As much as Proust’s madeleine evoked one man’s nostalgic memories of a far away past, a pair of Laura Ashley curtains could elicit recollections of a time back in the last decades when all things “Laura Ashley” was the rage. Invariably described as ‘quintessentially English,’ the Laura Ashley name conjured up images of pretty, romantic women and rooms draped in refined, graceful dresses and soft furnishings.

The Laura Ashley “brand” back then was based on much more than just a nebulous concept or trendy idea that other brands rely on today. Hers were beautiful, original, and quality merchandise. Laura Ashley fabrics were expensive but their goodness was palpable and their alluring motifs supremely seductive. Yet today, much of that golden glory has faded. This year marks the 25th anniversary of Laura Ashley’s untimely death from an accident at the age of 60, just as her company was about to go public. Since then it seemed like the spirit of Laura Ashley products had died with her.

Laura Ashley 1920-1985

As with most home decorators who came of age at that time, I became swathed in Laura Ashley in the 1980s when my children were born. We had just moved into a big colonial style house in Houston (as things are wont to be big in Texas), which meant that I had room upon room to play out my fancies. I wasn’t alone — it seemed like almost everyone in America wanted to turn their home into a Victorian English country cottage. The bright florals, demure pastels and stripes that were Ashley’s trademark adorning draperies, furniture, wallpapers, rugs, and even clothing were seen everywhere.

At the apex of her fame, Laura Ashley was perceived by the world as a brilliant and savvy businesswoman. But that was only peripherally true. In her biography “Laura Ashley: A Life by Design“, author Anne Sebba showed us a simple woman from Wales who was driven by her passion for fabric design to recreate a more perfect past where beauty, harmony, and serenity reigned in the home. Sebba had never met her subject and relied on archives, correspondence, and interviews of Ashley’s family, friends, and employees to write her account from a neutral, unsentimental, and unjudgmental perspective. What the author showed us was a woman full of contradictions who was a success in spite of herself. She left school when she was 16 and had no formal training of any kind. Yet she was bright and a hard worker who could teach herself to do anything from books. She was married to Bernard Ashley, a man who was somewhat of a bully, but the union suited her and together they built their business from nothing into a multi-million dollar enterprise.

Chateau de Remaisnil in Picardie, France, where Ashley lived and worked

Strangely enough, the popularity of her products never translated into real profits. The company grew “organically” without any business plan or strategy and considered by many experts to be an MBA case study for what *not* to do. “What I found when I arrived was a brilliant brand with tremendous customer loyalty and opportunities and potential, but internally a business mess,” said Ann Iverson after her tenure as CEO at Ashley in 1995. “The brand had lost its way from a design direction after Laura Ashley died, and no one had stood up and identified what the company’s point of view or identity was supposed to be.” Now, the Laura Ashley group is owned by a Malaysian conglomerate. The largest concentration of Laura Ashley stores is located in the UK with a significant number still remaining internationally.

Is it possible to conceive that Laura Ashley designs will once again come back in vogue? Laura Ashley had marketed a dream of English gentility and elegance, countryside wholesomeness and purity. In today’s Internet-speed society where fashions and trends change as quickly they emerge, it takes a driving force and an originality to propel a brand to the forefront and have it remain there. In the absence of which, Laura Ashley products risk becoming like Proust’s madeleine… an invocation of a romantic yet distant past.

Laura Ashley: A Life by Design
by Anne Sebba
207 pages