Thursday 2nd April

| BY Jessica Carroll

The Cult of Laura Ashley: As the British Brand Closes, We Revisit its Heritage of Charming Chintz

Few brands are as divisive as Laura Ashley. For grannies only or vintage gold dust? There seems to be no in-between opinion on the heritage British label. As one of the first major brands to face administration in light of the Covid-19 outbreak, it feels timely to take a moment to recognise the remarkable influence the brand has had on the fashion industry. 

While 2020 may mark the end of Laura Ashley (at least in its current format), the brand’s first pieces date all the way back to 1953. After finding inspiration in the V&A museum’s exhibition English Chintz: Two Centuries of Changing Taste, the brand’s namesake Laura Ashley and her husband Bernard invested £10 in screens and dyes to produce their own prints. For decades, the brand could do no wrong. With pieces spotted on Princess Diana, and a huge turnover of £25 million during its 25th year in 1979 (£127 million in today’s money), the brand has been at the forefront of British fashion through the years.

The brand saw increased growth throughout the 1950s and 1960s, but it was the1970s that are most regarded as Laura Ashley’s golden era. The long, floaty dresses tapped into the collective nostalgia for times gone by, and rejected hectic city life. They were the perfect fit for the public who had begun embracing the trendy hippy scene, and who romanticised rural lifestyles after watching the hit show Little House on the Prairie. “Wearing a Laura Ashley dress marked you out as part of the in set,” explains Pamela McGrady, 83, a retired teacher who has closely followed the brand’s journey since its inception. “You could instantly tell a dress was from Laura Ashley just by looking at it.”

The 1990s, however, weren’t so kind to the brand. The decade saw a return to a more minimalist aesthetic, with Ikea’s 1996 Chuck out the Chintz campaign embodying the nation’s growing disdain for Laura Ashley’s busy prints. “Things became less decorated, more casual,” says McGrady. “Women wanted to wear clothes that looked like menswear, you didn’t want to be seen going for the pretty thing.” The decade’s fashion was all about crop tops and low-slung jeans as streetwear ruled the runways. Laura Ashley’s girlish florals and conservative silhouettes were too frumpy for the young women shopping on the high street – and meant many of their designs headed for the bin, much to the horror of today’s vintage collectors.

It became clear that Laura Ashley wasn’t willing to adapt to changing trends. Vicki Owens, who worked as a sales assistant for the brand until earlier this year, believes this was one of the reasons for the brand’s eventual downfall. “I think they didn’t follow with the times. A lot of seasons they just repeated the same styles, so it never felt exciting.” Despite this, she has fond memories of the brand, opting for a purple polka dot design for her prom in 1991. “I remember at the time feeling like I had bought a really classy and special dress,” she says. 

This feeling of nostalgia is something that many seem to share when they think back to their days wearing Laura Ashley. Perhaps it is one of the reasons why the brand – and brands inspired by the same prairie style – are seeing a massive surge in popularity right now. During a time of constant change and an ever-increasing technological presence, brands like Molly Goddard, Batsheva, Ganni, Cecilie Bahnsen and The Vampire’s Wife have all prospered with collections that embrace the puff sleeves, ruffled collars and romantic prints of yesteryear.

Courtesy of GRACE Vintage Clothing

While many brands are producing beautiful interpretations of these prairie-style dresses, nothing seems to be winning fans over quite like the original Laura Ashley designs. Now vintage, the styles of the past decades (yes, all that stuff your mum threw out, thinking it would never be worn again) are seen as status symbols for those in the know within the fashion industry. Vintage pieces can easily sell upwards of £100 on sites like Depop and Etsy. Grace Ison, of GRACE Vintage Clothing, sources vintage pieces to sell via her online store and explains that vintage Laura Ashley is one of the most popular brands that she stocks, with their prairie dresses and pussy-bow blouses garnering the most interest. For Ison, and many of her young customers, the brand’s appeal is its ability to be both nostalgic and empowering: “Laura Ashley popularised the hippie nostalgic trend of the 1970s and challenged the rules on femininity and strength. They created empowering designs that celebrated the female body yet felt classy and comfortable.” In a Laura Ashley design, she adds, “women were able to feel confident as a woman in a man’s world.”

It’s not just the vintage pieces of which Ison is so fond. In 2019, Laura Ashley collaborated with high street brand Urban Outfitters on a collection of designs inspired by the label’s archive pieces. “It was a great way for the brand to stay relevant to a younger audience by keeping the feminine florals but slashing the hemlines.” Yet even this wasn’t enough to restore Laura Ashley to its glory days. “It could have been the collection that saved a beloved brand if they had done it in 2015, not 2019,” she exclaims. 

Laura Ashley x Urban Outfitters

Thankfully, there is a growing community of individuals who won’t let Laura Ashley’s significance be forgotten. From vintage-obsessives to young women who have seen similar on the catwalks and want to own a nostalgic design of their own, it appears there will always be a market for Laura Ashley designs –even if the brand itself no longer exists.