Many will have felt a pang on hearing of British retail’s first high-profile coronavirus casualty: Laura Ashley. The beloved fashion and homewares chain went into administration in March.
The company begun in 1953 in a basement flat in Pimlico had spawned a worldwide empire with 500 shops and a £100m turnover, based on a genteel English country aesthetic.
I still remember wearing one of its romantic confections to a wedding in the 1980s, all flowers, frills and voluminous folds. I felt like the bride herself — or maybe just the cake.
The home furnishings line, awash in flounces, swags, canopies and chintz, could give a modest flat or drab semi the air of a country manor. This 1988 catalogue would have offered hours of fanciful perusal — the perfect escape during a year that saw a salmonella outbreak, the Lockerbie bombing and the Piper Alpha oil rig disaster.
The 1980s as a whole were no picnic and, by bringing a pastoral vision of the past into a very prosaic present, Laura Ashley was an antidote to Thatcherism, Wall Street greed and power dressing.
But who was Laura Ashley? Not the quintessential English rose you might expect but a quiet powerhouse of a Welsh woman. She grew up in a collier’s cottage in Dowlais, Merthyr Tydfil, where she learnt quilting with her grandmother.
In London, she and her husband Bernard invested £10 in wood, dyes and linen to start a silkscreen operation making headscarves and tea towels. After a first order of 20 scarves for John Lewis, the business expanded, opening factories in Carno, Newtown, Powys and Gresford, and creating hundreds of jobs for Welsh workers — and the four Ashley children.
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By the time Ashley died in 1985, the family owned a yacht, a French château and a villa in the Bahamas. Yet, apparently, she had remained humble. “She was so ordinary and yet she was special,” a former employee told the BBC. “Sometimes she’d have a hole in her sleeve, it didn’t matter.”
Changing tastes in the 1990s — embodied in Ikea’s “chuck out the chintz” campaign — set the company on a downward spiral. A series of CEOs and an ill-fated collaboration with Urban Outfitters could not save it. Coronavirus was the death knell.
Devotees can take heart, though. Two Laura Ashley hotels — “where dreams are made and memories will last an eternity” — are still taking bookings; the current 1970s revival means vintage shops are full of her dresses. And, for the diehards: Rhydoldog House, the Ashleys’ Welsh countryside retreat, is for sale at £1.8m.