Son comes back to save Laura Ashley name

Roger Dobson meets the designer rallying to his family's troubled firm
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Nick Ashley, son of Laura, is preparing to rejoin the crisis- hit company that carries his late mother's name.

Mr Ashley, who was design director of Laura Ashley for 15 years through some of the company's most buoyant times, left three years ago to start his own successful design business.

"I have recharged my batteries and I am looking at what I can contribute and go back in to do my bit," he said yesterday at the remote mid-Wales cottage where he and his family are staying.

Laura Ashley, a dominant British fashion brand of the Seventies and Eighties, was plunged into further crisis last week when its design and buying director, Basha Cohen, quit. She was the third director to resign in the past two months from a company whose shares have plunged from 219p last September to a low of 50p last week, closing at 52.5p on Friday.

Critics say the company is associated with dated designs and analysts have suggested that the position of Ann Iverson, the company's pounds 1m-a-year chief executive, could be called into question if the company's fortunes are not reversed. She took over in 1995 with a reputation as a hard-driving executive who could turn the company around, but has yet to deliver.

If members of the Ashley family do become more involved, it will be a reminder of the successful years when Laura, husband Sir Bernard and their children all played a part in its huge success, employing more than 4,000 people.

Nick, Laura's youngest son, said: "Since leaving I have developed my own shop and wholesale business which sells men's casual wear that I design to 25 shops across Japan as well as New York. Those are hard markets to get into.

"The Nick Ashley label is something I have gone off and done by myself. I haven't needed outside assistance at all. My father offered to lend me a tenner, which is what he started up with, but I haven't taken him up on that offer yet.

"In three years I have built up a good company with a turnover of around pounds 750,000. I design and do everything except manufacture it, which I have done in factories in Britain, and so my profits are about 45 per cent."

Mr Ashley, who retains a substantial financial holding in Laura Ashley, said he did not want to go into detail about the company and what he would be doing, but said he hoped to be contributing on the design side but not as an executive, "more of an adviser".

"I'm not sure how much stock I have and that doesn't really bother me. I am much more interested in the brand name than the money. It is my mother's name, it is the family brand, I helped to build it up, and I am very proud of it. Money does not enter the equation.

"I left the company three years ago. I think the company had to go through a metamorphosis and it had a number of channels to go down. It has gone down some of the right routes, and it has taken some of the wrong routes.

"I want to get back in the hope of doing something to help. Laura Ashley was Britain's most successful fashion name and nothing has come close to it. It is a shame to see it performing badly, but it is only the company performing badly, not the brand."

The crisis is a far cry from the heady days of the Sixties and Seventies when Laura Ashley became a household name throughout the western world with its trademark of floral prints, frilly blouses, and long skirts. It was in the vanguard of a fashion and cultural movement which embraced natural fibres and a wholesome way of life.

The company grew rapidly from its first commercial premises in a disused railway station at Carno in mid Wales in 1963 and at one time it controlled 11 factories in Britain and was opening new shops at the rate of one a week with 225 around the world. It also accounted for 20 per cent of all UK exports of women and children clothing to the UK.

Almost exactly 12 years ago, a year before the company was floated, Laura Ashley herself died after falling down stairs aged 60.

In recent years there has been criticism that the company is too associated with designs that are chintzy and floral, although the company's range has diversified and supporters say the out-of-date perception is not deserved.

Iverson to stay, Business