Ashley [née Mountney], Laura
(19251985), dress designer and interior decorator
, was born on 7 September 1925 at Dowlais, near Merthyr Tudful, south Wales, the eldest of the four children (two daughters and two sons) of Stanley Lewis Mountney, a civil servant, of Raleigh Avenue, Wallington, Surrey, and his wife, Margaret Elizabeth Davis. She was educated at Elmwood School, Croydon, and at the Aberdare Secretarial School, before becoming a secretary in the City of London at the age of sixteen. In the latter years of the Second World War she served in the Women's Royal Naval Service. After the war she worked at the London headquarters of the Women's Institute.
During the war Laura Mountney had met Bernard Albert Ashley
, who was to become both her husband and her close business partner. Born on 11 August 1926 at 99 Beechdale Road, Brixton Hill, London, the son of Albert Ashley, grocer, and his wife, Hilda Maud, née
Woodward, he was educated at Whitgift Middle School, Croydon, and was working as a clerk in the City at the time of their marriage, at St Mary's, Beddington, Surrey, on 23 February 1949. They had two sons and two daughters. In the early 1950s Laura Ashley designed tea towels, which Bernard printed on a printing machine he had designed and developed in an attic in Pimlico. A small mill was opened in Kent to produce a greater range of products, but a disastrous flood ended this venture. In the early 1960s Laura persuaded Bernard that they should seek to develop in her native Wales and the two, with their three eldest children, explored mid-Wales and fell in love with it. They determined to start afresh in Montgomeryshire and in 1963 began in a small way at Machynlleth. Soon afterwards they moved to the old railway station at the village of Carno, which became the headquarters of the large international empire of Laura Ashley plc. The area was suffering rural depopulation, which government grants aimed to stem. The Ashleys took full advantage of this financial support. They developed in an area that had virtually no industrial background, recruiting their workforce from women whose sewing and cutting experience was entirely domestic and from men whose knowledge of machines was largely confined to those of the farmyard.
What was initially lacking in skill was more than made up for by wholehearted enthusiasm, ingenuity, and co-operation. The Ashleys regarded their workforce as an extension of the family; their friendly, concerned approach ensured great loyalty and support. The factories worked for only four and a half days a week, as Laura believed that people should have time for leisure and their families, especially when tackling repetitive tasks. Jobs were provided at all levelsfrom the factory floor to the boardroomin what was once regarded as a remote if beautiful area. Retail subsidiaries of the company later sold from the Ashleys' shops in four continents.
The Ashleys had complementary personalities and talents and were each other's sternest critics. Bernard, a man of immense energy, drive, and flair, was also a skilled engineer, designer, and printer. Restless and volatile by temperament, he found in the outwardly calm and composed Laura the ideal rudder to direct his energies. He was well known for his outbursts of rage, often including pulling telephones from their sockets (it was said that British Telecom had to warn him that they would have to refuse to carry out repairs if he continued), and he was frequently domineering and overbearing towards her. She was offered an OBE in 1975, but refused the honour because none was offered to him.
Laura Ashley was essentially a revivalist in her approach, drawing her inspiration from nature and ideas of the past. She was never a designer in the formal sense: rather, she would frequently describe a design for other people to implement, or she would produce an old design, the result of her many researches, and would demonstrate how to change it slightly or modify its colouring. She had her own design philosophy, and the lifestyle she projected profoundly influenced the attitudes of her time. Her childhood recollections of periods of time spent with relations living close to the Welsh rural scene bordering the area of Dowlais influenced her greatly. She believed that most people yearned for a more natural lifestyle than had come to be accepted in modern industrial and urban society. In her clothes, furnishings, and interior decorations she put forward a style which was simpler, kindlier, and more romantic than her contemporaries projected. She revived many of the discarded designs of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Laura Ashley was an active partner in an enterprise which contradicted the trends of the times. When the mini skirt was in full flower she advocated the maxi skirt, which she considered infinitely more attractive. In an age when designers were emphasizing the tougher side of human nature, she pointed to its pretty, peaceful, and generous side. Personally she was nearly always dressed in a skirt and blouse.
Although there were aspects of a large international company, with its annual turnover of £130 million, which Laura Ashley did not relish, the resourcefulness and realism of her business attitude deserve emphasis. The Ashleys moved abroad to develop the business in Europe. They lived in a French château in Picardy and had a town house in Brussels. They also had homes in the Bahamas, London, and Wales. Bernard Ashley enjoyed the trappings of wealth, such as his ocean-going yacht, moored at St Tropez, with a permanent skipper and crew. Laura Ashley was by contrast a very private person with a profound belief in Christian values and the family as the bases of civilized life. She died on 17 September 1985 in hospital in Coventry, following head injuries sustained in a fall down the stairs of her daughter's Cotswold house.
Bernard Ashley continued to run the company after her death. He was knighted in 1987, having embarked on a rapid expansion of Laura Ashley outlets overseas, but soon ran into difficulties, which he blamed on a succession of chief executives. After a boardroom coup he became non-executive chairman in 1991 and finally stepped down as chairman of Laura Ashley Holdings in 1993. He resigned as a non-executive director in 1998 when the company was taken over by the Malaysian conglomerate MUI Asia. Meanwhile in 1990 he married Regine Burnell (b
. 1945), a Belgian photographer, and they divided their time between Brussels and houses in Wales, Provence, and Malta. In 2000 he founded Elanbach, a textile printer. He also had interests in country house hotels in Wales and the United States. He died of cancer at his home in Wales, Rhydoldog, Cwmdauddwr, Rhayader, Powys, on 14 February 2009, and was survived by his second wife and his four children. His funeral was at the parish church in Carno on 24 February.
Emlyn Hooson, rev.
I. Gale and S. Irvine, Laura Ashley style (1987) · personal knowledge (1990) · private information (1990) · A. Sebba, Laura Ashley: a life by design (1990) · The Times (18 Sept 1985) · S. Menkes, Earth mother of the alternative society, The Times (18 Sept 1985) · V. McKee, Goodbye flower power, The Times (28 Oct 1987) · The Times (19 Sept 1985) · E. Dickson, Laura Ashley: her life and gifts by those who knew her, Observer Weekend (22 Sept 1985) · M. Wood, Laura Ashley (2009) · Daily Telegraph (16 Feb 2009) · Retail Week (16 Feb 2009); (20 Feb 2009) · The Times (17 Feb 2009) · The Guardian (17 Feb 2009) · Western Mail (17 Feb 2009) · Women's Wear Daily (18 Feb 2009) · The Independent (19 Feb 2009) · Burke, Peerage · WW (2009) · b. cert. [B. Ashley] · m. cert. · d. cert. [B. Ashley]
P. Sayer, photograph, 198084, NPG [see illus.] · photographs, Hult. Arch. · obituary photographs (Sir Bernard Ashley) · obituary photographs (Bernard Ashley)
Wealth at death
£4,095,935Bernard Ashley: probate, 26 Nov 2009, CGPLA Eng. & Wales