Flowers in the attic

Laura Ashley has become a fashion no-go in recent years, but, as the new designer in charge tells Susie Mesure, the company's floral-sprigged past is the key to its future
Click to follow
The Independent Online

If Laura Ashley's former fanbase is unaware that there are changes afoot at the shop, then it's hardly surprising. Chances are that the group's multiple fashion faux pas have long since forced them to switch allegiance to Karen Millen or Monsoon.

If Laura Ashley's former fanbase is unaware that there are changes afoot at the shop, then it's hardly surprising. Chances are that the group's multiple fashion faux pas have long since forced them to switch allegiance to Karen Millen or Monsoon.

Claims that the struggling company, which never fully recovered from the death of its founder almost 20 years ago, is turning the corner tend to fall on deaf ears. Its attempt to forge an international lifestyle brand ended in near-collapse in the mid-1990s because it had expanded too far, too fast. Its valuation - on the stock market and in the eyes of its customers - was decimated. Yet now, there is reason to believe that its rails might merit another browse - and not just for the sales bargains.

Twelve months ago, the chain turned to the world of high fashion to find itself a fashion director with international appeal. Early signs are that the choice of Alistair Blair, who cut his cloth at the likes of Christian Dior, Givenchy and Valentino, could just put the company back on its feet some six years after it nearly went bust.

The genesis of optimism lies in the unlikely revolution that Blair is leading from the company's elegant west-London base. Unlikely because it centres on the very thing that won Laura Ashley international acclaim during its heyday: floral prints.

The group may be famous for its winsome collections of sprigged frocks, but it has been some years since it actually staked its reputation on them. It has been even longer since its famous prints have been used with anything approaching the breath of fresh air that they engendered when they hit the British fashion scene in the Sixties.

Laura Ashley famously started her business in 1954 by designing floral scarves at her kitchen table. She died in 1985, two months before the business floated. "From a design point of view, the company lost its way when she died," Blair says.

Lacking that figurehead, the company hit the headlines more for the boardroom rows between Sir Bernard Ashley and a series of executives, than for the quality of its products. In the past 10 years, it has had seven chief executives, including the two, somewhat unusually, who head it today. Since 1998, it has been controlled by MUI, a Malaysian conglomerate with interests ranging from cement to department stores, which came to its rescue with a £44m cash injection just days before its bankers were preparing to give up on it.

With its founder gone, the suits in the boardroom saw an opportunity to abandon the company's former floral niche in favour of a more middle-of-the-road approach to selling clothes. But in seeking to ape Marks & Spencer by selling boring basics at affordable prices, all that Laura Ashley really managed to do was reinvent itself as M&S's frumpier country cousin.

Blair believes that the fault lay in the group's failure to play to its strengths. "We have an archive print room in which you could spend years," Blair says, referring to the treasures hidden away at the late Laura Ashley's farmhouse in Carno, mid-Wales. Yet until his arrival, the company had all but ignored its existence. While the fashion world, from Dolce & Gabbana down, was waking up to the power of print, Laura Ashley was going monochrome. In an effort to make up for misreading the power-dressing era of the 1980s, the company skipped the very gypsy-chic look that it had pioneered.

"We never used it properly. We were scared of it," Blair says of the expansive archive. But he knows that fashion's current love affair with all things floral is the perfect backdrop for a new-look, old-look Laura Ashley. As he unveiled his autumn/winter collection last week, which will hit the stores next month, Blair paid homage to the company's heritage by plastering it liberally over skirts, blouses and dresses. "The trick has been taking archive prints and recolouring them." Grabbing a floral-print silk tea-dress in cream and chocolate brown, he says: "The original colour was dark red and mustard." It isn't only about using this season's colours: prints have been blown up or shrunk, mixed together or even singled out to reappear embroidered on to hems, waistbands, pockets.

Prints also reappear on the company's new range of bags and shoes - its first serious attempt to break in to the high-margin accessories market. As a fashion- industry lifer, Blair knows that accessories are the profit lifeline of most luxurious fashion labels (see, for instance, Burberry and Gucci), and he is conscious that Laura Ashley can do with any help it can get. Although the group returned to profit last year, sales from its clothing arm fell by 12 per cent during the spring. "What was holding us back," says Blair, "was that people were scared to take a risk. But when you're not sure what to do, you just have to jump."

For him, jumping isn't just about changing the look of the clothes; he has also altered their feel, upgrading fabrics so that skirts swirl around the thighs rather than sitting stiffly on the hips, and mohair-mix jumpers can be worn without risk of sandpapering your skin. "The main compliment we get now is that the fabrics are so much better - and the garments fit," he says.

Where the late Laura Ashley's designs were the antithesis of the Mary Quants of her world, Blair's feminine creations are intended to counter "the two years we have had of overly sexual clothes, with necklines slashed down to the waist, that people can't wear". Although he shies away from revealing for whom he is designing, the clues lie on the wall of photographs of a leggy blonde model in her late twenties. He admits: "Before, our big mistake was wanting to be all things to all people, and our fit was dreadful."

Failing even to profit from M&S's own relegation to high street also-ran, Laura Ashley could only stand by while its core audience of yummy mummies took their custom to Jigsaw and LK Bennett. While sales at Marks & Sparks plummeted, LK Bennett has managed to clock up annual sales of £32m, recently earning its founder, Linda Bennett, the Veuve Clicquot Businesswoman of the Year award, and a £1.8m personal fortune. Meanwhile, Jigsaw, privately owned by John Robinson, celebrated its success by launching a second brand, Kew, last year.

Alistair Blair - dressed in open-necked white shirt and black suit, à la Tom Ford - graduated from St Martins School of Art in 1975, and has spent nearly three decades working for major fashion houses in Europe and the US. Which means that, crucially, because Laura Ashley has more than 200 global franchises, his designs should travel. As Iain Nairn, the company's joint chief operating officer, says of the company's former failings: "We were trying to be a global brand but we were producing a fashion product aimed at an M&S customer in the UK."

These days, the group's remaining customers are more likely to know it for its home furnishings, which dominate sales. The enduring eclectic appeal of its faux-antique chandeliers and gingham curtains kept it afloat throughout its darkest days. But now, Blair hopes that by rehashing prints hitherto seen on its tablecloths - look out for its cream jacquard skirt, with giant flowers woven into the fabric - its home-furnishings archive can help to rejuvenate its core clothes arm.

He knows that it will not be easy. One decent skirt does not a reputation rebuild. "It's the mindset that we've got to get over, people's image of what we used to be like," he says. The current advertising campaign, its first in years, in women's glossies such as Marie Claire and Red, should help, as should the planned makeover for its UK shops. Already some of its London sites look less like a bargain basement on a bad day - one of the reasons for customers' departure - and more like the chic boutiques of its competitors.

And Blair is bullish: "The most amazing thing about Laura Ashley is that everyone loves it. The brand name is so well respected. To build a label like that today is virtually impossible. It's now our time."