Laura Ashley Fashion Company Is Founded

Laura Ashley and her husband Bernard formed a company that promoted a traditional lifestyle through simple fashions and designs.

Summary of Event

Laura Mountney Ashley was born in Wales, into a lower-middle-class family with high moral standards and a desire for self-improvement. Even as a child, she learned to find means of creating her own sanctuary or place of peace, calm, and safety, an oasis vital to her own life. Her Aunt Elsie introduced her to an orderliness and peacefulness that she did not have at home, as well as to the world of books and dresses from Liberty Liberty department store , the famous department store in London that was known for its role in the Arts and Crafts movement. Fashion;Laura Ashley[Ashley]
Laura Ashley company
[kw]Laura Ashley Fashion Company Is Founded (Mar. 19, 1954)
[kw]Fashion Company Is Founded, Laura Ashley (Mar. 19, 1954)
[kw]Company Is Founded, Laura Ashley Fashion (Mar. 19, 1954)
[kw]Ashley Fashion Company Is Founded, Laura (Mar. 19, 1954)
Fashion;Laura Ashley[Ashley]
Laura Ashley company
[g]Europe;Mar. 19, 1954: Laura Ashley Fashion Company Is Founded[04370]
[g]United Kingdom;Mar. 19, 1954: Laura Ashley Fashion Company Is Founded[04370]
[c]Fashion and design;Mar. 19, 1954: Laura Ashley Fashion Company Is Founded[04370]
[c]Manufacturing and industry;Mar. 19, 1954: Laura Ashley Fashion Company Is Founded[04370]
[c]Business and labor;Mar. 19, 1954: Laura Ashley Fashion Company Is Founded[04370]
Ashley, Laura Mountney
Ashley, Bernard

Cleanliness and orderliness were important to Ashley, even as a child. She grew to love church; had goals of industry, loyalty, obedience, cheerfulness, and respectability; and admired novels by Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope, as well as others that depicted close family life. The disorder she experienced at home made her Aunt Elsie’s house and its English tidiness all the more attractive.

Ashley never finished high school, but she constantly read and learned, and she explored libraries and antique shops. She believed in industry, traditional values, and family life. She preferred the company of her family to activities outside the family, and she believed in traditional roles for women and a traditional type of femininity.

Ashley had been part of the first Women’s Royal Naval Service party to go to the Continent after D day. Ashley, who believed that a woman’s first place was in the home, thus had an adventure during which she wore a duffle coat, bell-bottom naval trousers, and a navy blue square rig shirt and jersey. Her expression of naval motifs later in her clothes line surely comes from this era.

After the war, Ashley became secretary to the first secretary at the Pakistan High Commission and attended courses run by the Women’s Institute. In March, 1952, the Women’s Institute Women’s Institute, British[Womens Institute, British] organized a show of traditional handicrafts at the Victoria and Albert Museum Victoria and Albert Museum
Museums , including embroidery, hand-printed fabric, hand-woven material, patchwork, and quilts. Ashley discovered that crafts produced by home-based women could still be of museum quality. This stimulated her to start printing with “potato,” or “lino,” cuts. She borrowed several library books on how to build a silk screen, and her husband Bernard built a textile-printing screen stencil. Bernard and Laura were living in Chelsea, and he contacted a teacher from the Chelsea Art College so that he might learn more about printing methods.

About this time, a popular film called Roman Holiday
Roman Holiday (Wyler) (1953) was released. In this film, Audrey Hepburn Hepburn, Audrey wore a simple scarf with her sweater. Laura and Bernard had a holiday in Italy in 1953, during which they observed that Italian girls were wearing scarves similar to Hepburn’s. The Ashleys brought some home. Since they already had set up printing equipment, they were ready to cut, hem, and print their own scarves. Bernard also sold six linen table mats with a two-color African print to a handicraft shop in Ludgate Circus. At this time, not long after the war, there was pent-up desire for luxury goods, and there were not enough producers of quality merchandise. Laura Ashley rode a bus to John Lewis’s Lewis, John (fashion retailer) store in Oxford Street and conquered her shyness to talk to the buyer after an employee at the store praised her scarves. She sold dozens of scarves to Lewis that day.

