It Started with a Scarf… Laura Ashley, one of the world’s best loved brands, comes from humble beginnings.
It was the autumn of 1953. Twenty-eight year-old Laura Ashley had just been to the handiworks exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum and she was feeling inspired. She’d seen a display of intricate patchworks and made up her mind to have a go at her own. Investing £10 in wood for a screen, dyes and some linen, Laura along with her husband Bernard, began printing at the kitchen table of their tiny flat. Their first attempts included small squares in geometric patterns followed by headscarves — a trend among young girls sparked by Audrey Hepburn in the film Roman Holiday.
Orders grew quickly for the enterprising couple, selling great quantities to shops including John Lewis and Heal’s. Alongside the scarves, the couple designed tea towels and placements often with quirky and humorous images from Victorian playbills and advertisements.
By the time two of the Ashley’s four children were born, their makeshift production line had all but overtaken their flat. Forced to look for bigger premises, the Ashley’s moved to rural Kent in 1955, where the operation was nearly wiped out when the river Derwent flooded. Times were hard and every spare shilling was plowed back into the business.
1960 saw a significant event for the company, when the family moved to Wales, Laura’s birthplace. They first opened a shop in Macchynlleth, where they lived above and Laura began their first forays into fashion. Laura’s love of all things Victorian led to the long silhouette and feminine styles, which would become the company’s trademark, and was right on trend at the end of the 1960s as fashion switched from the mini to the maxi.
The single shop soon turned into two and the beginnings of a network. In the 1970s, licensing operations brought about the opening of department store concessions in Australia, Canada and Japan, while UK shops continued to flourish and further shops opened in Paris and San Francisco. By 1975 the company had grown faster than anyone could have predicted with over 40 shops and employing 1,000 worldwide. A Queen’s Award for Export was given to the company in 1977, and the company celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1979 with the launch of a new range of perfumes.
Laura shifted her attention from fashion back to fabrics, and the company launched its first full home furnishings line. By the end of the 1970’s the company had expanded to over 70 Laura Ashley shops worldwide. In 1979, Laura and Bernard moved from Wales to northern France, where Laura would find new inspiration. The style of new aspirations took on a grander, more country house look.
Tragedy struck however in 1985, when Laura died as a result of a fall down some stairs while visiting her children. The business felt her loss profoundly, but her strong values and design ethos remain with the company. The enthusiasm and affection felt for the company was demonstrated two months after Laura’s death, when a planned public flotation of Laura Ashley Holdings PLC was 34 times oversubscribed.
Sir Bernard, knighted in 1987, officially opened Texplan, the company’s textile and wallpaper printing plant. The late 1980s saw also the launch of the “Mother and Child” and “Laura Ashley Home,” collections. After a period of reorganization, Laura Ashley celebrated its 40th anniversary with Sir Bernard retiring as chairman in 1993 and became honorary life president.
In 1999, a management and investor team completed the buy-out of the 94 Laura Ashley stores in the United States and Canada from Laura Ashley Holdings, the publicly traded British parent company. As Laura Ashley Inc., the company expanded into licensing, which allowed for multiple channels of distribution. Today the brand can be found in over 23,000 retail doors throughout North America. 2011 sees the reemergence of company owned retail with the launch of the US ecommerce site. Bringing back to the US the historic and coveted British fabrics, wallpapers, cushions and accessories. Plans are to continue expanding the British product mix alongside the US merchandise to allow customers the full range of global products.