Laura Ashley

Laura Ashley CBE, (7 September 192517 September 1985) was a Welsh designer.

She became a household name on the strength of her work as a designer and manufacturer of a range of colourful fabrics for clothes and home furnishings.

Career

Born Laura Mountney in Station Terrace in Dowlais, Merthyr Tydfil, Laura was raised in a civil service family as a strict Baptist. The chapel she attended in Dowlais (Hebron) was Welsh language and although she could not understand the language, she loved it, especially the singing. Educated at Marshall’s School in Merthyr Tydfil until 1932, she was then sent to the Elmwood School, Croydon. She was evacuated back to Wales, and after attending the Aberdare Secretarial School, she left school at 16. In World War II, she served in the Women's Royal Naval Service, and then from 1945 to 1952 as a secretary for the National Federation of Womens Institutes in London. She met engineer Bernard Albert Ashley, latterly Sir Bernard, at a youth club in Wallington, whom she married in 1949 [ [http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/southeast/halloffame/arts/laura_ashley.shtml BBC - South East Wales Arts - Laura Ashley ] ]

While working as a secretary and raising her first two children, part time she designed napkins, table mats and tea-towels which Sir Bernard printed on a machine he had designed in an attic flat in Pimlico, London [ [http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.com/~copestake/newsltr2.htm Copestake and Mounteney Newsletter 2 ] ]

The couple had invested £10 in wood for the screen frame, dyes and a few yards of linen. Laura's inspiration to start producing printed fabric came from a Women's Institute display of traditional handicrafts at the Victoria & Albert Museum. When Laura looked for small patches carrying Victorian designs to help her make patchworks, she found no such thing existed. Here was an opportunity, and she started to print Victorian style headscarves in 1953.

Catalyst

Audrey Hepburn inadvertently sparked the growth of one of the world's most successful fashion and home furnishing companies. Hepburn appeared alongside Gregory Peck in the 1953 film "Roman Holiday", wearing a headscarf. As such a fashion icon, she instantly created a style that became popular around the globe.

The Ashleys' scarves quickly became successful with stores, retailing both via Mail Order and high street chains such as John Lewis - Bernard left his city job to print fabrics full time. This put them on the road to becoming an international company with a brand that is recognized around the globe. Laura designed the prints and Bernard built the printing equipment; Laura remained in charge of design until shortly before her death, while Bernard handled the operational side.

Employing staff to cope with the growth of sales, the company was originally registered as Ashley Mountney (Laura's maiden name), Sir Bernard changed the name to Laura Ashley because he felt a woman's name was more appropriate for the type of products.

Expansion

The newly formed company moved to Kent in 1955, but the business was nearly wiped out in 1958, when the river Derwent overflowed - leaving equipment, dyes and fabrics floating in three feet of water. Turnover rose from £2,000 to £8,000 in 1960, and in light of the birth of the third of their four children, the family moved to Wales in 1961, the country where Laura was born and had spent much of her childhood. Originally located in the social club in Carno, Montgomeryshire; in 1967 the factory moved across to the village's railway station.

These were crucial times in the development of the company - Bernard had developed his flat-bed printing process to produce 5,000 metres of fabric per week, and in 1966 Laura produced her first dress for social rather than work attire. The long length silhouette become the Laura Ashley trademark. It also was to work successfully in the company's favour as fashion switched from the mini to the maxi skirt at the end of the 1960s - a newspaper suggested that by donning a Laura Ashley number, women could look as beautiful as Katharine Ross in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

By 1970, sales had reached £300,000 per year. The first shop under the Laura Ashley name opened in Pelham Street, South Kensington, in 1968, with additional shops opened in Shrewsbury and Bath in 1970. In one week alone, London's Fulham Road shop sold 4,000 dresses - which resulted in the new factory in Newtown, Montgomeryshire. It was the opening of the Paris shop in 1974 which was the first to feature the distinctive green frontage and stripped wooden interior, and in the same year the first USA shop opened in San Francisco. A licensing operation led to the opening of department store concessions in Australia, Canada and Japan from 1971 onwards.

By 1975, turnover was £5million per year and the company employed 1,000 people worldwide. Laura turned down the offer of an OBE "(she was upset Bernard had not been offered one)" but a Queen's Award for Export was accepted in 1977. Turnover reached £25million as Laura Ashley celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1979 with the launch of a range of perfume. The addition of a home in France enabled Laura to go back to her roots of fabric design, and the company launched its home furnishings collections.

After Laura's death

Laura Ashley died of a brain hemorrhage suffered ten days after she fell down the stairs of her daughter's English country home on her 60th birthday. [ [http://www.theage.com.au/news/comment--analysis/malaysian-magnate-leads-english-rose-to-the-block/2005/06/28/1119724630756.html Malaysian magnate leads English rose to the block] , "The Age", June 29 2005.]

Two months after Laura's death in 1985, Laura Ashley Holdings plc went public in a flotation that was 34 times oversubscribed. The 1980s saw the knighthood of Sir Bernard Ashley, and the launch of additional child and home furnishings ranges.

However, by the end of the 1980s Laura Ashley was distinctly out of fashion. Women were making inroads in the boardroom, and sharp suits and shoulder pads were at odds with everything Laura Ashley stood for. Sir Bernard's larger-than-life personality and idiosyncratic style of management meant that he fell out of favour with the City.