Soon, the Ashleys established a business pattern. After Bernard came home from work at night, they would stay up all night making scarves to fill orders for the company they formed in 1953. Bernard would deliver them on his motorcycle on his way to work in the morning. Laura became pregnant with the couple’s first child. Instead of giving up work to await the birth, Laura hemmed the cotton squares, attached a small label that said “Ashley,” and packed, invoiced, and performed other tasks involved in the business. She was even good at sales, although she hated it. Bernard continued to run the financial side of the business, as he had from the beginning.

By September of 1953, Bernard had decided to leave his job in London in time for the Christmas season, so that he could maximize production of the company’s scarves. Unfamiliar with the printing methods that they were using, they burned a large proportion of them, but even their “seconds,” or damaged merchandise, sold. Although Laura had high blood pressure, brought on by her pregnancy, she continued to work, and Bernard and Laura’s first daughter, Laura Jane, was born on October 1, 1953. When Laura came home from the hospital, she saw that the flat in Chelsea had been turned into a factory.

Laura and Bernard moved their growing family to the country. The month that they moved, House & Garden
House & Garden (periodical)[House and Garden] magazine ran an article entitled “Good Mixers,” featuring Bernard’s cotton “Plaza” design, in which charcoal-colored jigsaw forms were silhouetted against a white background. The 36-inch-wide fabric sold for fifteen shillings per yard.

On March 19, 1954, Laura and Bernard formed Ashley Mountney Company “to carry on all or any businesses of manufacturers, dealers in textile and fibrous fabrics and substances of all kinds.” Among the early customers were the P & O shipping lines, for their cruise ships, and Terence Conran, an extremely creative furniture designer. The postwar period was one both of pent-up desire for luxury goods and of a return to the traditional. As early as the mid-1950’s, Bernard and furniture designer Peter Brunn Brunn, Peter contemplated designing and selling wallpaper. The Ashleys’ company began printing linen tea towels with Victorian themes, a huge and immediate success.

House & Garden continued to give Bernard Ashley Fabrics Bernard Ashley Fabrics regular coverage. In the October, 1955, issue, the editor praised Ashley Mountney table mats and household linens. A tablecloth with thick, black, irregular stripes on white linen was one of the gifts suggested for good looks, quality, and value.

The free advertising and publicity from House & Garden was of such value that, by the end of 1955, the Ashleys had two hundred accounts and frequent requests from overseas. They had no real showroom, so they decided to take one on Old Burlington Street, in the heart of London’s wholesale textile trade. Bernard made the rooms impressive and hired a secretary. In the first days the showroom was open, a buyer from San Francisco, California, placed a standing order for the complete collection of Victorian tea towels. Laura found Victorian images in old books, posters, and theater bills, using them for new designs. Ashley Mountney bar towels won a gold medal for design at the Sacramento Trade Fair. Harrod’s and Fortnum and Mason’s department stores asked the company to print special runs with their own names and images. The Ashleys also designed a gardening apron, which led to a gardening overall or smock with an identical back and front sewn together, with three large patch pockets added at the front. The wastage from the scooped neck provided enough fabric for oven gloves. The smock became a basic, inexpensive dress.

The first floral motif the company used was unlike the later small patterns that would characterize, and almost define, Laura Ashley’s work. It was a simple daisy with four petals printed in two bright primary colors. It was immediately successful, and the Ashleys reacted by printing more adventurous florals. Laura tried, with her easy charm and desire to please, to make anything for which she was asked. When she moved back to Wales, she and her Cornish designer dreamed up a shirtdress, more shirt designs, and a Victorian nightdress as “Laura Ashley” designs.


The 1960’s were an age of free sex and the new “mod” look, but a large segment of society remained traditional. Romantic, nostalgic Laura Ashley appealed to this segment. Old-fashioned values and the continuance of the English country life, respectability, and conservation were values found in Ashley life and products.

The 1960’s also idealized the dream of country living, with homemade bread and pottery, natural wood furniture, and the “simple life.” This idealization brought further success to Ashley, who always insisted that her clothes were not fashion but merely an alternative to jeans. Her simple, long-skirted “milkmaid” dresses in flower-printed calico or insets of coarse lace, as well as her pinafores and frilly blouses, were bought eagerly throughout this period. A similar mood was caught by Yves St. Laurent in 1964 with Provençal cotton print skirts and head scarves. Even Oscar de la Renta in New York presented cotton dresses with matching head scarves and frilly petticoats in 1971. Ashley was, by then, far ahead of him in incorporating the “hippie” back-to-nature look of long-skirted dresses.

