Ashley, Laura (1925–1985)
Ashley, Laura (1925–1985)
Welsh textile designer who built with her husband an international fashion and home-decoration business. Born Laura Mountney in Wales, on September 7, 1925; died in Wales, on September 17, 1985; eldest of four children of Stan (a civil service clerk) and Bessie (Davies) Mountney; married Bernard Albert Ashley, in February 1949; children: Laura Jane (b. 1953); David (b. 1954); Nick (b. 1956); Emma Mary Ashley (b. 1965).
The 1970s ushered in the Laura Ashley decade in England. When Ashley's newest London shop opened on Fulham Street, in May 1970, women from 14 to 40 queued up for blocks to sample the high, prim necklines, muted Victorian prints, and long concealing skirts. Romance and nostalgia had renewed the desire to dress up, silencing the psychedelic excesses of the '60s. For Ashley, who strove to create "a kind of scrubbed simple beauty," it was a happy coincidence that just as the company approached a major expansion, the marketplace was in a retrospective mood.
The wholesome (some said puritanical) Laura Ashley image was part and parcel of the woman herself, the reflection of a philosophy of life forged in childhood. Ashley formed an early bond with her Aunt Elsie, who introduced her to books, gardening, and proper English tea. Most of all, Elsie provided a sanctuary from Laura's three younger siblings and the harried atmosphere of her South London house. Holiday visits to her maternal grandmother established Ashley's deep religious roots and abiding love of Wales. "It was here, away from the brash newness of Thirties London suburbia," wrote her biographer Anne Sebba , "that she was able to transport herself to the world of late Victorian security. It was a world where neither moral value nor furniture had changed much in the previous fifty years."
After secretarial school, Ashley joined the newly formed Girls' Training Corps, and, at 17, took her first job as a shorthand-typist at the Ministry of Health. In 1944, she joined the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRENS), and spent two years in Paris and Brussels. At an Air Cadets' dance, she met her future husband and business partner Bernard Ashley and fell in love on the spot. "Laura never talked a lot," said Bernard, "often she said nothing. But from the moment I first spoke to her she took me over and away from the hold my mother had on me." Separated by wartime service, the couple wed in February 1949.
Like many women of her time, Ashley entered marriage with a firm concept of what a wife should be. Reinforced by Bernard's romantic notions, that model stuck for 40 years, even when it became impractical, if not impossible, to maintain. Her world revolved around her husband. Outside work was accomplished after he left in the morning and before he came home in the evening. Writes Sebba: "This was not only so that the domestic chores could be achieved, apparently without effort, and the evening meal prepared by the time Bernard returned, but so that he need never be aware that his wife was involved in work at all; something which always antagonized him." Settling into their 99-step walk-up on St. George's Square, Ashley took a secretarial position close to home in the handicrafts department at the headquarters of the National Federation of Women's Institutes and looked forward to her first pregnancy. She would later tell her daughter, "Falling in love is for having children."
The couples' business venture began with Ashley's quest to find fabrics with small prints, stripes, or flowers in one color, suitable for a patchwork quilt. Finding none, she set out to print her own, pouring over library books to learn how to construct a silk screen. Then, Bernard became intrigued with the project. He spent evenings pouring over books on printing methods, and within a month had constructed a textile printing-screen stencil. Less than six months after the birth of the couple's first child, the fledgling Ashley Mountney Company was born, providing single-design table mats and scarves to various London buyers. Bernard moved on to printing linen tea towels with Victorian themes, followed by aprons and oven gloves. The B.D.—basic dress—which brought them into the fashion industry was an outgrowth of Laura's design for a gardening smock, composed of an identical back and front sewn together with three large patch pockets in the front. The most simple design often met with the greatest success.
