Laura Ashley: Back to the future

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At 60, Laura Ashley delves into its archive and uncovers a  little-seen side to a high-street pioneer, says Alexander Fury

Despite the fact that they started to  design clothes just as the Sixties began to swing, that decade’s graphic shifts are the last thing you think of when it comes to Laura Ashley. Instead, you think of pastoral simplicity, of shepherdesses and billowing romanticism, and ruffles. Lots of ruffles.

The Laura Ashley label turns 60 this year, an anniversary that may be the motivation for confounding expectations and going against the grain. Ironically, the label is doing just that by delving into its own archive. To begin, it’s reissuing a design from its first year of business, 1953-4 – a silk scarf with a checkerboard print it named Pelham – alongside a collection that pays homage to the era’s twin obsessions of high hemlines and Op Art prints.

The name Pelham comes from the South Kensington street where Ashley opened her first emporium in 1968 at the height of the Sixties. She began to make clothing a few years earlier, alongside the popular homeware range that also continues today. Business was slow to begin with, but by 1970, Ashley’s Fulham Road branch was shifting 4,000 frocks in a single week.

The label’s current switch backwards, from Seventies milkmaids to Sixties monochrome, is canny. The influence of the Sixties, so abundant for spring/summer 2013, is still running at full pelt as we slide into winter – Burberry Prorsum name-checked Christine Keeler, Simone Rocha cut neat suits in Jackie Kennedy pink, and Pucci’s signature print whirled across short dresses above decidedly kinky boots. It’s the print that makes the Laura Ashley pieces swing, too, with above-the-knee dresses in square or triangle prints, or grid-patterned trousers and cardigans.

The styles are suitably clean and crisp as well, with no jabots, bows or puff sleeves in sight. There’s even – would you believe – a hint of punk. A shoot in 1976, the year Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood opened Seditionaries on the King’s Road, shows a Chrissie Hynde-like model slathered in eyeliner sporting a short, strict shift. Laura Ashley? Really?

That’s the really interesting thing about this archive collection: it shows a side of the label that many weren’t even aware existed,  although it’s the very foundation of the business. The Pelham scarf’s blocky square graphics may synch perfectly with Sixties geometrics, but it was the first thing Laura and Bernard Ashley created, printed on their kitchen table. It’s amazing how something so old can suddenly look quite so new again.

The Laura Ashley Archive Collection 2013 launches in stores and online today, lauraashley.com

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