Wednesday, September 22, 1999 Published at 13:09 GMT 14:09 UK
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.
The upbringing in one of a row of colliers' cottages was the basis of Ashley's enduring affection for her homeland.
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.
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.
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'.
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."
"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.
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.
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.