The business grew along with the family: two more children followed and a fourth arrived in 1965. The early years were a struggle emotionally and financially, with several relocations. Profits were turned back into the business to secure larger quarters, additional workers, and better equipment. Once the children were born, Ashley felt her first duty was to them. Often she put them to bed for the night at 4:30 in the afternoon, so she could tend to business without feeling guilty of neglect. By the mid-'60s, the couple had established a profitable factory and shop, Gwalia House, in the farming community of Machynlleth, Wales, where Laura began experimenting with new prints and clothing design. The end of the decade brought another move to larger quarters in an old railway station in Carno, Wales. This facility housed the company
for many years, providing work for local citizens and ultimately turning mid-Wales into a highly desirable area for industrial development.
From the beginning, Laura handled the design aspects of the business while Bernard made deals and took care of operations; she was careful not to encroach on what she considered his territory. Their temperaments were at opposite extremes: he was given to outbursts, she to stony silences. As employers, they were at once benevolent and authoritarian. Preferring to be called L.A. (Bernard was B.A.), Laura could be unyielding if a staff member "fell short of her high standards or overstepped the boundaries of power." However, both she and her husband took pains to know each employee personally, often providing help if there was a problem or crisis. Once, when a shop manager had nowhere to live, they purchased a house for her and paid for extensive repairs and furnishings.
In 1968, Ashley Shops Ltd. was formed as a subsidiary company expressly for retailing, and the first "Laura Ashley" shop opened in London's Kensington district. By 1975, the company had a turnover of £5 million, owned 40 shops and three factories, and employed 1,000 people worldwide. Toward the end of the 1980s, after a fitful beginning in San Francisco, California, there were 13 Laura Ashley stores in the United States, as well as a number of licensing agreements with major U.S. companies to produce "Laura Ashley" designs on sheets, wallpaper, and other home furnishings.
In America, Laura Ashley was heralded as a brilliant entrepreneur; the female head of a multimillion-dollar international company and, most probably, an ardent feminist. But in the flesh, interviewers heard a conflicting viewpoint. "I see women's role in life in the light of sweetness. Men should be the hunters. Women are keepers of the hunters: it's a straightforward, set philosophy of mine." With the possibility of alienating American feminists, Ashley altered her view somewhat, allowing the keepers a little latitude. She remarked: "A woman sees the home as her base and she dresses to complement that environment almost as part of the decoration. Of course that doesn't mean that she doesn't leave her home to work, it just means that the home is where she visualizes herself." Thriving on interviews, Ashley lost all remnants of shyness; she relished opportunities to contradict her preconceived business persona, which, in turn, delighted the press. Buoyed by the efforts of an aristocratic new director of publicity for the U.S. company, and photographs of Lady Diana Spencer (future princess of Wales), wearing a "Laura Ashley" flounced skirt, the company quickly won over the American market, which flourished under the directorship of Ashley's eldest son David.
The business ultimately brought fame, wealth, and a dramatic upgrade in lifestyle, which included several houses on the Continent, glamorous vacations, a private plane—piloted by Bernard—and a boat. (Ashley overcame an intense fear of the water to share her husband's love of boating.) Despite these luxuries, she missed contact with her children and disliked the rootless feeling of life on the move. When not busy with company work, Ashley tended her gardens, decorated her houses, and entertained. As she grew older, she involved herself more with the home-furnishings market (expanded to include every room in the house), for which she engaged in meticulous historical research. In 1982, the first Laura Ashley Book of Home Decorating was published and quickly sold out its first printing.
Just weeks after handing over the role of company design director to her son Nick, Ashley was celebrating her 60th birthday and the birth of a new granddaughter when she suffered a headlong fall down a flight of stairs and sustained severe injuries. Never again to regain consciousness, she survived on life-support for ten days until her death on September 17, 1985. She was buried in the Welsh countryside she so loved.
The business, worth approximately £200 million at the time of her death, continues to flourish. Biographer Sebba, looking beyond the enterprise, finds Ashley deserving a permanent place in British social history on two counts: "In the Seventies, countering a strong tide, she made it possible for women to look and feel like women without hindering any of their manifold desires for career and job satisfaction. In their homes, and home was the centre of Laura Ashley's world, she rescued a corner of the past that had belonged to ordinary people and restored it to the descendants of those same people with enhanced value."
Sebba, Anne. Laura Ashley: A Life by Design. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1990.
Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts