During the 1980s and 1990s nothing screamed romantic living and floral dresses more than the brand, Laura Ashley. The English brand by that point had expanded to meet global demands for all things bouquet, countryside, or Victorian-inspired. The idyllic advertisements for their clothing, perfume, and homewares caught the attention of history-minded consumers who at the time were being bombarded with juvenile, day-glo clothing and the practical and paired-down home furnishings of the era. Laura Ashley soon developed a cult following, but it wasn’t to last. After years of declining sales Laura Ashely went into administration in 2020 (along with many other brands). Here’s a look at the rise and fall of Laura Ashley and the woman behind it all.
The company of Laura Ashley got its start in the 1950s when Ashley herself revisited the quilt-making she had learned as a child and was further inspired by an exhibit of handicrafts she viewed at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Soon she was creating napkins, tea towels, scarves, and other small accessories that she printed herself.
By 1960 her husband, Bernard Ashley, had quit his job to work full time to print the fabrics his wife had designed. At the time bespoke printing of fabrics was considered fashionable, if time consuming.
By 1967 Laura Ashley had opened a brick and mortar shop in London after having sold their products not only by mail order, but also in chains like John Lewis. Her line was soon expanded from small items to lavishly long ditzy print prairie dresses, a look which dominated the 1970s thanks to the hippie movement, shows like Little House on the Prairie, and a firm resurgence of old fashioned and traditional aesthetics.
Other clothing designers of the day, like Gunne Sax (by Jessica McClintock), also cashed in on the Victoriana trend, making these dresses one of the must-have clothing items of the decade and the unofficial formal wear of hippies.
After Laura Ashley’s sudden death at age 60 in 1985 the brand became a publicly-traded company. By the 1980s and 1990s the clothing line had expanded to include formal gowns and children’s clothing. The prairie dresses of the 1970s evolved into the puffy-sleeved, big collared dresses that were popular in the 1980s. Although not as long as the maxi versions, this revival of the Victoriana dresses lasted into the early 1990s.
However by the 2000s the modern movement of fashion was not on the side of lace and frill and Laura Ashley largely transitioned to focusing on more modern clothing as well as their homewares and bedding, building on the expanded furnishings line released in the 1980s. A majority of the company’s shares have been owned by the Malaysian company, MUI Asia Limited, since 1998 though many stores were closed in the years that followed that acquisition.
Even diehard connoisseurs of historical design couldn’t keep the company going as strong as it once had been. A combination of changing tastes, the effects of Brexit, and the slump in sales due to the COVID-19 pandemic meant that in 2020 the company was placed into administration, which is similar to filing for bankruptcy in the U.S. The company’s operations in Australia had already entered administration in 2016.
As of this writing the company has revealed that there are plans to rejuvenate the Laura Ashley brand in 2021 by selling the company’s wares on the UK website, Next. It remains to be seen if the brand can bounce back from such hard hits as they’ve had. Lovers of the English garden aesthetic have more choice than ever thanks to online sales, making for heightened competition even amidst a revival of 1980s fashion. Traditionally the Laura Ashley brand has been known for their high quality items, which if marketed correctly, could be their saving grace going forward.