Laura Ashley built an empire on clothes and home furnishings for those who dream of a quiet, genteel country life -- even if they live in a hectic city. She died Tuesday in England, at age 60, as the result of a fall in her daughter's home.
For young women in Washington and elsewhere, she was the designer of pretty, Victorian, high-neck, full-sleeved dresses and blouses, often touched with ruffles and lace. For many, hers was the first designer name they coveted.
And for others, the home furnishings -- particularly linens, wallpaper and tiles -- provided an environment of simple country style, a soothing setting, often a peaceful retreat in a bustling city life style.
"She believed in a traditional way of life exemplified by all the decorative aspects," said Julian Tomchin, executive vice president for home furnishings at Bloomingdale's, "and she believed that this wasn't in conflict with contemporary living. She was the first to teach us that." Added Tomchin, himself a distinguished textile designer, "She put the English country manor into a one-room apartment in the city."
Laura Ashley and her husband Bernard started their business silk-screening place mats and scarfs inspired by some patchwork quilts they had seen. They worked on the kitchen table in their small London apartment in 1953. When neighbors complained about the noise, they simply moved to the top floor.
The items sold out instantly in an Oxford Street shop. But as their family and business started to grow, they moved to her native Wales and started to print fabrics in an old granite shed. Laura Ashley put all her effort into the designs; Bernard, who had been a short story writer, took over the print technology and merchandising.
The business, which remained headquartered in Wales, flourished. Not only were the workers they needed available, but the countryside proved a bountiful inspiration for their simple country look.
"Living quite remotely as I have done, I have not been caught up with city influences," she once said. "We just developed in our own way."
Her "own way" had huge international appeal. By 1984, the family-owned company, which did everything from dyeing fabrics to selling the products, grossed $130 million, with more than 200 shops, 10 factories and 4,000 employes worldwide.
Laura Mountney was born in 1925 in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, and attended the Marshalks School there. During World War II, she served in the Women's Royal Naval Combined Expeditionary Force in Europe. She once commented that she loved her Wren uniform. In fact, compared to the Jean Muir or Chloe designs -- even compared to her brushed cotton dresses she wore frequently, the Wren uniform was her all-time favorite.
"The uniform was very good quality navy gabardine and you could press it and wear it with a clean white cotton shirt and collar and tie. There was a nice, cheeky little hat and comfortable black leather shoes," she told an English newspaper. She had thought of designing school uniforms at one time.
Like that uniform she wore so neatly and comfortably, she wanted her clothes to be practical, useful, fairly priced but also pretty. It was all right with her if women stuck to the same kind of clothes rather than flirting seasonally with fashion changes. In fact, style changes were never drastic in her collections in her shops. "I like the idea of a uniform," she said at another time. "I think people should hang on to the things they like. They don't need closets full of clothes."
Once, when describing her general views of fashion, she offered a perfect description of her own designs. "I don't like ephemeral things; I like things that last forever, like the straw hat you are fond of wearing all of your life," she said. Many feel that way about the brushed cotton smock dress or nightgown by Laura Ashley that they will be fond of wearing all their lives.
On a visit to Washington in 1979 to celebrate the first Laura Ashley shop in Georgetown, she admitted that she was intimidated by those who told her that the profession she was seeking, fashion design, was very difficult indeed. "So I took the very simplest things, like single color prints, and the simplest shape clothes. And that turned out to be just what people wanted," she said with delight.
People also wanted Laura Ashley's natural fabrics and fair prices. Her company controlled everything from the dye pots to the stationery, and so the products never got nearly as expensive as other designer lines.
Laura Ashley was a modest woman and never claimed she was leading fashion. Instead, she preferred to look backward. "I reckon that women looked their best at the turn of the century," she said.
Her tiny floral patterns, she explained, came from 18th- and 19th-century prints she collected from various museums. Nothing was original. "People think the prints are just little flowers," she told an English interviewer. "But for me it's the texture that counts. No one wants to live with a design that jumps out at them."
She understood that the prints, the subdued colors suggested country life and fresh air and simpler style. "What we offer is a basic way of life, a country way of life even if you're living in the city." For the English, moving to the country is a mark of success. "We've been successful because people like to feel they live in villages, even if they don't."
Sir Terence Conran, founder and chairman of the Conran's/Habitat home furnishings empire, and his wife Caroline were close friends of the Ashleys. "Our lives have traveled along very much the same sort of path," said Terence Conran, who was in New York on business this past week. "We were both very frustrated that we couldn't make our things happen in the conventional sense, and therefore opened our own shops; we also believed that the looks we had each created could become interesting internationally. Laura is lucky that she has got very talented children in the business that her very spirit created, and that those children will continue in that spirit.
"But she will be a very sad loss because she provided that anchor of calmness and intelligence and 'wiseness' to the business. She was a really lovely lady."
Among Laura Ashley's most celebrated clients is Diana, princess of Wales, who frequently was photographed wearing her clothes before she was married to Prince Charles. When Lord and Lady Henderson were at the British Embassy here, a suite of rooms at the embassy residence was decorated in Laura Ashley patterns. Appropriately, the prince and princess are expected to stay in that suite when they visit in November.