SHE LOOKS like a pleasant Welsh country housewife; he, a successful newsman or writer who enjoys catching up with friends at the end of the day over a beer. But Laura and Bernard Ashley, seated a bit uncomfortably on the floral printed sofa in the corner of their new Georgetown shop, own a $60 million worldwide business with almost 3,000 employees, in simple, country-ish clothes, textiles and wallpapers.
There are 64 Laura Ashley stores. Georgetown is the fifth store in the United States and the Ashleys were in town recently for the opening.
She's the designer, he took over the print technology and merchandising after five years of writing short stories and other prose ("which never got published," he admits laughing).
They started their business on the kitchen table in their small London apartment and moved 99 steps up to the top floor when the neighbors got too noisy.
Laura Ashley was pregnant when they first started and when their family and business started to grow they moved to her native Wales. They purchased an abandoned railway station in Carno, Montgomeryshire, and the old granite shed became their first print mill. They still print fabric and make clothes there as well as in Helmond, Holland. In fact, the only thing that is licensed is the Wedgewood china.
Bernard Ashley took to the country instantly. "Now if I'm in the city too long, I get woonky," he ways.
Wales was shrinking in population and encouraging small manufacturers, explained Bernard, while England was discouraging them, particularly with the employe protection act. If you started a business and couldn't make it, you had to continue to pay your employes just the same, a practice Mrs. Thatcher is only now trying to change, he adds.
Laura, who tilts to Chloe and Jean Muir designs when she is not wearing her own, admits she was intimidated from the start by those who told her how difficult it was to design. "So I took the simplest things like single color prints and the simplest shape clothes," she says. "And that is just what the stores seemed to want."
During the London designer blitz of Mary Quant, Tuffin and Foale and the like in the 1960s the Ashleys were in Wales concentrating on getting their act together from design and printing cotton fabric through design and production of the garment to the sale in their own stores.
"In the beginning we sold through the department stores and had to make what the buyers wanted," said Laura.
"Once we set up our own stores we could make and sell to the customer what the customer wanted."
Clearly the customers don't want much of a departure from the charming tiny cotton prints and old fashioned, simple but romantic styles that they have made from the start. But each year there are new things -- this year many of the colors are clearer and brighter, there is a new tiny graphic and miniature rose print and a strong group of corduroy clothes that coordinate with the prints. But the winners remain the classic dresses, the negligees, the white ruffle-edged blouses and the long white dresses that often double as wedding gowns, and, of course, the fabric sold by the yard.
Another addition is a group by teenage daughter Emma that includes clown polka-dot overalls in bright colors, and smocked camisoles and the like for the contemporaries. According to Bernard, the Emma designs were among the instant successes in a new store in Holland.
Bernard Ashley's role now is to make sure the stores worldwide keep a common look without losing their own national strong points. Putting merchandise out on the sidewalk to sell is okay in Holland, but he would never permit it, say, in one of his Paris stores, or for that matter in Georgetown.
In Dusseldorf they operated a store in a second-to-the-best location and it wasn't very successful.Rather than simply shutting down, they daringly moved to the swankiest street in town, opened a five story shop crammed full of new merchandise, and reopened to one of their most successful days in the business. "The Germans like to shop in a store that looks success," concluded Bernard Ashley.
He pegs one of the success factors in the clothes that they are just as comfortable as jeans but a bit more dressy. They will never make branded jeans, or any other product that touts their label on the outside, he says. "We are not in the business of brand engineering." In fact, the cotton drawstring pants that Laura Ashley sells in sizable quantities are referred to by some as Ashley jeans.
They've just added Laura Ashley fragrance -- two scents, both products of Bernard's "nose." But the strong sellers remain the prints, sold over the counter as fabric and wallpaper (now the largest share of the business) as well as the easy, feminine printed cotton dresses. "It reminds you of the country and is worn mostly in the city, " says Laura Ashley. "It's the kind of clothes you put on after you get out of your best clothes."
Even before the Georgetown shop opened, and now even more so, a lot of women have shown they liked that look. Many discovered the shops in London or Paris. There are homes in every part of Washington and surroundings decorated in Ashley signature printed fabric and wallpaper and Lady Henderson, wife of the British ambassador has recently done over a guest room at the embassy in Laura Ashley prints on the furniture and wall. That's where the Ashleys stayed on their visit here.
In fact things are going so well the Ashleys already have put a hold on a store in the eventual mall across M Street from their present site and expect to turn their original store here into a home furnishing shop when they do.
Only in Japan has Laura Ashley been less than a great success, "I guess that the Japanese just don't want to look like peasants," says Bernard Ashley laughing.