Laura Ashley: why nostalgia does not guarantee a brand's future

The high street retailer has entered into administration, but why did they falter just as the whimsical Victoriana they popularised came back into fashion? 

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As a child, one of my favourite pastimes was flicking through the Laura Ashley Book of Home Decorating, planning ways to redecorate my bedroom. I would make lists and lists and, every Saturday, my mother would indulge my floral fantasies by allowing me to go into the store in Worthing, Sussex, for wallpaper, border and fabric samples to add to my “Dream Venetian Blinds” scrapbook.

Princess Diana was also a fan of the Laura Ashley look and so my joy was unrivalled when, as an eight-year-old in 1986, I wore my very own “Forget Me Not” Laura Ashley bridesmaid confection at my cousin Alison’s wedding.

So it was with sadness that I read about the likely closure of the iconic retailer earlier this week, after they failed to secure the £15m of emergency cash needed to stay afloat, putting 2,700 jobs in 150 UK stores at risk. But – like many, presumably – I haven’t shopped with the brand in years, and simple nostalgia doesn’t pay the bills.

Laura Ashley was officially founded in 1954 by its 29-year-old eponymous founder and her husband Bernard who ran it from their home in Kent (later Wales and France). Embodying an eccentric English Victoriana aesthetic, it grew steadily through the Sixties and by 1970, Laura Ashley was such a phenomenon that the brand’s Fulham Road store in London alone was selling more than 4,000 dresses a week. Concession deals were struck and there were stand-alone shops in San Francisco and Paris by 1974, then worldwide. Little wonder then, that Malaysian firm MUI Group wanted in as the brand’s major shareholder  – an arrangement that's been ongoing since 1998. But now there is no more cash to be had.

The iconic clothing maker’s position has been precarious for some time. Recent years have seen profit warning after profit warning amid falling sales and struggles to adapt to the rigours of online shopping; but the brand also appears to be one of the first high street casualties of Covid-19. While Laura Ashley said that it’s new funding talks were advanced, its revised cash-flow forecast in the wake of the outbreak showed that “it will not be in a position to draw down additional funds from third party lenders in a timely manner.”

It is ironic the brand is faltering now. Propelled by the fashion furore over the film Little Women, Laura Ashley’s long-gone prairie style has once again found favour with young shoppers. Unfortunately though, it’s not a look that can be found in their stores, which have struggled to carve out a desirable modern brand identity on the fast-paced British high street.

Instead, shoppers are tracking down heritage pieces on reselling websites. In January of this year, a Laura Ashley item was listed every two seconds on eBay in the UK and over the past four years, there has been a 55 per cent rise in their presence on the site. A search for “Laura Ashley vintage” on Etsy reveals almost 6,000 results.

Bethan Holt is fashion news and features director of the Telegraph and an avid vintage Laura Ashley collector. “Part of the joy and appeal of the brand originally was that it was made in a very natural way, often in rural Wales. Buying old Laura Ashley feels like going back to the heart of fashion. Now you buy a dress and who knows where it is made, but there is a connected feeling with a piece of vintage Laura Ashley.”

It’s a shame then, that the brand itself couldn’t capitalise on the renewed desire for their heritage aesthetic themselves – a tactic used by great effect at fellow British fabric house Liberty, who, in the last two years, have used their archive to collaborate with everyone from Crocs to Richard Quinn and, most recently, Gucci. Sadly, it sounds like it was on the cards. Earlier this year, Laura Ashley’s chief executive, Katharine Poulter, had promised to delve into the archives and bring back the “iconic” hallmarks of its founder. The brand also tried a “hipster meets Eighties mum” collaboration with Urban Outfitters in the summer of 2019, which Holt says felt “insipid and too late”.

“For many women in their 30s, Laura Ashley reminds them of how their mum, their aunt or their grandma dressed when they were a child,” Holt adds. “It feels like recapturing the safety, happiness and freedom of those days – which is so at odds with the pressurised and highly stressful way many modern women live now.”

Indeed so. In these fear-fuelled days, we could all do with more of Laura Ashley’s naïve comforts. It’s just a shame the brand itself won’t be around to provide it.

Nicole Mowbray is a journalist, formerly deputy editor of Telegraph Luxury and features editor of British Vogue

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