Laura Ashley’s new female CEO says brand will return to traditional roots

Laura Ashley’s new CEO has vowed to ‘bring Laura back’ and revive its ‘timeless’ designs after taking over the struggling British fashion brand. 

The high street brand, favoured by Princess Diana in the 1980s, was taken over by Katharine Poulter last month after the company announced losses and a 10.4 per cent fall in sales. 

Its once beloved floral frocks and flowing dresses have recently been worn by the likes of Kate Garraway and Holly Willoughby despite the brand’s dramatic fall from popularity over the past three decades. 

Laura Ashley’s exposure from the presenters has created growing interest in the brand, according to Poulter, with more than 60 per cent of recent sales from new customers.

Diana, Princes of Wales, is pictured in a Laura Ashley dress in Notting Hill, west London, in 1992

Diana, Princes of Wales, is pictured in a Laura Ashley dress in Notting Hill, west London, in 1992

Laura Ashley’s new female CEO has vowed to save the struggling British fashion brand by bringing back its iconic 1980s style loved by Princess Diana (pictured in a Laura Ashley dress in Notting Hill, west London, in 1992) 

Princess Diana seen wearing Laura Ashley in 1980 as she worked as a nursery school assistant at the Young England Kindergarten in Pimlico

Princess Diana seen wearing Laura Ashley in 1980 as she worked as a nursery school assistant at the Young England Kindergarten in Pimlico

Princess Diana seen wearing Laura Ashley in 1980 as she worked as a nursery school assistant at the Young England Kindergarten in Pimlico

This week, the company dodged going bust after US bank Wells Fargo saved the day with an emergency funding deal. 

But despite the ‘disappointing’ £4million sales slump, Ms Poulter is confident Laura Ashley can fight off her High Street rivals and post-Brexit retail trends by recapturing the original vision of its late founder.  

She told Drapers magazine: ‘[Customers] are telling me to be bold and sending me photographs of vintage dresses and the message is very clear: update them in a cool modern way.

‘That is exactly what we’re going to be doing – reconnecting with our traditional values and strong British heritage and develop Laura Ashley as the original lifestyle brand.’ 

Kate Garraway opted for Laura's £90 Red Midi Heart Jacquard Dress to present Good Morning Britain

Kate Garraway opted for Laura's £90 Red Midi Heart Jacquard Dress to present Good Morning Britain

Holly Willoughby opted for the £110 navy version to host This Morning

Holly Willoughby opted for the £110 navy version to host This Morning

Kate Garraway (left) opted for Laura’s £90 Red Midi Heart Jacquard Dress to present Good Morning Britain, while fellow ITV presenter Holly Willoughby (right) chose the £110 navy version to host This Morning

The business moved to Kent and then her native Wales in the late 1950s and early 1960s, as the brand established itself and gained momentum

The business moved to Kent and then her native Wales in the late 1950s and early 1960s, as the brand established itself and gained momentum

The business moved to Kent and then her native Wales in the late 1950s and early 1960s, as the brand established itself and gained momentum

Pictured: Pamela Harlow and Heidi Bank at a Laura Ashley clothing store in 1984

Pictured: Pamela Harlow and Heidi Bank at a Laura Ashley clothing store in 1984

Pictured: Jane Sturdy and Billy Livingstone model fashion by Laura Ashley

Pictured: Jane Sturdy and Billy Livingstone model fashion by Laura Ashley

Actresses Pamela Harlow and Heidi Banks were sighted at a Laura Ashley clothing store in Beverly Hills, California in 1984 (left, right: Jane Sturdy and Billy Livingston model for the brand)

Welsh designer Laura Ashley started out by sewing headscarves and napkins on her kitchen table in Pimlico, south London in 1953. 

Having gained quilting experience with her local Women’s Institute, she would make garments while her husband Bernard printed them and they would take mail orders and sell to High Street retailers such as John Lewis. 

The business moved to Kent and then her native Wales in the late 1950s and early 1960s, as the brand established itself and gained momentum.  

They opened their first shop under the name Laura Ashley in Pelham Street, South Kensington, in 1968.

