Most of us associate the brand Laura Ashley with flower prints and country style. However, that hasn’t always been the case, and the Laura Ashley trajectory is a very interesting one. It is fascinating to look back at how the lives and challenges of Bernard and Laura Ashley directly affected the designs of the brand, and how their personal beliefs shaped its ethos.
As with all great ideas, it all began back when Bernard and Laura were in mundane office jobs. In 1949, she worked as a secretary for the Women’s Institute and was in very close contact with the crafts and skills which characterised these iconic women. Although she went on to become the secretary to the First Secretary at the High Commission for Pakistan in 1952, she remained close to the WI; she attended an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum organised by the Institute on the subject of handicrafts in the same year.
All great things start in the kitchen
The exhibition included hand printed and handwoven fabrics, as well as embroidery and patchwork items. Laura felt inclined to try her hand at some of these, but found it very difficult to find prints and fabrics that were suitable. So, she began researching. With the support of Bernard, they began screen-painting on the kitchen table, which limited the size of the printable area, making it ideal to create scarves, napkins, place mats and other such items. Already Laura was drawn to florals, but the technology they had at the time forced them to stick to geometric patterns and bold, striking colours; some were actually inspired by abstract art.
Their first big sale was to John Lewis. This was the starting point which enabled Bernard to leave his job and work on the business full time. They also generated enough money to actually move the business to a workshop in Pimlico, and which meant that they could make more fabric per day.
Due to the fashion trends of the time, and the technology they had, the colour palette consisted of bright oranges, reds, browns and subdued blues; not at all colours we associate to the brand today. And they didn’t really sell to the individual public, but rather to hotels, cruises, etc. The first time we have a glimpse of the Ashleys’ ethics is when they can finally afford to employ other people; Laura put together a small team of outworkers to help with sewing hems. This was particularly poignant, as Laura felt that women with small children who were housebound should be given the chance of such employment.
Smocks and frocks
They still weren’t producing clothes in the 1950s, but they did make a gardening smock in 1959. They not only sold well for its original purpose, but also among young girls, who felt it resembled the sack dress produced by Balenciaga – also in 1959. Although they had opened a showroom in 1958, they didn’t open their first shop until 1960. At the showroom everything was made to order, but the shop in Wales also marked the beginning of their clothes-making career.
The Ashleys’ new town, Carno, benefited from the arrival of the brand. It gave jobs to many, meaning that people fit to work didn’t have to leave to search for work elsewhere, thus contributing to the local economy. They also fostered a sense of community and altruism; Martin Wood’s book on the Laura Ashley brand recounts an anecdote in which farmers lent the couple their tractors for digging in their new factory, and in turn the brand lent their shears when sheep shearing season arrived. The book also points out that in later years, “as the business grew and expanded, exhausting the pool of available labour in the immediate area, the Ashleys opened satellite factories in areas with high unemployment”, again showing their convictions and strong sense of community.
The move also allowed Laura to experiment with dress designs, this it meant she could start making her own garments, rather than reacting to what was in fashion at the time. In fact, she made a number of long dresses inspired by an 18th century dress some old ladies brought to the shop. The simple design could be worn at different occasions, and was bought by locals and visitors alike. In addition to that, although Chanel, Dior and Yves Saint Laurent were the brands for the select few, the UK was privy to a different type of fashion. Names such as Mary Quant (pioneer of the mini-skirt) and Barbara Hulanicki (founder of Biba) were on the scene, but they never felt there was any competition between them as their styles differed so much from one another. One was town, the other was urban, and Laura was country.
In 1968, Bernard and Laura opened their first shop in London. Despite a slow start, sales increased massively after Bernard put up 100 posters throughout the London Underground. They were a vertical company; they were present at every step of the process and they knew what worked and what didn’t. It was very unusual to be both a retailer and a manufacturer, and they produced new things practically every week.
It was also around this time that the company bought 2 second hand Stork printers, which could produce 35,000 metres of fabric a week and could print in 6 colours. This way, that the brand could now move away from the geometric patterns typical of the 1960s and towards floral prints with more complex colour combinations, which is the image we associate with Laura Ashley today.
The main influence for the Laura Ashley clothing ranges in the early 1970s was the Edwardian era. In the 1890s, the bustle disappeared (the gathered material at the back of a skirt) and dresses had a more tailored silhouette. The company became well-known for its sleeves, referred to as “leg of mutton”, which were narrow at the wrist and wide at the shoulder. It’s worth noting that, although the company became known for its cotton dresses in a multitude of colours, there was an extensive range of designs. Rather boldly, Laura Ashley didn’t look to appeal to everyone; they “needed to be able to appeal to some of them, some of the time”.
Inspiration is everywhere
The reason why Laura Ashley decided to start producing scarves back in 1953 was because she was inspired by Audrey Hepburn’s style in the film Roman Holiday.