White calico garments, full petticoats, frilled blouses, and nightdresses were some of the items Ashley considered as she spent time poring over the old books she constantly sought in thrift stores, libraries, and museums. The endpapers of novels, old plates, and teapots were also influences for her prints. Laura opened a shop in Bath, England, where her “milkmaid” style flourished, as did the Victorian nursery-maid style.

There are several versions of how Laura Ashley began printing Victorian themes. Laura herself once said that no one remembers. Later she said that Bernard saw an old theater playbill, liked its typeface, and decided to print it. After that, Laura did research in visits to booksellers on Charing Cross Road. Later, living in the countryside made Laura more interested in rural life, wildflowers, gardening, the church, children and their relationship with their mothers, and the rural ideal that had always held such charm for the English. She began employing local women, as she would do later in Wales, to sew at home, as she approved of women being able to stay home.

Many of the Victorian motifs Laura mixed with her country wildflower prints included items such as theater bills. A tea towel showed some refined Edwardian gentlemen with the words “Anyone for washing up?” below. The Edwardian was fashionable. It was deliberately unfashionable people, however, who were to change the fashion industry with their smocks, petticoats, calico flowers, and mother-and-daughter dresses with matching hats and gloves. People were influenced by Laura, and women would do their hair in her “peasant” style and copy her apparel.

Laura was pushed to increase the range of products sold, partly because wholesalers began to expect different clothes every season. When the company and the family moved to Wales from Kent, they began to be influenced by the countryside. Laura adored being asked to make traditional Welsh flannel costumes with shawls and hats. The location of the company and the family, their romantic old house, the mountains, and the Victorian prints added an air of nostalgia and further romanticized the notions of the company. The company was nevertheless interested in modern machinery and in cutting the time it took to make samples; Bernard Ashley always had been interested in engineering and technology.

As Laura, Bernard, and their family moved to larger and larger houses (they eventually moved into a chateau in France), she saw herself as a faithful wife helping other women develop an aesthetic that illustrated an ethic. Laura herself wore a working wardrobe of plain colors, often navy or beige, with cardigans often full of holes in the elbow. When she died at the age of sixty, after tripping on her long nightgown and falling down the cellar steps, it was the end of an age for the company. She had begun giving up many of her roles in the company to Bernard, their son Nick, and others so that she could be a more active grandmother, so the company was able to endure. Fashion;Laura Ashley[Ashley]
Laura Ashley company

Further Reading

  • Foltz, Kim. “The Laura Ashley Touch.” Newsweek 104 (September 17, 1984): 66. Describes planned changes in the management of the company, including adding to the number of shops in the United States and expanding operations into the Far East. By 1984, the company earned almost half of its profits in the United States.
  • Gandee, Charles. “Nick Ashley: Life After Laura.” House & Garden 163 (April, 1991): 212. Nick Ashley, Laura and Bernard Ashley’s son, assumed design control of the company. Since Laura’s death, he had been responsible for 475 Laura Ashley stores in fifteen countries and a product range of about twenty-five thousand items, ranging from fashion to furniture.
  • Grant, Robert M., and Kent E. Neupert. Cases in Contemporary Strategy Analysis. 3d ed. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2003. Analysis of successful business models. Compares the Laura Ashley company to DaimlerChrysler, Eastman Kodak, Wal-Mart, the U.S. airline industry, and Madonna. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Melcher, Richard A. “A Pennsylvania Yankee in Laura Ashley’s Court.” BusinessWeek, December 23, 1991. Describes the efforts of James Maxmin as chief executive officer of Laura Ashley Holdings. Maxmin intended to license more home furnishings to increase the visibility of Ashley designs and to add trendy designs to the traditional floral patterns in an attempt to attract younger customers and career women.
  • Murphy, Rhonda Jaffin. “Laura Ashley: A Synonym for Prettiness.” House Beautiful 133 (March, 1991). Laura Ashley is profiled here. Her designs, characterized by gentle floral prints and pastel colors, are explained as being synonymous with the romantic Victorian image.
  • Sebba, Anne. Laura Ashley: A Life by Design. London: George Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1990. The best work on the life of Laura Ashley and her company. It does not deal with her influence on other designers and is largely a biography rather than a study of the influences on her design. An essential read.

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