Pictured: Princess Diana wears a blue and green floral Laura Ashley gown as she watches Prince Charles play polo at Tidworth in 1981

Pictured: Princess Diana wears a blue and green floral Laura Ashley gown as she watches Prince Charles play polo at Tidworth in 1981

Pictured: Princess Diana wears a blue and green floral Laura Ashley gown as she watches Prince Charles play polo at Tidworth in 1981

The royal was also seen visiting the Laura Ashley factory in Newtown, Wales in June 1988

The royal was also seen visiting the Laura Ashley factory in Newtown, Wales in June 1988

The royal was also seen visiting the Laura Ashley factory in Newtown, Wales in June 1988 

Pictured: A 'country bride' full-length gown of ivory cotton trimmed with cotton roses in 1990

Pictured: A 'country bride' full-length gown of ivory cotton trimmed with cotton roses in 1990

Pictured: A ‘country bride’ full-length gown of ivory cotton trimmed with cotton roses in 1990

The brand did well on the High Street throughout the 1970s, bringing French chic and luxurious soft and hard furnishings into people’s homes. 

It gained international acclaim when shops opened in Paris and San Francisco in 1974.    

Its signature flowing, floral dress became a staple of the late 1970s and matched the hippy movement perfectly.

Pictured: Designer Laura Ashley holds one of her dresses in a 1976 television documentary about her business

Pictured: Designer Laura Ashley holds one of her dresses in a 1976 television documentary about her business

Pictured: Designer Laura Ashley holds one of her dresses in a 1976 television documentary about her business

Pictured: An outfit from Laura Ashley's Autumn/Winter 1988 collection

Pictured: An outfit from Laura Ashley's Autumn/Winter 1988 collection

Pictured: A floral gown by Laura Ashley

Pictured: A floral gown by Laura Ashley

It wasn’t until the 1980s, when Princess Diana threw her support behind the designer, that enjoyed dizzying success (Pictured left: The designer’s Autumn/Winter 1988 collection)

But as a family business, famed for being ‘quintessentially English’, the style became more Conservative, particularly when royalty came on board. 

It wasn’t until the 1980s, when Princess Diana threw her support behind the designer, that enjoyed dizzying success.

Katharine Poulter (pictured) took over CEO after the company announced ballooning losses and a 10.4 per cent fall in sales

Katharine Poulter (pictured) took over CEO after the company announced ballooning losses and a 10.4 per cent fall in sales

Katharine Poulter (pictured) took over CEO after the company announced ballooning losses and a 10.4 per cent fall in sales

Diana was often seen in her dresses and unwittingly shut down production once after she wore a £50 granddad collar gown to a photo call, with staff unable to cope with demand. 

But after the ‘Diana effect’ died down and as time has gone on with fast fashion dominating the landscape, the brand has had to rely increasingly on its homewear to make money.

However with Ikea, Made.com and Habitat hot on its heels, the company has struggled with its interiors too.

There is some hope of a resurgence, after a number of celebrity endorsements  including Holly Willoughby and Kate Garraway. 

Recently Kate opted for Laura’s £90 Red Midi Heart Jacquard Dress to present Good Morning Britain, while her fellow ITV presenter Holly chose the £110 navy version to host This Morning.

Ms Poulter told Drapers: ‘With the Kate and Holly dresses 60 per cent of customers were new customers. We’re bringing in new customers and targeting a multigenerational [customer].’

In the age of social media, it may be TV and Instagram adverts that save Laura Ashley. 

They opened their first shop in Pelham Street, South Kensington, in 1968, women's clothes and home interiors (catalogue image pictured)

They opened their first shop in Pelham Street, South Kensington, in 1968, women's clothes and home interiors (catalogue image pictured)

They opened their first shop in Pelham Street, South Kensington, in 1968, women’s clothes and home interiors (catalogue image pictured)  

Despite the 'disappointing' £4million sales slump, Ms Poulter is confident Laura Ashley (new dress pictured) can fight off her High Street rivals and post-Brexit retail trends by recapturing the original vision of its late founder

Despite the 'disappointing' £4million sales slump, Ms Poulter is confident Laura Ashley (new dress pictured) can fight off her High Street rivals and post-Brexit retail trends by recapturing the original vision of its late founder

Despite the ‘disappointing’ £4million sales slump, Ms Poulter is confident Laura Ashley (new dress pictured) can fight off her High Street rivals and post-Brexit retail trends by recapturing the original vision of its late founder

It was forced to stave off imminent collapse after concerns a £20m loan would not be available to meet immediate cash needs. 