In the 1970s, she spent hours looking at Victorian books, because the end papers were of intricate design and perfect for her ideas. She even found inspiration in broken crockery, old postcards and The Grammar of Ornament; first published in 1886 and put together by architect and designer Owen Jones. Laura also visited museums and historical houses such as Chatsworth to find designs that would inspire her.
One of the most obvious sources of inspiration was Laura’s surroundings. She was influenced by the countryside throughout her life, and that is the way of life she wanted to sell; she not only promoted he countryside feel, but the countryside philosophy.
The colour palette was in part inspired by the overall feeling of each period, but it is also inspired by the family’s surroundings. With the acquisition of more and better technology, they had more freedom when it came to choosing the tones for the designs. And so, they developed sage greens, dark blues, plums, burgundies, pinks and smoky tones as well. The fact that all colours were mixed in the same dye bucket also meant that they could come out more muted, and no two batches of colour were the same.
The design of the brand came about because in 1970 they opened a new shop in Fulham. As a condition of the lease, the façade had to be green and marble, and so this combination of green and cream became the company’s signature.
Shifting towards homeware
Laura’s passion had always been soft furnishings, and the company recognised that the trends in this sector were more stable than those in fashion. With the success of Laura Ashley’s furnishings, fabrics and wallpapers, sales amounted to 48% of gross sales by 1978. They also produced catalogues, which in turn also prompted another change in the way of doing things.
Up until now, Laura Ashley patterns did not have names, but rather letters and numbers. They followed the same system as the car registration, thus S771 was produced in 1977; print D94 was produced in 1966 and so on, although it was not a very efficient system and years and letters sometimes ran into each other. The change also probably corresponded with the fact that the car registration system changed after 1983, and it also meant that by giving prints actual names, it made them more memorable when the press used them.
|A 1963||H 1969||R 1976|
|B 1964||J 1970||S 1977|
|C 1965||K 1971||T 1978|
|D 1966||L 1972||V 1979|
|E 1967||M 1973||W 1980|
|F 1967 (again)||N 1974||X 1981|
|G 1968||P 1975||Y 1982|
Speaking of the press, the Laura Ashley brand built a very good relationship with them. Martin Wood explains that the company “would supply photographic transparencies for articles, which were cheap and effective way to get exposure in the press”.
It seems that the more rooms their houses had, the more Laura could experiment with designs. She became bolder, and ended up producing a second line under the name Decorator’s Collection. This was a very smart move. Laura Ashley customers were very much stuck in their ways in terms of what they liked, and that frustrated Laura sometimes. By creating this second collection, designers would use her more radical work in their creations, which in turn put these patterns in the spotlight, and which eventually were seen by the customers, who would then buy the fabric and items themselves.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, the inspiration for the clothes seemed most certainly Victorian. There were frills, florals and fabulousness. However, she also combined the long dresses with modern-day trends such as the halter neck. Granted, certain prints and some of the designs might not be to everyone’s taste now, and perhaps it looks a little over the top, but there are some truly great numbers out there that would not look out of place today. And if they do, who cares?! If Laura has taught us anything, is that there’s nothing wrong in going against the grain.
Looking back at the trends of the clothing ranges of Laura Ashley, we can identify three distinctive periods: Regency, Edwardian and Victorian. They came into play at a time when fashion was pushing against tradition, but they catered for people who felt disconnected from these new trend waves and wanted something different. A bit like the hippies of their time – some of them were probably “proper” hippies. Despite this perception that Laura Ashley could be borderline frumpy, you can see from these images that the decades trends were also present in the brand’s designs.
Time to buy?
The Laura Ashley brand is increasingly being thrown about in second hand shops, and vintage lovers will most likely own at least one Laura Ashley dress. The clothes are well made, and so the steady increase in price we are witnessing is in line with the quality of the garments. As we have stated in the article, the brand began by making small batches of items, and they changed stock quite quickly, so it’s not surprising early frocks can fetch rather high prices. However, as much as we are reluctant to admit it, the 1980s will soon also be considered vintage – they are entering the realm of “retro”, for goodness sake. So it might be worth keeping an eye out for clothes from that decade while prices are still low.
Do not pass up a dress you think no one would wear now; the fact that current trends are looking back at the disaster that was the 1990s means that everything will inevitably come back into vogue. Delving into the beginnings of this brand has shown us that 1) trends always come back and 2) prints; always prints.
So there you have it. The Laura Ashley trajectory just goes to show that in order to get where you really want to be, you will have to jump through a series of hoops: be it because you don’t have the means, because it hasn’t been done yet, or because the public isn’t ready for change. We hope this Brand Spotlight will help you understand the brand a little better, and that you take it as a starting point on your journey through vintage Laura Ashley.