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Wednesday, September 22, 1999 Published at 13:09 GMT 14:09 UK

UK: Wales

The Laura Ashley story

Laura Ashley's love of Wales inspired a multi-national empire

The hard-bitten image of a south Wales Valley's mining town appears a world away from the rural simplicity that has become synonymous with Laura Ashley.

But the humble beginnings of what became a global fabric and furnishings empire burgeoned amid the industrial grime of Merthyr Tydfil.

"Bizarrely, an old railway house in Carno, mid Wales, became the powerbase for a multi-national empire."
The area of Dowlais Top, home to a generation of miners and iron ore workers, is where Laura Ashley was born.

The upbringing in one of a row of colliers' cottages was the basis of Ashley's enduring affection for her homeland.

[ image: Laura Ashley made a Welsh railway cottage her HQ]
Laura Ashley made a Welsh railway cottage her HQ
It was one she would cherish long after the family moved to the comfortable suburbs of south London when Laura Ashley was a small child.

In 1948 she married City stockbroker Bernard Ashley - whom she had met at a local youth club - and settled into a conventional life as a mother and housewife.

It was in the couple's small basement flat in London's Pimlico, that the seeds of Ashley's world-famous floral prints were sown.

Their beginnings were humble to say the least. Working on the top of her kitchen table, Ashley began making mats, napkins and tea towels which she would carry around trying to sell to various stores.

Many of Laura Ashley's designs were taken from old Welsh quilts
It was a successful marketing strategy. Desperate to escape the tedium of office life, Bernard Ashley resigned and set up a family business.

The couple's first factory was an old coaching house in Kent where they produced fabrics under the Ashley Mountney Company.

But the idyllic setting of the 'Garden of England' was never going to be enough to sustain Ashley's interest.

"She had this romanticised view of the Welsh past," explains biographer Anne Sebba.

"And when her marriage was at a low ebb, she packed her children into a battered Morris van and went.

[ image: Housewives turned cuffs and collars for extra money]
Housewives turned cuffs and collars for extra money
"She camped on the banks of a river for a while until a couple of weeks later Bernard came up and they found a home and they stayed."

The Old Railway House in Carno in rural mid Wales, was to become the powerhouse of a multi-national business.

But compared with the expensively tailored, 'county lifestyle' image of Laura Ashley clothes today, the originals were, if anything, anti-fashion.

Designed to be worn in the home they were initially, made by women in their homes. Bundles of clothes would be driven by van from fireside to fireside where housewives would turn collars and cuffs for 'pin money'.

[ image: Bernard Ashley was the business acumen behind the company]
Bernard Ashley was the business acumen behind the company
Before long, factories were set up in the heart of rural mid Wales and by the mid 1970s dresses from Wales were being sold across Europe - shops were opened in Paris, Geneva and Brussels.

The success was phenomenal and totally unexpected.

"The garments will always remain a mystery," said Bernard Ashley. "It was amazing when Laura had the whole world dressed as milk maids. I mean, how she did that I don't know."

Biographer Anne Sebba: "She wanted this rural idyll to become part of everyday life."
According to Anne Sebba, she had hit upon a "brand new version of the past" - a reaction against male-dictated 60s fashion.

"She wanted this rural idyll to become part of everyday life," she says. "She wanted something that women in the home, looking after children, could be comfortable in."

The success of the 1970s proved an almost unshakeable foundation. By 1981 the Ashley's - which had by now expanded into home furnishing - had 5,000 retail outlets throughout the world.

Biographer Anne Sebba: "Early clothes designs were a reaction against 60s fashion."
In the same year, Laura Ashley realised a long-held ambition and opened a shop in the Welsh capital.

In 1984 her headquarters opened in Newtown, Powys, creating 500 jobs and in early 1985 another factory opened in Gresford near Wrexham.

That same year, Laura Ashley, then aged 60, died after falling down the stairs at her daughter's home in the Cotswolds. She was taken to hospital and placed on a life-support machine but died after nine days in a coma.

At the point of her untimely death, the company employed 4,000 staff and was on the brink of further expansion.

[ image: The success of her clothes peaked in the 1970s]
The success of her clothes peaked in the 1970s
Valued at £200m, the company was floated on the Stock Exchange and soon realised an increased turnover of £296.6m.

The 1990s, however, told a different story.

Attempts to turn around the losses which began emerging in 1991 have proved abortive.

Over the past few days, the decline of company has been extensively chronicled under a series of depressing headlines in the world's financial press.

Now, the last of Laura Ashley's five factories in her beloved Wales is to be closed.

"We normally find that a design will not sell very well unless we have a nostalgia of the past about it," Laura Ashley commented shortly before her death.

Now, it seems, all that remains of an image inspired by times past is, indeed, the past.

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