Laura Ashley line adds bold colors but retains soft, pretty prints

December 23, 1992|By Elaine Markoutsas | Elaine Markoutsas,Contributing Writer/Universal Press Syndicate

"Laura Ashley was a romantic, a sentimentalist, a traditionalist. Unashamed of her taste for nostalgia, she brought poetry and fantasy back into ordinary domestic life, liberating design from chrome, plastics and man-made fibers."

--Iain Gales and Susan Irvine, "Laura Ashley Style"

The Laura Ashley name evokes images of sweet, pastel-floral, miniprinted frocks, and pretty, romantic bedrooms decorated from floor to ceiling with coordinating patterns. And as the firm turns 40 this March, it is warmly embracing that romantic youth, which laid the foundation for its enormous success, while it looks toward the '90s. The firm is not resting on its laurels -- or other bouquets. Middle age is encouraging the company to change with the times -- both in fashion and in home furnishings.

"We're not trying to move away from the traditional, country-floral, pretty image," says Mark Winstanley, design manager in London for Laura Ashley primary products, which include wall coverings, fabrics and bed linens. "It's just that that's not the only thing we're about."

"Making a statement with color was one of our goals for 1993," says Mr. Winstanley. "We're saying, 'Hey, folks, use your imaginations. Come in and take notice of what we've got.' "

Take, for example, the Aragon collection pictured in Laura Ashley's latest autumn-winter home furnishings catalog. It's a symphony of mega-scaled stripes, polka dots and solids in bold primary hues.

The patterns were actually created by sewing together the solid-hued damask strips into broad stripes or appliqueing giant circles on solid-colored fabric. If they were actually printed, such bold fabrics might not have widespread appeal, but the idea is to encourage consumers to think beyond the collections and use the fabrics to fashion their own style.

The solids of the Aragon collection are a departure from the typical Laura Ashley look. And what makes this so surprising is that pattern has been the bread and butter of the business. Early designs came from 18th- and 19th-century print books, swatches of old patchwork quilts, and motifs used to decorate antique ceramics and porcelains.

When Laura Ashley stores began to proliferate in this country, after the first shop opened in San Francisco in 1974, romantics were smitten.

"The country became Laurified," said New York-based designer Mario Buatta, America's prince of chintz and English-stylophile. "People were responding to nostalgia, a little old English snobbism, a very cottagey style and the pretty pastels and soft florals, which have since been knocked off by lots of bedsheet designers. Laura Ashley became a classic because of trust and faith in a name."

'English undress'

The Ashley style of decorating became known on the continent as "deshabille anglaise" or "English undress," according to authors Iain Gale and Susan Irvine, who wrote "Laura Ashley Style." Decorator John Fowler rechristened it as "humble elegance." The authors credit Ashley with teaching us to appreciate the notion of prettiness against a "chain-store ethic of cheap and disposable."

The woman who embodied the style didn't set out to create one. An unassuming woman, Laura Ashley, like her products, was not at all pretentious. Her business was launched in 1953 when, fed up with postwar synthetics, she began to make silk-screened tea towels out of pure cotton at the kitchen table. Cotton nightgowns followed, and the enthusiastic reception supported a fashion and home furnishings business. Although Laura Ashley died in 1985, today her chain includes 500 stores in 28 countries.

"My mother wanted to stress to people that wherever they live, they should decorate the interiors to be as homey as possible," said son Nick, 35, who oversees development of all Laura Ashley products. "Her whole philosophy centered around the home, the family, family values, making products that make people feel comfortable, cozy. She never set out to create design statements."

Though perhaps not thought of as a trendsetter, Laura Ashley was, in fact, ahead of her time. Her preference for natural materials predated the ecological movement. Her fabrics, wall coverings and products revolved around what she called a "design for living," which came to be known as "lifestyle" collections, a concept later epitomized by Ralph Lauren and a host of designers with licensed home furnishings lines.

But, above all, behind all her design for the home was the notion that it be comfortable.

In the preface to her home decorating book in 1982, she wrote: "For me the more faded and mellow the interior, the more beautiful it is. I long for a newly decorated room to 'settle down.' Handmade patchworks, needleworks, rag rugs, lots of lace and white starched linens (together with old-fashioned smoothing irons) are all bliss to me."

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