Without flowers you can't say it

The shares have plummeted, there have been profit warnings, key executives have resigned - the Laura Ashley company is going through a season in hell. Who knows if it will revive. That's what comes of blooming too brightly.
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How do you update a fashion label that is by its nature old-fashioned? How do you take a full-length, Edwardian-style cotton print dress, and reinvent it for the Nineties? The answer is, surely, that you don't. Can't.

And that, for all the talk of "issues of logistics" and other management- ese, is the problem that has brought the Laura Ashley company to its current financial crisis. In the Seventies we wore our hair down to our shoulders, wore floaty fabrics, ruffles. We harked back to an age of imagined courtliness and innocence. We went for high-waisted summer dresses and long smocks. We played at dressing up. We bought Laura Ashley (and how perfectly did her name match her look!): the high necks and long skirts, inspired by the wisdom of Laura Ashley's Welsh granny, who believed that the more you covered up, the greater your allure. It was all (give or take the low-cut bodice that went so well with jeans) so unsexily sexy. How very different from the Spice Girls generation.

"You would put on a Laura Ashley dress," recalls one 50-year-old woman, "and you immediately felt that your hair had got curly and your cheeks had got rosy and your feet had got tiny."

Laura Ashley's death in 1985 on the night of her 60th birthday was a tragic accident. The death of the style with which her name is even now synonymous, could, however, have been predicted. The company was always going to have to adapt to survive.

Hence the fashion label's hapless efforts to recreate itself. "Say it without flowers", ran a recent advertising slogan in America, announcing that the Laura Ashley look had evolved.

The woman herself was the prime secret of her company's success. "She not only caught that Seventies mood," says Penny Vincenzi, a best-selling author, former beauty editor and magazine feature writer, "she was very much a part of its creation."

A happy marriage, also, for Laura to the ebullient Bernard, a dynamic businessman, devoted to his wife. "She had lots of 18th-century and Victorian books, she'd say `Oh, that's pretty.' But you'd have thought if you met them that she was just the supportive wife, a nice lady who lived in the country and liked nice things, rather than the inspiration.

"They both had incredible enthusiasm, though. They talked about it all the time, they never stopped. And her instinct was so strong and so sure. The parallels with Biba are very marked: each was one woman's vision, absolutely clear. She had a special touch. I don't think she would have let them say `No more flowers'. I think she would have known what to do."

Vincenzi remembers with genuine fondness the time she was sent by Cosmopolitan magazine to interview Laura Ashley and her husband, Bernard. "I had to go to North Wales to meet the family, and she said `You can't drive there and back in a day, you must stay the night.' She was such a lovely, wonderful person. I arrived at about 11 in the morning, and by 12 I felt she was my best friend.

"They lived in an incredible stone-built house overlooking a valley. They'd only just become rich and moved there. The top of the mountain was in sight, and, you know, I think she was rather baffled by their success. "They'd worked their way up from selling tea towels and scarves. At this time they only had one or two shops. Their shop in Fulham Road was just packed with trendy, Sloaney girls, who would wander out in long skirts and you felt wonderful in those clothes.

"Now my daughter Emily would rather be run over by a truck than be seen in Laura Ashley. The clothes do seem to have lost their way, although the home furnishings still have the Ashley spirit. I know an awful lot of women who shop there, whose homes are a shrine to Laura Ashley."

Anyone aged twenty-minus, who has never seen a classic Laura Ashley, should nip down to The Pavilion Art Gallery and Museum, Brighton, which houses a Laura Ashley bestseller from 1968, a blue-and-white, full-length, Edwardian-style cotton print dress with high neck and lace trimmings. It is, indeed, a museum piece.

"People will tell you they remember their first Laura Ashley," says Emma Young, keeper of costume at the museum, musing on why the company has failed to capture a new market, and on the remote possibility that old- style Laura Ashley florals could have a second vogue. "In the early days they used to sell through other boutiques. A woman will say `I bought my Laura Ashley in a tiny shop in Lewes.' My mum bought and loved Laura Ashley, but no way would I want to wear my mum's old frocks."

There was a problem of image, or loss of image, she thought, compounded by a lack of press coverage. "I very rarely see them making fashion editorials. You will sometimes see in Marie Claire or Elle a spread featuring clothes from Next or Monsoon or Marks & Spencer, but it never seems to be Laura Ashley."

I remark on the rather puzzling fact that Laura Ashley sales actually picked up in 1986, after the death of the eponymous founder. "Well, in the mid-Eighties there was a boom of parties. At university everybody went to Laura Ashley for posh ball frocks, because they could just about squeeze the money for them out of their parents. They were the only high street chain that specialised in affordable English summer wedding outfits and affordable off-the-peg party frocks. Now a lot of the evening-wear party market has gone to Monsoon, which has a slightly younger feel about it.

"I haven't seen anything much in Laura Ashley for ages. Except, more recently, better linens and silks, more classic separates creeping in. They're trying to get there but somehow they're not quite doing it right. It might be that their colourways are a bit off. I can't put my finger on what's wrong. You see huge rails of things knocked down in their end- of-season sales.

"If they want to keep the 25 to 40 market, to attract into their shops women with disposable incomes for home furnishings and fashions - because they're not the cheapest - they need to look at what other people are doing."

They are up against the burgeoning catalogue market, Emma Young adds, they should have an eye to that increasingly hot competition which makes such clever use of trendy designer names.

One thing she will say for Laura Ashley, though: they do routinely stock size-18 plus. If the controversial new chief executive, Ann Iverson, is responsible, she deserves a pat on the back for this at least.

So, whither Laura Ashley? Wither Laura Ashley? "Actually, I think things had started to go wrong before she died," says Penny Vincenzi ruefully, "because the marketing people had moved in. Anita Roddick once said that running a company on market research was like driving while looking in the rear-view mirror."

And if Laura Ashley could be here today, what might she do to reverse the beleaguered chain's fortunes?

"She'd probably have said `Look, it's had its day, let's stop it.' Because it's all got a bit undignified, hasn't it?"n

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