In recent weeks there has been a flurry of support for the quintessentially British brand, Laura Ashley as they struggle to survive. The brand has been troubled for a while, lost and without soul in the ever generic high street. Whilst to many this wasn't a surprise, it certainly brought back memories to so many who loved Laura Ashley in its former glory.
I first discovered Laura Ashley as a small child in the 70's when my Mum would take me to their beautiful shop in Chester. A two storey shop in a period timbered house, it was the emporium of dreams. You could buy bags of fabric scraps (how sustainable is that now!), and one of my first projects was making a patchwork cushion. The shops were always crammed, queues to the changing rooms, clothes strewn everywhere. My Mum loved sewing and bought fabrics for dresses and home, my teenage bedroom was a haven of pink and white ‘Campion’ print on walls, curtains, and homemade beanbags. As I grew up I craved the 'ready' rather than home made clothes and was so excited when my Mum bought my first ‘ensemble’ of cotton lawn bikini and matching ruffled sarong… I wish I had it now!
In the early 90's, after stints at Fendi, Marks and Spencer and Jigsaw, I was approached to work for the brand of my childhood. The first 2 years working there were really happy, a community spirit that emanated from the top with a ‘family’ who were passionate about the brand. Of all the places I have worked, it was a community of textile artists, clothes designers, pattern makers and machinists under one roof, all rare in the British high street at the time and you really felt like this was a design hub. Sometimes I’d get to visit Carno in Wales, home of the original factories where they not only made the clothes but printed them too. The best days were spent looking through the archives and incredible print books to choose the look of the next season. Sadly after the company was floated, the love seemed to fade from the brand… it was the age of power dressing and the gentle prettiness didn’t really sit with the times. Ikea had 'chucked out the chintz' and the new owners wanted to move away from the original Laura roots. Such a shame.
I still feel very inspired by the brand. I've collected some original vintage dresses and even have many of my sketchbooks from that time that I dip into every now and again. One of my favourite archive pieces is a beautiful cream calico and cotton lace dress from the early 80’s. What I love about it is that the fabric is tough and workaday whilst being the most romantic style, practical and pretty at it's best. And the sleeves… yes to sleeves at any age, especially when you get a bit older and don’t feel so confident about your arms! And now I find my teenage daughter loves the dresses, one of her favourites, an original 70’s prairie style, too tiny for me but she loves wearing it with chunky boots to give it an edge. I think that’s part of the appeal of Laura Ashley, these clothes were made for real women, 'modern heroines' that despite references to period pieces, the clothes were practical and made for living in.
I also have a slightly later 90’s silk tea dress, one I worked on personally with a beautiful hand painted floral scattered over it. Again, a timeless vintage piece that has surpassed any trends. A similar one was bought by Princess Diana, she loved the brand and she used to shop at the Kensington branch after hours.
I try to carry forward the original values of the company into my own. If Laura Ashley was starting today, I think so many of the original values would be relevant now, in the more sustainable slow fashion world…making locally, timeless style, natural eco friendly fabrics that are crafted and unique. I’ve always loved working for brands that have a strong point of view so that has remained to this day and I hope that my clothes carry that strength of reason. There was a sense of community at Laura Ashley which generated through the business and local factories and out to the customers, in this digital age that has been replaced by social media and a community built via Instagram but used properly, I hope that the same community, kindness and shared love of slow fashion comes through.
I learnt that to be a strong brand you have to be single minded, it doesn’t matter if everyone doesn’t like what you do as long as you capture your audience through your passion. Laura Ashley was passionate about making clothes with art, culture and romance at it’s roots, all concepts that I try and bring to my clothes now. Customers often say to me that my clothes remind them of Laura Ashley, romantic pretty dresses but not too precious to wear all day, washable and practical. Natural fabrics and pockets, yes pockets!… Laura Ashley clothes always had pockets and I would never design without them.
Perhaps, after decades of androgynous dressing, it’s a moment to reclaim femininity and realise that it’s okay to wear pretty clothes without being seen as the weaker sex. We can dress up and take pleasure in it. Now, I’d wear the vintage dresses with tough boots and a big mans cardi…much like the very first styling in the Laura Ashley photos.
I wanted to share some of my favourite Laura Ashley photos from years past in homage to the brand of old.
News flash! - news has broken this week that Laura Ashley has found a saviour with a new CEO and financial support. I've read they will be reviving their archive and reviving the spirit of the brand. Let's hope that this special British heritage brand can be revived. In the meantime, I'll keep designing for contemporary prairie girls and modern romantics of all ages!