60 years of Laura Ashley

From humble beginnings to today’s multimillion-pound organisation, Laura Ashley’s appeal lives on. I had a flick through the company’s archives…

Laura Ashley 1980
The 1980 Laura Ashley bridal collection. ‘I’m really a 19th-century person living in the 20th century,’ said Ashley

Mother-of-two Laura Ashley started to print headscarves on her kitchen table, with her husband Bernard, following a Women’s Institute exhibition on traditional handicrafts at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Her inspiration came from the 1953 film Roman Holiday, starring Audrey Hepburn.

From the couple’s vision and an initial outlay of £10, which they spent on wood for a screen, dyes and some linen, a multimillion- pound business was spawned. And although Laura Ashley died in 1985, last year, the company reported an annual profit of £18.8m.

But, as Laura Ashley celebrates its 60th birthday, just what is this heritage label’s secret of success; a brand that was once described as making British women dress as milkmaids?

Helen Balkham, head of design (fashion) for Laura Ashley, believes nostalgia for the brand has a huge part to play: ‘You only need to say “Laura Ashley” and it has a heart-warming feel for most people and they can connect to it somehow. It is quintessentially British. We stand for quality; I think people have an emotional connection with the brand, too.’

Designers for Laura Ashley regularly plunder the archive – using images, such as those featured here, for their inspiration for new collections.

Vintage Laura Ashley
Fabrics inspired by the countryside, 1970 and bridal wear from 1986

‘Laura Ashley had a really strong sense of personal style that’s in some of her original prints and we try to build on that and keep it in mind when we’re putting the collections together,’ says Helen.

‘We have six decades worth of prints there [in the archive] so, of course, wherever possible we plunder it for inspiration.’

But which fashion era remains most relevant to Laura Ashley? ‘When people think of Laura Ashley, they think of print. And there are different stages through each decade that are more poignant than others,’ says Helen.

‘I know the milkmaid dress is a key one that really stands out. The essence of that is as relevant now as it was in the 1950s and 1960s.

Vintage Laura Ashley
Left: 1960s graphic-print shirt dresses; Right: Pygmalion inspired fashion shoot, 1985

‘There will always be the same elements to Laura Ashley; beautiful quality, beautiful fabric, and it always looks feminine. These are the things that live on and give the brand longevity.’

So what will we be wearing next season? ‘We’ve had a lot of that 1950s hourglass shape and penc il skirts in previous seasons,’ says Helen. ‘Now it feels there is a shift towards more of the 1960s silhouette.’

First published by the Lady magazine

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