Dated, chintzy and floral - an image stuck in the Seventies

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In the Seventies, if a Laura Ashley floral smock featured in a woman's wardrobe, it was regarded as the height of fashion. In the Nineties, however, Laura Ashley is seen as an instant turn-off, especially in the cut-throat world of high-street fashion where public perception can make or break a brand name.

Laura Ashley clothes are well made, well priced, and readily available, so why do few people buy them? "The masses perceive them as dated, chintzy and floral," said one fashion pundit yesterday. Whereas, in fact, there are some very good fashionable pieces to be found in the stores. "Only last week I met a friend in a fabulous navy suit," she said. "It was by Laura Ashley, and my mouth nearly dropped open."

Anna Hickman, a public relations consultant who used to work promoting the brand, agrees the clothing side of the business is misconceived. "They haven't moved into the Nineties with the same speed as the other high- street chains, and it's a great shame," she said.

Loyal Laura Ashley customers are still catered for, but the younger generation of customers simply turns to more streetwise stores with enticing windows when it comes to fashionable clothes.

This problem could have been overcome in the early Nineties when grunge, which launched the careers of American designer Marc Jacobs, model Kate Moss and stylist Melanie Ward, was a huge fashion trend. Floral dresses were a so-called fashion "must-have" for the summers of 1992 and 1993, but what could have been a pivotal fashion coup passed Laura Ashley by.

Many in the fashion industry feel the clothing side should have a complete rethink. One past customer said: "Laura Ashley was like Biba in the Seventies. You just had to have it. But without Laura it seems to have lost its edge. Why don't they stop making clothes for a while and concentrate on the home furnishings, which are excellent?"

This would give the company a focus, but there are some who think the company is on the right track. Sarah Walter, fashion director at Marie Claire, produced a supplement with Laura Ashley for the May edition of the magazine, which showed the clothes as fresh, modern and relevant. "This summer, with all the florals around, we assumed it would be their season," she said.

Ms Walters feels that factors such as bad weather can put a dampener on sales, but concedes competition is fierce: "Fashion companies are extremely fast at picking up on trends and focusing on a specific customer base. Maybe Laura Ashley should take some tips from them and get rid of the things that don't work."