue-green; old-fashioned lounge chairs; and a general air of elegant informality. The first American shop opened in 1974 in San Francisco. By the time of her death there were over 200 Laura Ashley stores throughout the world, each looking much like the original one. The firm had 4,000 employees. In 1984 the stores alone grossed $130,000,000.

The Laura Ashley look, evoking a sense of permanence with its links to the past and its dependence on the natural, proved so popular perhaps because it contrasted dramatically during its emergence with the more transient and extravagant styles of French and Italian designers who appealed to mass clienteles with bolder expectations. "I like the idea of a uniform," she once said. "I think people should hang on to the things they like. They don't need closets full of clothes." One of her admirers, paradoxically, was the late trend-setting Princess Diana, the former wife of the Prince of Wales, heir to the British throne.

Laura Ashley preceded a generation of American designers working in a similar, restrained, classic style: Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Ann Klein, and Perry Ellis. Although the volume of her retail business may have been less than that of other well-known clothes stylists, no other had quite her special influence or lent his or her name so definitively to an immediately recognizable look.

The Laura Ashley firm published three major books during her lifetime: Fabric of Society: A Century of People and Their Clothes 1770-1870 by Jane Tozer and Sarah Levitt and A House in the Cotswolds and The Laura Ashley Book of Home Decorating by Elizabeth Dickson and Margaret Calvin, with a foreword by Laura Ashley. Through photographs of entire rooms, these volumes provided vivid glimpses of the environment of such novelists as Austen, Trollope, and Eliot. Perhaps even more, they serve as guides to many young persons today on how to furnish and decorate their homes.

Although early Laura Ashley products appealed mainly to women, the later ones, including upholstered chairs and sofas, furniture and drapery fabrics, wallpapers, and ceramic tiles, proved attractive to men as well. One particularly successful innovation of the Laura Ashley decorating style was to relate objects in a single setting to each other. Thus a Laura Ashley bedroom might have similarly patterned fabrics on bedspread, sheets, pillows, draperies, chaise lounge, and even the tiles in an adjoining bathroom. This organic integration of patterns made the typically small English chamber, however crowded, seem larger and quieter. The Laura Ashley look in home design, with its concentration on miniature and mid-sized floral patterns and its understated use of ornamental touches, provided a comfortable relief to the unrelieved starkness of modernism.

Further Reading

Up to the time of her death, no book had appeared which was devoted to her life and work. The titles mentioned in the text provide a good survey of the range of her interests and achievements in design. Many articles and interviews, indexed in the usual reference sources, may be found in leading American and British periodicals and newspapers, especially in the years immediately preceding her death. General books about fashion, providing a context for placing Laura Ashley, are Fashion in the Sixties by Barbara Bernard (1978); The Fashion Makers by Barbra Walz (1978); Fashion from Ancient Egypt to the Present Day, edited by James Laver (1965); and Fashion and Reality, by Alison Gernsheim (1963). □

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