First of the new CEOs

In the early 1990s, Laura Ashley plc was suffering from a combination of over expansion of its retail outlets and dependence on what had become an overly complex and costly outsourced network of manufacturers. In 1991, American James Maxmin, Ph.D. became the CEO at Laura Ashley, after pressure on the autocratic Sir Bernard. Over the next two and a half years, Dr. Maxmin led a series of changes, fixing problems in manufacturing and logistics that foreshadowed principles of his later book, "The Support Economy", co-authored with his wife, Harvard Business School Professor Shoshana Zuboff. For example, he entered into a strategic alliance with FedEx, forming a sort of proto-federation, aimed at improving distribution for close to 500 Laura Ashley stores. The alliance was established as a 10-year partnership, but it was relatively open-ended, premised on trust. The objective was to be able to supply 99 percent of Laura Ashley’s merchandise to customers anywhere in the world within 48 hours. The alliance replaced a legacy system that would route a T-shirt manufactured in Hong Kong to a warehouse in Newton, Wales, before sending it to a retail store in Japan.

In 1992, Dr. Maxmin led Laura Ashley to its first gross profits since 1989, and in fiscal 1993, gross profits were expected to reach 12 million pounds. But in early April 1994, two weeks before his wife’s epiphany on national television, Dr. Maxin abruptly resigned from Laura Ashley, citing major differences with Sir Bernard over strategy [http://www.thesupporteconomy.com/reviews15.html] .

Laura Ashley celebrated its 40th anniversary in 1993, the same year that Sir Bernard retired as chairman and became honorary life president. The Ashley family retain an interest in the business and its development. The launch of a children's range and a furniture range helped deflect the looming crisis but by 1997, after a torrid few years and numerous chief executives, the company was in serious financial difficulties.

MUI Asia takeover

In May 1998, MUI Asia Limited became a major shareholder in Laura Ashley Holdings plc and under the new management, this world famous international brand was back in profit. Rescued from the receivers in 1998, 58 per cent of the shares are believed to be controlled directly or indirectly by the company's chairman Dr Khoo Kay Peng [ [http://thescotsman.scotsman.com/business.cfm?id=1663342005 The Scotsman ] ]

But the company failed to capitalise on its trademark look - probably due to employing its 11th chief executive in 14 years. It closed its flagship store on London's Regent Street in late 2005 because of rent increases, and in March 2005 it launched a £28m law suit against L'Oreal, which manufactured the Laura Ashley perfumes. At Christmas 2004, the chain parted company with couture designer Alistair Blair, who had previously designed for Dior and Givenchy.

In the U.S. in 2005 and 2006 the "Laura Ashley" label is found applied to inexpensive items that lack the "look," sold in department stores such as Sears and Kohl's, further diluting the value of the brand. The home furnishing items are slightly better, continuing to use some of the classic Laura Ashley textile designs.

Ms Lillian Tan, who has been chief executive since January, plans to reduce fashion from 22 per cent of sales to 14 per cent this year - with stores cutting back the space they give to clothes in favour of home furnishings, now the most profitable part of the business.

In early 2008 Laura Ashley launched a mattress line with Comfort Solutions. The Comfort solution brand is part of King Koil. A top five Mattress company that has produced high quality product for over 110 years. The mix of Laura Ashley and Comfort Solutions has brought a high range of style to the world of bland eggshell white, all too common in the mattress world.

Personal life

Laura and Sir Bernard (married 1949), were a great complement to each other - both inside the business, and in their personal life. Laura had four children, and loved family life, but the expansion of the business meant the need for an escape point, and for creativity. They bought a house in France in the early 1970s, and kept in touch with the family and business through flying, with Sir Bernard's accomplished skills as a pilot.

The Ashley children were all involved with the business. David, the eldest son now in his early fifties, designed the shops; daughter Jane was the company photographer; another daughter Emma and their second son Nick were part of the company's fashion design team. Sir Bernard Ashley was the company chairman and Laura kept a close eye on fabrics. The astonishing success of what proved to be the ultimate cottage industry, bought the Ashleys a yacht, a private plane, a French chateau in Picardy, a town-house in Brussels, and the villa "Contenta" in Lyford Cay, New Providence, Bahamas, just purchased for $8.5 million dollars by TJ Maloney. [ [http://www.damianos.com/Listings/ListingDetail.ASPX?LID=10415308 Property Details - Villa Contenta - Nassau/New Providence ] ]

In 1985, on her 60th birthday, while she was visiting her children in the UK, Laura fell down the stairs and was rushed to hospital where she died ten days later. It was a sudden and unexpected loss but her name lives on through her business. She is buried in the churchyard of St John the Baptist, in Carno, Powys, Wales

Foundation

The Laura Ashley Foundation was set up in 1987, in memory of Laura Ashley who had died a year before, by Sir Bernard to help individuals realise their potential and release talent. It is very much a family affair and the Ashley family are actively involved in the day to day running of the foundation.

References

External links

* [http://www.lauraashley.com/ Laura Ashley company] (requires Macromedia Flash)
* [http://www.npg.org.uk/live/search/person.asp?LinkID=mp14615 National gallery] portraits
* [http://www.fundinguniverse.com/company-histories/Laura-Ashley-Holdings-plc-Company-History.html Funding Universe article on Laura Ashley plc]
* [http://www.rosenthalusa.com/1288d821/ASHLEY_Laura.htm Designer portrait on Rosenthalusa.com]


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