In History: a timeline of Laura Ashley
Laura Ashley is back in fashion. Or at least it soon will be. The British brand – best known for its Victorian-inspired floral and flounced fashion and home designs – has signed a deal with global licensing giant IMG that will lead to a return to the categories of fashion, footwear and accessories, as well as an expansion of its homeware offer, on a global scale.
The deal, revealed this week, was negotiated by investor and retail turnaround specialist Gordon Brothers, which bought the brand, its immense archive of 98,000 pieces and other IP assets out of administration in March 2020.
At that point the business, which was founded by the designer of the same name almost 70 years ago, had closed all of its UK stores due to the first Covid-19 lockdown. Following the administration, some 70 stores were announced as being closed for good with a further 77, in theory, still open. But Gordon Brothers declined to take any of its stores when it bought the business, so the brand disappeared from the high street.
Laura Ashley began in the 1950s and was inspired by an exhibition of Women's Institute handicrafts at the V&A. The designer produced homewares, such as napkins and tablecloths on a hand printing machine designed by her husband, Bernard. The business ventured into retail in the 1960s. And, during the 1970s and 1980s (main picture, designs from the 1980s), Laura Ashley became a hit across the globe, which Laura and Bernard (the chairman of the business) traversed in their own private plane.
At the time of Laura's untimely death from a brain haemorrhage in 1985, the Laura Ashley brand had 220 stores globally and was a firm favourite of Sloane Rangers and a certain Lady Diana Spencer. A subsequent stock market float was 35 times oversubscribed and Bernard went on to be knighted in 1987 on the back of the success of the business.
However during the 90s and 00s its fashion fell out of favour as women embraced more minimalist dressing and it focused its efforts on homewares. But over-expansion and a lack of vision meant the business lost its way long before it finally fell into administration in 2020.
That Laura Ashley should go down at a time when its distinct aesthetic had found favour again seemed poignant – popular and "cool" women's brands, which have found favour in recent years, like Ganni and The Vampire's Wife appear to have been directly inspired by Laura Ashley's handwriting. In addition, Gen Z shoppers were reintroduced to the label in 2019 via a sell-out collaboration with Urban Outfitters.
Given the fashion tides had turned in its favour, it seems a shame the former owner didn't capitalise fully at the time (while it was great the Urban Outfitters collaboration was too little, too late) and resurrect its fashion much sooner. But Gordon Brothers clearly feels that it remains ripe for revival and, with the might of IMG behind the licensing and partnerships, an interesting future awaits. It's already off to a strong start. A deal has already been struck with Next to resurrect its homewares and it has collaborated with premium women's contemporary brand Batsheva on a collection that is being sold in high end outlets such as Matchesfashion.
IMG Vice President, Tim Smith, says of its plans: “For almost 70 years, Laura Ashley’s iconic, quality-led designs, prints and patterns have continued to inspire the most coveted styles and fashion trends around the world.
“We are eager to leverage this rich heritage and the Laura Ashley archive, comprising more than 98,000 pieces of unique artwork, textiles and footage, to develop relevant new fashion and lifestyle products for existing and new fans of the brand."
While we wait for the results of this new deal to come through, we take a look back at the rich history of this uniquely British brand.
In History: Laura Ashley
1953: Inspired by a handicrafts exhibition at the V&A, Laura Ashley begins printing her Victorian-inspired designs – starting with headscarves, which were sold mail order and through John Lewis – at her home in Pimlico, London on a machine designed by husband Bernard. The pair establish the business together.
1955: The business moves to new premises in Kent.
1961: The business and the Ashley family move to Wales and the first store is opened in Machynlleth at 35 Maengwyn Street.
1967: Laura Ashley opens its first factory in Carno, Montgomeryshire. Laura develops her first dresses on printing presses developed by Bernard and her signature midi length style is born. The style captured the fashion mood perfectly as young women moved on from the mini-skirt that had characterised the decade to date.
1968: The first shop to bear the Laura Ashley brand name was opened in Pelham Street, South Kensington.
Early 1970s: More shops followed and it is said that in a one week alone a store on the Fulham Road sold 4,000 dresses in a week.
1974: A Laura Ashley store opens in Paris and is the first to feature the distinctive green branding. A store is also opened in San Francisco and a licensing deal is struck to open concessions in international department stores.
1977: The brand is awarded a Queen's Award for Export.
1979: A perfume range is launched as well as home furnishings.
1985: The company has expanded to include 220 stores globally and Laura Ashley dies unexpectedly of brain haemorrhage following a fall, just weeks before the company is floated. The company also expands into Japan.
1987: Bernard Ashley is knighted.
1991: The company over-extends through licensing and is loss-making. American James Maxim is appointed CEO.
1992: Laura Ashley returns to profitability.
1994: Maxim departs abruptly due to strategic disagreements with Bernard Ashley.
1998: As the business's financial problems continue, a new backer is found in the form of MUI Asia Limited, which rescues it from administration.
2002: The business enters into a legal dispute with L'Oreal over its perfume. While Laura Ashley wins, the damages is receives do not cover the costs of the action.
2004: Scottish couturier, Alistair Blair, formerly of Dior and Givenchy, takes over design but remains only for a year.
2005: Laura Ashley closes its Regent Street store due to high rents but the business posts a profit in this year, as well as 2006.
2009-2012: The company is hit with a number of issues including accusations of price discrepancies between the UK and Ireland, a breach of fair employment conditions in a case raised in Northern Ireland and a string of unfavourable online reviews, which it brushes off citing rising sales.
2016: Its Australian operations are placed into voluntary liquidation but continue to trade for a further two years.
2018: A long-standing relationship with Aeon, which ran its stores in Japan, was terminated. 120 stores in Japan were subsequently closed. Itochu Corporation takes up the licensing agreement in Japan. All Australian operations cease. 40 UK stores are closed.
2019: Chairman Andrew Khoo says the business is targeting expanding online sales and growth in China, as well as announcing a move into new ventures in tearooms and hotels. The brand collaborates with Urban Outfitters.
March 2020: The company announces it is being placed into administration due to the onset of the pandemic.
April 2020: US investor and retail turnaround expert Gordon Brothers acquires the brand, its archives and select IP.
August 2020: Administrators market the brand's Welsh manufacturing base for sale.
October 2020: The brand signs a deal with Next to relaunch its homewares across its 500 stores, announces a collaboration with Batsheva for Spring 2021.
April 2021: Gordon Brothers and IMG announce a partnership which will lead to a return to fashion and the expansion of its homewares globally.
All images: Alamy