Laura Ashley (1925 – 85)
Laura Ashley (nee Mountney) was one of the most successful British entrepreneurs of the second half of the 20th century, whose success was achieved in defiance of the trends of the time, both in fashion and in the location and organisation of production.
She was born on 7 September 1925 at the home of her grandparents in Station Terrace, Dowlais Top, Merthyr, in the tortured landscape that surrounded the great ironworks of the Guest family, and at a time of acute economic depression. Her father was a civil servant, and the family were Strict Baptists. In 1932 the family moved to London, although Laura Mountney returned to Wales for about 12 months in 1938, before serving during the Second World War in the Women’s Royal Naval Service. She married Bernard Ashley in 1949.
Between 1945 and 1952 she worked as a secretary at the London office of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, and gained inspiration for her characteristic designs from an exhibition of traditional handicrafts organised by the Federation at the Victoria & Albert Museum. From 1953 she began to print her own silk screen designs on to scarves, napkins and tea towels which she sold to London stores including John Lewis. Her husband, who built and maintained the silk screening machines, left his job, and the couple began production in a workshop in Kent in 1955, which was severely damaged by flooding in 1958. In 1961 they re-established the business at The Old Railway House, Carno, a crossing keeper’s cottage in mid-Wales, from which materials were distributed to women workers who made them up in their own homes.
While Laura Ashley passionately identified herself with Wales, her designs were traditionally English floral patterns. Her husband remarked that ‘Laura had the whole world dressed as milk maids’, and a Birmingham housewife who set up home in the early 1970s using Laura Ashley products, recalled that ‘We did the whole place in English country’.
The company was formally re-established as Laura Ashley Ltd in 1968, the year in which their first shop, in Pelham Street, South Kensington, London, was opened. In 1974 a shop was opened in Paris which was the first to have the distinctive green frontage and stripped wood interior that came to be associated with Laura Ashley. Several factories were opened in Wales, including one in the forming mining community at Gresford, near Wrexham, and a new headquarters at Newtown was completed in 1984.
Laura Ashley died after a fall in 1985, but the planned flotation of the company continued. In 1986, when it was operating 11 factories in Europe and North America and 225 shops, it was valued at ?200 million. Floral prints went out of fashion in the late 1980s and most clothing manufacturers switched production to the Far East. The company began to make severe losses from 1991, and in the ensuing decade saw many changes in management. The last of the Welsh factories closed in 1999, but retailing continued and Laura Ashley Ltd was still operating 179 stores in 2006.
The Laura Ashley Foundation supports art and design, particularly in Wales.