Sir Bernard Ashley, the husband and business partner of Laura Ashley, who co-founded the eponymous fashion-to-furnishings retailer, has died at the age of 82.
Laura Ashley was the creative force behind the Laura Ashley chain while Sir Bernard Ashley was desribed as the “organiser” behind the company.
While on holiday in Italy in 1953 the couple found some headscarves which they decided to reproduce at their flat in Pimlico in their spare time. Laura Ashley was in charge of the designs while Sir Bernard Ashley did the printing on a machine he had designed and built himself.
Laura Ashley took the first batch of scarves to John Lewis and they sold out so quickly that, by the time she had finished her bus ride home, the telephone was ringing with a repeat order.
Soon they gave up their day jobs and began expanding their range to include napkins, tea towels and aprons – and eventually dresses – which Laura Ashley adapted from old plates, book and patchwork quilt designs. The couple began selling to Heal’s and to Liberty and then to outlets in the US.
In 1968 they opened their first shop in London and sales really took off.
But after Laura Ashley’s unexpected death in 1985 from an accidental fall down a flight of stairs, the business lost its sense of direction and Bernard Ashley’s unique style of management meant that he lost favour in the City. In 1998, after a run of poor results and a series of boardroom upheavals which saw the departure of five chief executives in seven years, the company had to be rescued from the receivers and control was passed to the Malaysian-owned conglomerate MUI Asia, where upon Bernard Ashley resigned from the board.