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From Humble Beginnings to a Household Name: Laura Ashley

Laura Ashley

When I think of the ‘Laura Ashley look’, I immediately think of the feminine floral dresses that were the hallmark of the company for so long, but some of her early pieces were incredibly practical and included oven gloves and gardening smocks. It is also possible to see some how she took much inspiration from antique make-do and mend Welsh quilts in some of her early designs. The brand of Laura Ashley became renowned for quintessentially British prints and romantic designs and from humble beginnings it grew into an internationally recognised name. At some stage or another I think everyone has either owned a piece of clothing or pair of curtains brandishing the name of Laura Ashley. Regardless of whether the designs are to your taste you have to admire the original genius behind the textile designs. Now a global empire the business was originally a true cottage industry that saw a husband and wife team utilising their kitchen table and domestic cooker to create the visions of the woman who gave her name to the business. With an initial investment of ten pounds ploughed into wood for the screen frame, dyes and a few yards of linen; credit must be given to Laura’s inspiration and Bernard Ashley’s aspiration for growing the business.

The remarkable woman behind the label of Laura Ashley was the Welsh born, Laura Mountney who with no formal art or textile training just had a natural, inborn talent for design. Upon leaving school Laura studied at secretarial college and then during the Second World War, she served in the Women’s Royal Naval Service, and then from 1945 to 1952 as a secretary for the National Federation of Women’s Institutes in London. Whilst in London she met her future husband, Bernard Ashley, marrying in him 1945. It proved to be a productive union that would result in four children and a textile empire.

In her early married life Laura demonstrated her flair for design by crafting napkins, table mats and tea-towels from her kitchen table. Seeing the potential to grow a business, her husband joined forces with her and from the humble beginnings of their 1950’s kitchen table in their flat in Pimlico the seeds of family business were sown. Initially profits were minimal and every penny was treasured and re-invested in the enterprise and I really admire these modest times in the company’s history.

Laura had a nostalgic heart and a longing for her home-land of Wales that resulted in many of her designs being inspired by old Welsh quilts. Laura’s nostalgic romanticism would prove popular and would see her develop her iconic fashion designs. After the bold, geometric designs that dominated the sixties Laura’s fashion range launched in 1966 were uplifting with their naivety and classic heroine styling. These dresses had a rural simplicity to them and the designs were often modern interpretations of antique prints. The dresses that were often Victorian inspired captured a soft and nostalgic essence that was to become all the rage at the end of the 1960’s. I have a few retro Laura Ashley dresses lurking in my wardrobe and I notice how they have crept back into fashion again, but there was a time when floral wonders of Laura Ashley had fallen from grace and people were likening them to curtain fabric. I have always personally liked the vintage Laura Ashley designs although when wearing the early creations I do always feel the desire to recreate scenes from ‘Darling Buds of May’ and attend village fetes or watch cricket matches on the village green. Whether you love or loathe these early creations Laura Ashley is the woman who changed ladies fashion from mini skirt to maxi dress and I personally will always be thankful to her for that.

With Laura’s keen interest in nostalgia it wasn’t long before she was hankering after her native Wales and eventually the family and business moved to Powys. Once settling the business into the Old Railway House in Carno, Mid Wales, the original cottage industry continued to grow. Some of the early business practices were as nostalgic as the designs themselves with many of the clothes being initially made by local women in their homes, reminiscent of the home lace makers from the previous century. Bundles of clothes would be delivered to women up and down the valleys who would turn collars and cuffs for extra cash.

It wasn’t long before there was a string of Laura Ashley stores across the UK and on the Continent with the first Store in the US opening in 1974. Millions of women just fell in love with the ‘English Rose’ styling and dresses that seemed to have stepped straight out of a cottage garden. Some of the designs were just pure maiden with styles that looked as if they belonged on the set of Thomas Hardy’s, ‘Tess of the D’urbervilles’.

Laura Ashley

Drawing so much inspiration from the past I fully imagined Laura Ashley’s family home to be a country mansion with walled gardens and a fair share period styling. During her lifetime she frequently passed a country hall situated in the Wye Valley and often remarked to her husband Bernard what a splendid hotel it would make, if it were restored. The impressive building once known as Llangoed Castle dates back to 1632 although it is rumoured that a property has been on this site since 560AD. It is steeped in history and from an architectural point of view alone it is quite magnificent.

