D. September 17, 1985
Birthplace: Merthyr Tydfil, Wales
Award: Queen's Award for Export Achievement, 1977
Laura Ashley elevated the romantic style and warmth of a cozy English cottage to one of the most popular fashion themes of the twentieth century. From sweet dresses trimmed in lace, to charming wallpaper and upholstery fabrics, Laura Ashley combined her love of the English countryside, her knowledge of antique textiles, and her belief in the traditions of past eras to create affordable, wearable items which appealed to many who came of age in the 1960s. It was a moment when young people were embracing the notions of simplicity, love, and peace and harmony—what could have matched more perfectly with the sixties concepts of flower power and brotherly love than the little floral patterns and innocent silhouettes created by Ashley and her husband, Bernard?
Ashley began creating textiles in the kitchen of her London home during the early 1950s, which she used in the production of scarves, placemats, and tea towels. She and her husband/partner opened their own factory in Wales in the early sixties and their first retail store in London in 1967. Soon the couple had opened stores throughout England and Scotland and then expanded to France, Germany, and Austria. In 1974 the first U.S. shop opened in San Francisco. By 1985 the company, Laura Ashley, Ltd., boasted 500 stores around the world.
Although she never actually studied textile design, Ashley's extensive research coupled with her elevated sense of color resulted in assorted traditional prints with universal appeal. Coordinating fabrics were used in the creation of clothing lines that included women's wear, children's wear, and accessories, as well as wallpaper, furnishings, linens, and bath products. Each retail store was designed as a total environment in which all of these items were cleverly showcased. From natural fabrics like cotton and linen to velvet, corduroy, and wool, each item represented Ashley's desire to maintain the traditions of quality and custom.
Ashley's business continued to thrive during the 1980s, with Laura Ashley Holdings PLC handling all design and distribution. Remaining true to the distinct, identifiable English country style, the company enjoyed extremely profitable licensing agreements with Burlington Industries and J.P. Stevens for bed and bath ensembles which included all the elements of a total look, from pillows, sheets, and window treatments to terry towels and shower curtains.
The company went public in 1985, the same year as Ashley's untimely death from an accidental fall in her home. During the early 1990s, the business began experiencing difficulties. Stores in the United States and elsewhere failed to generate adequate sales, and at the end of the century, vast quantities of unsold goods and huge debt plagued the ailing business. In 1999 the business, which had little choice but to dispose of all of its U.S. operations in order to settle its finances, sold its entire North American business for $1.
As of this writing, the company is trying to regroup, planning to present
Spring and Summer 2000 lines. The current owners plan to continue the home furnishings division and are currently offering franchises worldwide. Whatever the future holds, Laura Ashley's delightful, always recognizable prints will undoubtedly maintain their place in fashion history; true classics, after all, never lose their appeal.
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