Nick Ashley Son is moving family firm into '90s

August 18, 1991|By Lynn Williams

In rare cases, a single name can conjure up an entire lifestyle. So it is with "Laura Ashley." These two words are suggestive of all that is feminine and refined and English: windows draped in rose-patterned chintz, the discreet rattle of flowered tea cups in drawing rooms, porcelain-skinned young women in garden-party dresses and picture hats.

So who is this radical dude in shades, wearing an outrageous orange-sherbet outfit and a mischievous grin?

Nick Ashley, 34-year-old son of the late Laura Ashley and Sir Bernard Ashley, is heir to one of the design world's most influential fashion and home-design empires, a company that all but invented (to the American mind, anyway) the "English country look." When Mr. Ashley's mother died in 1985, he inherited a challenge. As the family firm's design director, he had to take his mother's very successful formula and move it into the age of Armani, miniskirts and power suits.

"I didn't want to be just a curator for her ideas," Mr. Ashley says. "They would have fizzled out. The style had to be constantly updated."

"My mother was a person with extremely high moral standards," he explains. "She was brought up in a Welsh mining community where she had to starch and iron all the white linen every day, black the grate, spit and polish up the front slates, and keep everything spic and span just in case the neighbors or the vicar dropped by for a cup of tea.

"Well, I'm a little bit more modern than that. I like to slouch around in a pair of jeans, drinking a beer straight out of a can -- you know, everything most other people in my generation like to do. So I tried to make everything a bit more relaxed, a bit younger, make products that are more like 'now' products, rather than something that's been restored from a bygone era."

He's done it, too. Laura Ashley garments are still being made in tender florals, but shoppers can now find such things as jumpsuits, minis and T-shirts as well as full-skirted frocks. The home-furnishings line has been expanded as well, to include more imaginative and masculine styles.

The Nick Ashley signature at its most dramatic can be seen in Maryland at the Inn at Perry Cabin in St. Michael's. The inn is the first Ashley House Sir Bernard intends to develop in the United States; in these "country house hotels," all of the rooms will be different, and the atmosphere will approximate the elegant comforts of an efficiently run stately home.

Given the task of designing a look for the 41-bedroom inn, Nick Ashley and his design team -- interior designer Phyllis Napier and stylist Linda Lombardi -- filled the rooms not only with Laura Ashley patterns, but with an eclectic mix of antiques and decorative items that look as if they were acquired by a family over generations. (Some of the furnishings are actually Ashley family pieces.)

The inn's new Fogg Cove wing, launched last month, particularly pleases his playful side; it is gracious, but filled with such whimsical touches as a snooker room filled with games and toys, model airplanes suspended near the conservatory's roof, and theme bedrooms filled with memorabilia; one, obviously "owned" a musician, uses antique musical instruments and vintage sheet music as accents, another shows off its sporting pictures and trophies.

"My mother would have done it more formal," he explains. "She would have had a lot more of the starched linen and the polished brass, and Edwardian uniforms on the staff. A lot of people would have loved it, but I couldn't do it that way. It's not my style."

Mr. Ashley jokes that he's had "a 34-year apprenticeship" in the ++ family business, but he has few early memories of his mother and father's empire-building activities.

"My mother was very keen to not mix work with pleasure," he says. "She gave us all her time. When we were tucked up in bed, that's when she started working. It was only when I was a teen-ager that I became aware that there was big business going on. They were so enthusiastic about it that I became enthusiastic, too."

He trained for his design career at art schools in England and France, worked for a tailor on Savile Row, and investigated all aspects of the fashion world as an art director for British Vogue. Then, in 1980, he began formally working with his mother, who made him Laura Ashley's design director.

"I made up my own little training scheme, and I've been putting it into practice ever since, from doing everything myself -- design, photography, the whole bit -- to the stage I'm at now, where I've got a design team, and I just sit there and lord it up, like the big boss I am!"

He doesn't claim the "design director" title anymore.

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