Sadly Laura’s dream to restore the property herself never came to fruition as it was not for sale in her life-time, however, some years after her death the property became available and Sir Bernard Ashley seized the opportunity to buy it in the memory of his late wife with the aim of realising her vision of turning it into a hotel. After standing empty for twelve years, in 1987 Bernard set about overhauling the country estate into a destination of notable grandeur, today known as Llangoed Hall. In 1990 the doors of the hotel were opened to the public and it wasn’t long before it won a string of awards and although it no longer belongs to the family, Llangoed Hall can still be enjoyed as a luxury 5 star hotel and remains a destination steeped in Ashley family history. When I visited, it struck me that although Laura had never lived at Llangoed Hall her presence was captured in the country house styling of the hotel that has become synonymous with the fabric designer. The framed Ashley family photographs resting on the mantelpiece in the drawing room lend a nice reminder of the family connection and there are some wonderful Jane Ashley’s black and white campaign photos from the 1970’s displayed in the hotel that serve as a nice reminder of the halcyon days of the Laura Ashley fashion empire. The mixture of family photographs and eclectic antiques combined with the country house interiors made it endearing, but combined with many of the works of art from the late Bernard Ashley’s collection made for impressive viewing. The art collection includes formal oil portraits by Douglas Stannus Gray and Hermann Dudley Murphy to the pencil sketches by Augustus John and James Cowie, it is hardly surprising that parts of the collection are often loaned to prestigious art exhibitions.

There was a relaxed informality to the hotel and it did have a family home feel to it. I like to relax when I’m away and not feel on ceremony and little touches like being able to help yourself to drinks from the honesty bar in the drawing room all helped with this process, well let’s face it a good gin and tonic always aids the relaxation process. I must admit I rather fancied reclining on a chaise lounge with a good book, but the croquet lawn beckoned me. As I wandered around the grounds I must admit I temporarily forgot all about Laura Ashley as I could have quite easily been on the set of Downton Abbey. The gardens and parkland surrounding the hotel offer real Welsh escapism and it was nice just to sit and reflect, although my mind kept reflecting on the prospect of dinner especially as I navigated my way around the maze, well I’ve never had a good sense of direction.

I’ve noticed lately that the phrases ‘locally produced’ and ‘organic’ are buzz words that are bantered around every establishment I visit from hotels to tearooms and farm shops, so I must admit I becoming a bit de-sensitized to all this talk of ‘locally supplied’, but when I was offered the opportunity to be shown around the kitchen garden I was delighted to see that their organic kitchen garden was a working one and that the vegetables and herbs are taken from the garden just hours before they are served up to the hotels eager diners. There were three large poultry enclosures housing ducks, bantams and chickens that are responsible for providing all the eggs for the restaurant. It was nice to meet with the gardener and I wouldn’t mind borrowing him to sort out my vegetable patch as he was real green fingered dynamite. He has worked relentlessly for the past year to restore the kitchen gardens and although he told me there was still a long way to go I was in awe of what he had created. The team of chefs and gardener were working in harmony and it was operating like clockwork. The head chef Nick Brodie ensures that the ice creams and sorbets are made on site using the fruit growing on their own canes and he regularly goes foraging for local wild herbs and seasonal treats such as elderflowers. After hearing about home-made bread baked each day and of all the delights conjured up in the kitchen using truly local produce I must admit I was getting increasingly hungry and thankfully dinner didn’t disappoint. Served in an elegant dining room with candlelight Dinner, candlelit tables and crisp white linen the setting was something special and the food lived up to and exceeded all expectations.

The accommodation was an eclectic mix of antique mirrors, cast-iron baths and country chic combined with all the modern conveniences of Wi-Fi and good lighting. The rooms were spacious and well thought out with nice little touches like fresh fruit and a decanter of sherry. In all but one room the original Laura Ashley wallpaper has gone, but it still had an element of her styling about it. They even provide a crèche facility for husbands in the form of a games room allowing me the luxury of getting ready for dinner is peace, now that was a real treat. Although I have no interest in snooker or billiards I did take great interest in the beauty of the original oak door dating from 1632 that was hung in the games room and throughout the hotel there were lots of quirky historical features like this one.

The stay flew by and I enjoyed gaining a little more insight into the personal life of a fashion designer I have long admired. Before I left I remembered to go up to the second floor hallway to see a piece of unique Laura Ashley history. Framed in a glass case is an apron by Laura Ashley, one of the very first garments she produced for the brand. Seeing this rare bit of history was the perfect finish to a very tranquil break. The only downside was that I didn’t want to pack up and go home.




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