The rise of Laura Ashley

Kiran Singh

Fashion and furniture retailer Laura Ashley is celebrating 2016 that saw the company enjoy huge sales and begin to plan their latest international expansion — a website to be opened via Chinese online operator Tmall and the selling of clothing at the House of Fraser store in Nanjing, China.

To rejoice in a fantastic 12 months for the firm, Norwood Interiors — that is host to a selection of stunning Laura Ashley kitchen collections — looks at how the company has grown since their inception in the 1950s:

The origins of Laura Ashley

Laura Ashley’s story can be traced all the way back to 1953 when a Women’s Institute exhibition on traditional handicrafts at the Victoria and Albert Museum inspired Laura and Bernard Ashley to begin printing fabric.

This operation started small, with the fabric printed on the couple’s kitchen table, using wood for a screen, dyes and some linen. The initial result was a series of small squares, complete with geometric patterns, though it wasn’t long before they expanded into producing tea towels, placemats and small scarves — the latter were even sold in John Lewis and Heal’s stores.

A landmark moment came for Laura and Bernard Ashley in 1954 when the couple made Ashley Mountney Ltd a registered company — the brand was a combination of Laura’s maiden and married names — though soon after they decided to change the firm to Laura Ashley to better reflect the products they were creating.

The highs and lows of Laura Ashley’s early days

The Laura Ashley name is recognisable across the home interior world today, but in 1958 the company almost ceased to exist when the River Darent in Kent overflowed and flooded Ashley’s home.

Printing equipment, fabrics and dyes were all ruined as a result of the incident. However, the couple managed to quickly recover and were able to open a showroom in London later that same year. Visitors were able to see a breadth of the company’s collections, including a series of small domestic items and large-scale single panel, printed textiles that were being used by the likes of P&O.

Another exciting development occurred for the Laura Ashley brand in 1960, when they opened a shop in the Welsh market town of Machynlleth.

The 1960s would prove to be incredibly successful for the firm, highlighted by the following moments:

  • Another Laura Ashley store was established in a vacant social club based in Carno, Montgomeryshire, though this was relocated to the local railway station in 1967.
  • Bernard Ashley developed his first flatbed printing machine — it was capable of producing 5,000 metres of fabric on a weekly basis.
  • In 1966, Laura Ashley began to produce their first dress that was designed for social rather than work occasions.
  • The first Laura Ashley shop in London opened its doors in 1968 — it could be found in South Kensington.
  • The brand again expanded in 1969, this time opening a store in Shrewsbury.

Laura Ashley ventures onto an international stage

Thanks to licensing operations, the Laura Ashley brand was soon able to expand again — this time onto an international stage with department store concessions opening in Australia, Canada and Japan in 1971. By 1974, Laura Ashley shops could also be found in Paris, France, and the US city of San Francisco.

In fact, the firm had grown so much that by 1975 the company had more than 40 shops and employed around 1,000 people – and was achieving an annual turnover of £5 million.

These impressive facts and stats saw Laura Ashley presented with the Queen’s Award for Export in 1977. However, the brand wasn’t ready to slow down and was able to reach a turnover of £25 million in 1979 — the same year that they launched a new selection of perfumes to add to their ever-expanding product range.

A shift in focus for the Laura Ashley brand

During the closing months of the 1970s and into the early part of the 1980s, the Laura Ashley brand embarked on two significant changes:

  1. The style of their products began to take on a grander, more country house look.
  2. Laura Ashley began to shift her focus from fashion to home furnishings.

The latter was particularly important to the company during the 1980s. The first full home furnishings catalogue by the company was released in 1981, before a Decorator Collection, complete with radical designs and prints aimed at the interior design market, launched the following year. The Laura Ashley style quickly caught attention, to the point where The Laura Ashley Book of Home Decorating was published in 1983.

Unfortunately, all of these exciting developments were overshadowed when Laura died in 1985. The Laura Ashley brand made sure to keep Laura’s strong values and design ethos intact following her passing, which could be seen with the launches of the brand’s Mother and Child collection, the Laura Ashley Home collection and the Chatsworth House Collection during the latter part of the 1980s.

The successes achieved by Bernard Ashley were also recognised as the 1980s drew to a close when he was knighted. The next decade would see Sir Bernard retiring as Chairman of Laura Ashley and then serve as honorary president until 1998.

Ushering in the Laura Ashley brand as we know it today

The Laura Ashley brand as we know it today took shape thanks in part to these developments over the past 20 years or so:

  • MUI Asia Limited became a major shareholder in the Laura Ashley brand in May 1998.
  • 1999 witnessed the launch of the Laura Ashley Design Service — this was introduced to Laura Ashley stores throughout the UK.
  • Lauraashley.com went live in October 2001.
  • Production operations at Laura Ashley moved to a single site in Newtown, Powys, in 2005.

So how is Laura Ashley faring in the current market? In August 2016, the company revealed that it had achieved full-year pre-tax profits of £25.8 million in the 74 weeks leading to June 30th 2016. During this period, the brand had also seen like-for-like sales increase by 4.1 per cent and online sales jump by 51 per cent.

Reflecting on these figures as well as looking to the future of the Laura Ashley brand, the company’s chairman Tan Sri Dr Khoo Kay Peng commented: “I am pleased with the overall performance of the business. Continued like-for-like growth in the UK market, boosted by the good performance of our digital channel, is encouraging … In a time of uncertainty for retail and the global economy at large, I am optimistic and confident that Laura Ashley will remain a business with solid foundations to withstand challenges as they arise.”

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