HISTORY : Laura Ashley ~ Classic, Beautiful, Timeless...
"I reckon that women looked their best at the turn of the century..." ~ Laura Ashley
Laura Ashley is one of the world's most recognisable British brands and has over 40 years experience in making beautiful clothing with retro styling and timeless chic, capturing the essence of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and the 20s and 30s, which makes all of its designs quintessentially English and timeless.
Laura's love of all things Victorian led to the longer length silhouette which would become the company's trademark and was right on trend at the end of the 1960s when fashion turned from the mini to the maxi ~ a trend that has since returned with force, emphasising Laura Ashley's timeless quality. In 1961 Laura Ashley and her husband Bernard moved from their Kent home, the original design and production venue, to Carno in Wales to enable them to expand the business and be inspired by the rolling Welsh countryside.
Having expanded into clothing design and manufacture in the 1960s, in 1966 Laura produced her first dresses for social rather than work attire ~ these were the first ‘true’ Laura Ashley dresses which often evoked a rural, 19th century feel, characterised by romantic designs and the use of natural fabrics ~ in plums, browns, earth-hewn tones and other natural colours that lent themselves to a colour palette which reflected quality, subtlety and nostalgia ~ the latter mirroring a trend in dressing that came with the end of the 60s.
The longer length silhouette became the company’s trademark and worked in their favour, as fashion lengths switched from mini to maxi. The dresses were made from the textiles printed by the company, often in natural fabrics, and the designs were sometimes modern interpretations of antique prints (influences included English Medieval, William Morris, Chinese and Egyptian). The 20s and 30s were also brilliantly referenced with sailor dresses in the loveliest, most lightweight linens of cream and white with iconic styling ~ indeed, these dresses have become very sought after and are typical of Laura’s love of classic lines, beauty and nostalgia that evoke a very particular part of English heritage. With these modern versions of fashion from times gone by, she had hit upon a "brand new version of the past”.
A major influence on her dress designing was her 'Wren’s uniform': "The uniform was a very good quality navy gabardine and you could press it and wear it with a clean white cotton shirt and collar and tie...and with a nice, elegant little hat and black leather shoes." This styling became particularly evident in her beautifully tailored riding dresses, equestrian influenced clothes and 20s inspired outfits ~ a vintage style that continues to influence modern fashion sensibilities.
The ‘Laura Ashley look’ became synonymous with a graceful simplicity in women’s styles and the enduring popularity of long, period-inspired gowns, voluminous peasant dresses, drop-waisted sailor dresses, riding dresses and equestrian style coats with their effortlessly vintage appeal and evocations of the idyllic pastoral lifestyle and past eras.
Laura Ashley had studied 18th and 19th century prints in museum collections for her miniature floral patterns and her countryside aesthetic towards the end of the sixties saw the business boom (and bloom) with extraordinary and rapid success that proved to be built on an almost unshakeable foundation.
Having opened her first shop in Machynlleth in 1960, and her first London shop in 1968, the early vintage/heritage inspired designs of this arbiter of fashion and lifestyle became so in demand (in one week alone, the Fulham Road shop sold 4,000 dresses) that by the mid 70s, dresses from her factories in the heart of mid Wales were being sold across Europe and by the mid 1980s, there were over 200 stores across the world.
Currently, the desire to reference vintage style in fashion has returned and vintage fashion is now extremely sought after everywhere, boosting the popularity of Laura Ashley’s vintage pieces which are now being exhibited in vintage collections and coveted by collectors worldwide. Laura Ashley’s early designs are now used as inspiration by couture designers ~ and similar, nostalgically beautiful, prints are emerging all over the fashion industry. A look at the runways reveal the influence that Laura Ashley has had on modern fashion, as vintage inspired pieces and fabrics and patterns strut down the catwalk, from floral Victorian style dresses and equestrian pieces to floaty chiffon and summery, lightweight cottons and linens, causing fashion editors to reminisce on the romantic aspect of fashion’s history and on Laura Ashley’s iconically important place within it.
Laura Ashley's significant place in British fashion history was further cemented in Summer 2013 with the first major retrospective of the designer held at Bath’s fashion museum and the Bowes museum in Co Durham ~ showcasing over 70 vintage dresses and capturing Laura Ashley’s characteristic look of the 60s and 70s which inspired a generation of women.
This vintage British brand evoked a sense of permanence with its links to the past and dependence on the natural that contrasted dramatically during its emergence with the more transient and overtly manufactured styles of other designers. Its association with excellent tailoring and quality is famous worldwide ~ and it has at its heart a classic, timeless endurance which became the Laura Ashley ethos and signature look and which has become extremely sought after today.
Modern fashionistas adore Laura Ashley pieces, especially her earliest clothing which represents her vision of timeless romance in the way Laura Ashley herself truly envisioned it. Many brides worldwide now carefully select a beautiful vintage Laura Ashley dress for their wedding, whether in white, cream or for a more bohemian look, a patterned or floral design ~ and bridesmaids and maids of honour increasingly look to vintage Laura Ashley pieces, especially her 20s/30s inspired sailor dresses, for these special occasions when they want to look nostalgically beautiful.
Laura Ashley vintage pieces are now collected, worn, adored and desired! ~ and once you have seen and worn their clothing you'll know why!
From printing headscarves in 1953 to the immutable style icon that she has become, perhaps Laura Ashley’s success can be summed up by her attitude to fashion:
“I don’t like ephemeral things; I like things that last forever...”