An empire founded on tea-towels; The Laura Ashley fashion company

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The Laura Ashley fashion empire founded on a patterned tea-towel 30 years ago was celebrating last night the announcement it is to seek a stock market listing in modest-style.

The reclusive Mrs Ashley, whose name has become synonymous with Mother Earth floral prints and frills, was touring the west country with her mother.

Her husband, who she readily admits is the driving force behind the company – it was given her name after he refused to put his name to a tea-towel – was in the West End inspecting a few of the 180 shops located worldwide.

‘It is still the same business. We are just adding a few noughts on the end of it,’ Mr Bernard Ashley said between inspections yesterday.

‘The idea behind the Laura Ashley company has always been to make comfortable products, to make them available to as many people as possible,’ Mr Ashley said.

‘Our customers, though growing in numbers have been very loyal over the years. While we appeal to the more monied buyer abroad, we appeal to the home-makers here.

‘Our success is due to other people in retailing and manufacturing, it is people who come first, employees and customers. Our employees still have a say in how the company is run although they don’t report directly to us any more.

‘Our fashion and furnishings have always been classical rather than radical. Our aim has always been to make people feel comfortable.’

Among the main intitiatives planned for this year the company, still based in the heart of rural Wales, is breaking on to the lucrative Japanese market.

This global expansion is a far cry from the small workshop the Ashleys set up in Pimlico in 1953 to produce table mats, tea-towels and aprons.

Born Laura Mountney in Wales in 1925 she was brought up a strict Baptist. Printing lino-cuts on the kitchen table came as a diversion when the couple’s four children were young.

Bernard Ashley, aged 58, who likes to known as BA, gave up his job in the city when the orders for his wife’s work became too much.

In spite of the multi-national organization, the company is essentially a family business. The couple’s four children manage different sections of it.

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