Sir Bernard Ashley was the husband and business partner of the fashion and design legend Laura Ashley, who lent her name to the still-famous range of clothes, furniture and furnishings. In terms of a brand, Laura and Sir Bernard were a dream team: she the sensitive, creative designer who changed the look of millions of women and millions of homes; he the driven entrepreneur, ever intent on aggressive expansion of the business.
In personality terms, the contrast between them was striking. Laura was described as quiet and self-effacing, producing designs renowned for their often understated evocations of Victorian romanticism. Her husband, however, was noted for habits in the office which included kicking a fridge downstairs and furiously ripping telephones from the wall, establishing a reputation as a short-tempered, irascible and combative figure.
“He was capable of falling out with anyone, but I always found him an endearing character,” said Lord Hooson, a former chairman of Laura Ashley PLC. “Bernard and Laura were a tremendous team. He had the drive while she had better judgment. Laura would phone me up and say, ‘Do you know what he’s done now?’”
The combination of the mild and the tempestuous brought the Ashleys both fame and fortune. Their business, which began on their kitchen table with an investment of £10, developed into an international concern which made millions and employed thousands in many countries.
Tragically, Laura died in 1985 as the result of a fall in the home of one of her daughters at the height of the company’s glory. Afterwards came troubled years in which the business went into a decline, partly because fashions moved on, partly because the autocratic Sir Bernard fought with a series of company executives.
Ashley was born in 1926 in Brixton, south London, where his family ran a grocery shop. Although he claimed never to have passed an exam, he served as an officer in the Second World War with the Royal Fusiliers and the Gurkha Rifles. After the War, he worked in the City, an unsettled man who tried his hand at writing and other activities.
However, in 1949 he married Laura, whom he had met at a service dance when she was 17. “The minute I set eyes on him,” she fondly recalled, “I knew that this was the man I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.”
Born in Wales, she had served as a government secretary, a Wren and a civil servant, but it was at the kitchen table of their Pimlico flat in 1953, with materials costing a tenner, that the Ashley empire was born. Laura, who was pregnant at the time, had seen some headscarves during a trip to Italy and had been fascinated by a visit to the Victoria and Albert museum. She sketched out some designs, then she and her husband made a few samples which she took to stores such as John Lewis. They became an instant hit.
An early lucky boost came when Audrey Hepburn, starring with Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday, sported a headscarf which the Ashleys lost no time in recreating for the mass market. They sold like hot cakes.
With their business growing steadily, the Ashleys moved from London to rural Kent in 1955, allowing more space to print and develop the company. The whole operation was nearly wiped out in 1958 when the river Derwent overflowed and flooded the premises, ruining printing equipment, fabrics and dyes. By this stage their products included aprons, napkins, tea towels, dresses, smocks and blouses.
In the 1960s they moved on to Wales, very close to where Laura was born. Ashley had, by this point, developed a range of skills: from the outset, he had believed that the enterprise could grow enormously and he keenly studied printing and dyeing methods. Later he was prepared to invest in expensive machinery and to market Laura’s designs with great vigour.
It was in women’s fashions at the end of the 1960s that the Ashley brand |really took off, with its trademark long silhouette and feminine styles suddenly making it a must-have label for many women. In addition to being well-made and reasonably priced, the clothes became incredibly fashionable. They struck a laid-back note following the in-your-face excesses of the Swinging Sixties, with traditional, natural fabrics replacing harsher synthetics.
Autumnal browns and greens replaced starkness, with old-style pinafores and smocks creating a nostalgic air of Victoriana. Following an era of almost compulsory modernity, when the old-fashioned was almost universally rejected, many women turned with relish to the traditional revival heralded by Laura Ashley. She created quintessentially English and Welsh nostalgia, romance and whimsy. “I’m really a 19th-century person living in the 20th century,” she explained. “I don’t like cities and I feel happiest in and more inspired by the countryside. I don’t like ephemeral things. I like things that last forever, like the straw hat that you’re fond of and wear all your life.”
By the 1970s the brand was a household name – no British high street was complete without a Laura Ashley store – and there were hundreds of shops in almost 30 countries abroad. A particular high point for the company came when its Fulham Road branch sold 4,000 dresses in one week.
Sir Bernard, meanwhile, continued to fling the phones around, disconcerting staff and onlookers. But lack of self-control did not denote a lack of business acumen and he built the business with huge success. “This,” he once said wonderingly, “is like printing money.”
This was scarcely an exaggeration. As the profits piled up, the Ashleys acquired a private jet, a yacht and five homes which included a chateau in Picardy and a villa in the Bahamas. In 1978 they became tax exiles, moving to France: by last year, Sir Bernard’s estimated worth was £60m.
But many things went wrong after Laura’s death in 1985. Although the company was floated on the stock market with huge success in the same year, crises and management turmoil followed and profits and share values fell. Sir Bernard, the markets murmured, was over-ambitious, over-stretched, was almost impossible to work with and had not moved with the times. He in response blamed “bad managers”. In 1991, following boardroom battles, Ashley became non-executive chairman. In 2001, the family severed its links with the firm.
In later life, Ashley, who was knighted in 1987, dabbled in various ventures including a country house hotel in Wales, a chain of country house hotels in the US and a Welsh fabric company. In 1990 he got married again, to Regine Burnell, a Belgian photographer.
Sir Bernard Ashley, businessman: born 11 August 1926 Brixton, London; married 1949 Laura Mountney (died 1985; two sons, two daughters), 1990 Regine Burnell; died 14 February 2009.