Laura Ashley, 60, the founder of the Victorian-style fashion empire that bore her name, died yesterday at Walsgrave Hospital in Coventry, nine days after falling down stairs at a daughter's home.
A hospital spokesman said Mrs. Ashley had been in a coma and had not regained consciousness since being brought to the hospital Sept. 8 from the daughter's home in the Cotswold Hills west of London.
Mrs. Ashley and her husband, Bernard, began their design business in the kitchen of their London home in 1954. Later, they moved to Belgium. The business is now a globe-straddling enterprise with annual sales of more than $130 million, 200 stores and 4,000 employes. The first of nearly 60 Laura Ashley stores was opened in the United States in 1980.
The Laura Ashley style, falling somewhere between the workaday and the elegant, drew on nostalgia for Victorian days and the romance of the English country garden. The 19th-century Victorians, with their rigid class system of masters and servants were her inspiration, but her old-fashioned floral fabrics and frilly fashions appealed to Britain's young, jeans-clad generation.
The Ashleys' most celebrated customer was Diana, Princess of Wales, who in the days before her engagement to Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, often appeared wearing the printed cotton skirts and frilled blouses that typify the Ashley style.
Mrs. Ashley once explained her success by saying, "Living quite remotely as I have done, I have not been caught up with city influences and we just developed in our own way."
"It's not really a question of inspiration," she said in an interview published in The London Times in June 1983. "What you make as a designer is an expression of yourself. I love music and painting and I prefer life in the country."
She was born Laura Mountney on Sept. 7, 1925, in the city of Merthyr Tydfil, Wales. She and Bernard Ashley married in 1949. Five years later, they started screen-printing table mats and scarves in their kitchen. Tableware, aprons and dresses followed.
The Ashleys first sold direct to London stores like Liberty and Heal's in 1955, and slowly broke into the U.S. market with a line of Victorian tea towels. Their marketing successes brought huge wealth, including chateaus in Europe, a private plane and a mansion near London. Their success forced them into exile in New York, for a time, because of tax problems.
In 1974 the Laura Ashley home furnishings collection was begun and soon her wallpapers, curtains and bedspreads graced houses on both sides of the Atlantic. It was a revolution in the idea of "life style" decorating, in which fabrics and furnishings follow a single theme.
Despite her huge success in fashion and furnishing fabrics she once said, "The idea of four babies, cooking, sewing and looking after the home suited me perfectly."
In addition to her husband, her survivors include four children.