Laura Ashley was a Welsh fashion designer and businesswoman. Together with her husband Bernard, she started printing fabric on their kitchen table in London in 1953 after attending a Women’s Institute exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum on traditional handicrafts.
Laura was inspired to make her own patchwork quilts, but couldn’t find any suitable fabrics in the shops, so the young enterprising couple decided to try producing their own. A £10 investment in wood for a screen, dyes and some linen, along with many trips to libraries to learn everything about fabric printing, kick started their fledgling attempts.
At first they produced small squares with geometric patterns, which reflected the limited space in their tiny flat. Around this time the film Roman Holiday was released and Audrey Hepburn’s headscarves in the film sparked a trend amongst young Italian girls, which the Ashley’s picked up on when they went on holiday to Italy in 1952. They realised that they had the means and ability to produce small scarves themselves, and within a short space of time, were selling in great quantities to shops including John Lewis and Heal’s. Alongside the scarves, the couple also produced tea towels and placemats, with designs from Victorian advertisements and playbills often with quirky, humorous images.
The company was originally registered as Ashley Mountney (Laura’s maiden name) but Bernard change the name to Laura Ashley because he felt a woman’s name was more appropriate for the type of products they were producing. The company moved from London to Kent in 1955 and then onto Wales in 1960.
Laura Ashley’s first shop was opened at 35 Maengwyn Street, Machynlleth in 1961. The shop sold locally produced honey, walking sticks as well as the couple’s own products. Here Laura worked with a seamstress to introduce products likes shirts and gardening smocks. In the late 1960’s Bernard developed a flatbed printing machine which could produce 5,000 meters of fabric per week and they began making dresses for social, rather than work attire. Bernard’s keen business eye as well as Laura’s love of all things Victorian led to the long length silhouette and feminine styles which would become the company’s trademark and was right on trend at the end of the 1960’s, as fashion switched from the mini to the maxi.
By the end of the 1970’s the company had expanded significantly from its fledgling beginnings, and there were over 70 Laura Ashley shops worldwide. In 1979, Laura and Bernard moved from Wales to northern France, which would be another huge influence on Laura, and the style of new products from then on took on a grander, more country house look.
Inspired by her new surroundings, Laura began to shift her attention from fashion to the home furnishings side of the business, with the first full home furnishings catalogue appearing in 1981. The ‘Decorator Collection’ launched in 1982, with more radical designs and prints aimed at the interior design market.
The Laura Ashley Book of Home Decorating was published in 1983 as a result of the interest in the Laura Ashley ‘style’ that was developing. It was packed with stunning photographs of their home along with how-to soft furnishing projects, decorating tips and style advice to achieve the ‘look’. It was a huge success. Romance was key and there was a large dose of ruffles, festoon blinds, drapes above the beds and stenciling on the walls. Colours were contrasted between rich darker schemes with a nod towards William Morris and lighter muted tones.
One particularly successful innovation of the Laura Ashley decorating style was to relate objects in a single setting to each other. For example, 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 bedroom 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.
In 1985, just after her 60th birthday tragedy struck, when Laura fell down the stairs at her daughter’s home and died as a result of a brain hemorrhage. The business felt her loss profoundly, but her strong values and design ethos remained with the company. Today, the group has over 200 UK stores and 266 international franchised outlets and is owned by MUI Asia Limited. It has been increasing its homewares and furniture ranges in recent years and they now account for 58 per cent of total revenues.
So, why is she a #Houseproud hero?
For more than half a century Laura Ashley’s name has been synonymous with quintessential English style. She is responsible for changing the way millions of people decorated and thought about the comforts of home. She says
“We don't want to push our ideas on to customers, we simply want to make what they want.”