Laura and Bernard Ashley started printing fabric on their kitchen table in London in 1953, following 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 Ashleys 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.
Ashley Mountney Ltd became a registered company in 1954, joining Laura’s maiden name with their married name, but soon it was soon decided that the name of thecompany should be changed to Laura Ashley, to reflect better their products that had become so popular. The Ashleys moved from London to rural Kent in 1955, allowing more space to print and develop the company, but the whole operation was nearly wiped out in 1958, when the river Darent overflowed and flooded the house, ruining printing equipment, fabrics and dyes. They opened a showroom in London in 1958, which showcased the breadth of the collections they were now producing, from small domestic items to large scale single panel printed textiles which were used by companies such as P&O.
1960 saw a significant and long lasting event for the company, when the family moved again, this time to Wales where Laura was born, and from where she had many happy childhood memories. They first opened a shop in Macchynlleth which they lived above, and from where they sold locally produced honey, walking sticks as well as their own products. Here Laura worked with a seamstress to introduce their first forays into fashion, producing smock like shirts and gardening smocks. Next they set up in the vacant social club in Carno, Montgomeryshire, but moved in 1967 to the local railway station, which had been closed two years earlier.
Here, the company set its long term foundations and grewwith the development of Bernard Ashley’s first flat bed printing machine which could produce 5,000 metres of fabric per week. 1966 saw an important move for the company, when production began of their first dress produced for social, rather than work attire. This was a result of customers buying the original smocks and utilitarian garments for fashion use – one lady even got married in one!
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. 1968 saw the opening of Laura Ashley’s first London shop in South Kensington. Initially business was slow, but afterBernard took out 100 adverts on the underground, turnover rose 300% in 3 days, and increased to 3000% in the following 2 months! Another shop opened in 1969, this time in Shrewsbury, and the shop in Macchynlleth closed at the same time.
By 1970, sales had reached £300,000. More shops had opened too, with the Fulham Road branch which opened this year selling 4000 dresses in one week alone! Licensing operations brought about the opening of department store concessions in Australia, Canada and Japan in 1971, while further shops opened in Paris and San Francisco in 1974, and UK shop openings continued with a vengeance. By 1975 the company had grown faster than anyone could have predicted – over 40 shops had opened, turnover had increased to £5 million per year, and the company now employed 1,000 people worldwide.
A Queen’s Award for Export was given to the company in 1977, and turnover reached £25 million in 1979 as thecompany celebrated its 25th anniversary by launching a new range of perfumes. 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. 1985 saw further expansion with the opening of the first shop in Japan, in Tokyo.
Tragedy struck however in 1985, when Laura died as aresult 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 floatation of Laura Ashley Holdings plc was 34 times oversubscribed.
Bernard Ashley was knighted in the late 1980’s, which also saw the launch of the ‘Mother and Child’ collection, and the Laura Ashley Home collection, an exclusive new range of home furnishings. The 'Chatsworth House Collection' was launched in 1987 as a result of a visit Laura made to Chatsworth House inDerbyshire in 1985, just one of many inspirational trips she made which informed the style and direction of the home furnishings collection. By the end of the decade, the company had 450 shops worldwide.
The company celebrated its 40th anniversary in 1993, as Sir Bernard retired as Chairman, and became honorary president, a post he held until 1998. In 1994, a plaque at 83 Cambridge Street, Pimlico was unveiled by Sir Bernard and Jane Ashley, marking the beginnings of the Laura Ashley empire. In May 1998, MUI Asia Limited became a major shareholder in Laura Ashley, and they remain committed to taking the company from strength to strength. 1999 saw the launch of the Laura Ashley Design Service, based in stores around the country.
The Laura Ashley website www.lauraashley.com went live in October 2001, bringing a whole new shopping experience to Laura Ashley customers. The company received the European Mail Order Days Award in 2003 in recognition of sales growth and quality of catalogues. In 2005 the company moved its production operations on to one site in Newtown, Powys, where it currently produces paint, wallpaper and made to measure curtains. The company has growing franchise operations all over the world, including the Far East, Australia, Scandinavia and South America, as well as increasing numbers of licensing projects for products including carpets, eyewear, towels and tiles.