It scrapped its interim dividend citing a ‘challenging’ trading period, and it is on track to increase last year’s full-year loss of £14.3million. 

Poulter joined the firm as operations chief in January from Wilko. 

But Laura Ashley’s chairman, Andrew Khoo, told the Guardian: ‘It’s business as usual. Whilst these results are disappointing, we believe that with the right focus and support, Laura Ashley has a strong future and can be successful again.’ 

Fall from the height of fashion: How Laura Ashley went from humble roots to global brand… that’s now struggling to survive 

The fashion and homewear brand Laura Ashley started at the Welsh designer’s Pilmlico attic flat in central London in 1953.

Having undertaken some quilting work with her local Women’s Institute, Ashley started sewing headscarves, napkins, table mats and tea-towels on her kitchen table.

Her husband Bernard would print them using his own machine and the couple took mail orders and sold stock to High Street retailers such as John Lewis.

Mr Ashley quit his city job so he could devote all his time to the printing business and the company moved to Kent in 1955.

But after the third of their four children were born the family re-located to her native Wales in 1960, with Mrs Ashley hoping to cash in on improved transport links. 

The fashion and homewear brand Laura Ashley started at the Welsh designer’s Pilmlico attic flat in central London in 1953 (shop front pictured) 

Laura and Bernard opened their first shop in Machynlleth, Powys in 1961, which sold locally-made, natural products as well as their own.

A plaque still hangs above the Pimlico flat where Laura and Bernard Ashley started out

A plaque still hangs above the Pimlico flat where Laura and Bernard Ashley started out

A plaque still hangs above the Pimlico flat where Laura and Bernard Ashley started out

Branching out to dresses and home interiors, the couple opened under the name Laura Ashley for the first time in Pelham Street, South Kensington, in 1968.

They expanded abroad with a shop in Paris and San Francisco both opening in 1974.  

The brand did well on the High Street throughout the 1970s, bringing French chic and luxurious soft and hard furnishings to Britain’s middle classes.

But it wasn’t until the 1980s that it reached dizzying success, when Princess Diana opting for a £50 granddad collar dress saw production temporarily shut down due to unprecedented demand.  

As time has gone on, with fast fashion dominating the landscape, the brand has relied increasingly on its homewear to make money. But with Ikea, Made.com and Habitat hot on its heels, the company has struggled to cling onto its previous success.

A slump in demand for its chintz furniture in the 1990s in particular has resulted in multi-million-pound losses in recent years.

Princess Diana is pictured wearing Laura Ashley in Pimlico, south London

Princess Diana is pictured wearing Laura Ashley in Pimlico, south London

Princess Diana is pictured wearing Laura Ashley in Pimlico, south London 

After a mini-revival in the late nineties under new owners MUI – backed by Malaysian tycoon Khoo Kay Peng – Laura Ashley has found it difficult to compete with more modern, cheaper rivals like Zara, which also boast their own ‘Home’ range. 

In December 2018, the brand announced it would close 40 stores across the country.

In early 2020, Laura Ashley announced losses of £4million in the six months to December 31. They were saved from going bust after US bank and major lender Wells Fargo stepped in with an emergency funding deal.

They invested in a new chief executive, Katharine Poulter amid the ‘disappointing sales’, who has vowed to return the brand to its 1980s heyday.

Ms Poulter has 25 years of retail experience with companies including Marks & Spencer, Habitat and Wilko. 

The brand did well on the High Street throughout the 1970s, bringing French chic and luxurious soft and hard furnishings into people's homes (catalogue image pictured)

The brand did well on the High Street throughout the 1970s, bringing French chic and luxurious soft and hard furnishings into people's homes (catalogue image pictured)

The brand did well on the High Street throughout the 1970s, bringing French chic and luxurious soft and hard furnishings into people’s homes (catalogue image pictured) 

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