Words: Charlie Elizabeth Culverhouse
2020 marked the end of Laura Ashley. Well, kind of. One of the first victims of the COVID19 pandemic, the heritage British label closed their conventional retail doors nearly 70 years after releasing their first pieces back in 1953. It was a shock for the brand who, for decades, could do no wrong. From an original investment of just £10, which paid for the first screens and dyes that produced their own prints, founder Laura Ashley and her husband Bernard had released collection after collection of clothing inspired by heritage fabrics and, by 1979, had raked in over £25 million, £127 million in today’s money, in profit. Laura Ashley went from sitting at the forefront of British fashion to merely watching from the sidelines as everything they knew and loved seemingly crumbled into nothing.
The Back-Story to Laura Ashley's Revival
Throughout the 70s and 80s, a time widely regarded as Laura Ashley’s golden era, the brand’s long, floaty prairie dresses perfectly emulated the collective nostalgia and romanticism for times gone by with the dainty prints, Victoriana style, and timeless, high-quality design of their pieces drawing many to the brand. Everything about Laura Ashley rejected hectic city life, making them the perfect fit for many of the growing subcultures of the time from the trendy hippies to those drawn in by the hit show Little House on the Prairie. Does any of this sound familiar?
“I think the styles remained popular for so long because they were pretty, above all else,” Dr Julie Ripley from Falmouth University’s Fashion and Textiles Institute told me. “They were feminine in a period when the definition of femininity was changing in ways that some women found difficult to accept. The resulting androgynous styles that were everywhere looked best on young, thin women, so Laura Ashley’s forgiving shapes were an added bonus. It’s also very British, whereas many of the key looks in the 1950s were more European, and plenty of women were more aligned to a kind of British vernacular.”
The 1990s, however, weren’t so kind to the brand as, like always happens with the trend cycle, interests changed, and minimalism reigned to juxtapose the popular styles of recent decades gone by. Fashion had moved on and left Laura Ashley, with its flowery prints and fussy necklines, well behind. Dr Ripley adds, “The key Laura Ashley looks represented a comforting, traditional, nostalgic alternative to the often harsh and futuristic looks that seemed to come one after another until the 1980s. It’s possibly because of the proliferation of nostalgic style that dominated fashion in the 1980s, typified by Princess Diana’s wedding gown, that their styles went out of fashion soon after, because for the first time they had been part of a mainstream trend.”
Photo: Glamour UK
Fast-Forward to the Present Day
But the same trend cycle that pushed the brand out has now brought it back in. The cult is back up and running for arguably the exact same reasons that caused Laura Ashley’s popularity boom in the 1970s. People are once again feeling the pull back to simpler, nostalgic times, and so Laura Ashley is again seeing a huge surge in interest. Gen Z shoppers have now been well and truly reintroduced to the label; in 2019 via a sell-out collaboration with Urban Outfitters, for the past few years through the rising influence of second-hand shopping and the popularisation of thrifted and vintage pieces, and, most visually, through the Pinterest-fuelled love of Cottagecore styles. With this newfound interest, despite their 2020 closure, the brand saw its moment and jumped, perhaps a little slowly, at the chance to capitalise on the momentum and released a series of collaborations.
Raymond Lam, a fashion expert from Vendula London, described how, “Laura Ashley's clothing was most often associated with floral prints, and long, flowing dresses. This has meant that they were ideal for lovers of the popular Cottagecore trend, which revolved around vintage and prairie style clothing. As this trend was mainly popular a year or two ago, before Laura Ashley relaunched their womenswear collection, there was instead an increase in demand for second-hand items on selling platforms such as Depop, which has contributed to its new popularity among a younger audience. Second-hand Laura Ashley clothing will likely remain popular, as many TikTok clothing trends have similar aesthetics to Cottagecore, such as Coquette, Fairycore and Whimsical Core."
It’s perhaps unsurprising. With the rise of romanticised aesthetics and everyone’s collective wish to run away and start afresh in the middle of God-forsaken nowhere, the landscape is primed and ready for Laura Ashley to come back and profit big time. Like Lam pointed out, they were slow to capitalise on the Cottagecore look but, while they could have run full speed into their return, their slow and thoughtful collections worked to remind the public of their long-held romantic values and their pieces have nevertheless grabbed the public zeitgeist. And this isn’t the only problem Laura Ashley has overcome with apparent ease - There were many aspects of the modern fashion world that could’ve held the brand back, not least the wide range of both fast-fashion and high-end competitors in their aesthetic category.
Many brands are producing beautiful interpretations of Laura Ashley’s classic prairie-style dresses, including popular names like Molly Goddard, Batsheva, Ganni, Cecilie Bahnsen and The Vampire’s Wife with their puff sleeves, ruffled collars and romantic prints of yesteryear, but still nothing seems to be winning fans over quite like the original Laura Ashley design. For Louise Canham, Associate Creative Director at creative agency House 337, who works with fashion brands including N Brown, M&S, and JD Williams, there are myriad reasons why Laura Ashley is beating out its modern competitors. She told me, “Nostalgia is a powerful force with brands pulling from the archives in the hope they’ll trigger an emotional reaction in turbulent times. Laura Ashley is synonymous with many a childhood and the brand provides a way to reconnect with their past. Core memories unlocked and re-imagined.
“Laura Ashley's British heritage and iconic designs give consumers a sense of comfort. It’s a celebration of a romanticised ideal of country living that has endured beyond trends. Laura Ashley is Cottagecore, and that’s not gone unnoticed with Batsheva and, most recently, Rag & Bone collaborating on collections, tapping into a little Anglophilia."
The Modern Day Cult of Laura Ashley
The cult is also gaining fans through both the second-hand sphere, where vintage Laura Ashley pieces can sell for more than a month's rent. A piece of original Laura Ashley is vintage gold dust because there are very few pieces around after most of them were thrown away when the brand fell out of favour in the 90s. This under-saturation has contributed to the brand’s allure tenfold, and people are more than willing to search for hours, days, weeks even for the privilege of owning an item. As Dr Julie Ripley puts it, “Vintage has enormous cachet at the moment, because consumers are interested in the sustainability side of buying second-hand, as well as the authenticity and originality of ‘original’ or heritage items. Basically, it’s always a bit of a ‘power move’ to casually drop in, ‘Oh this? It’s vintage. Yeah. Original Laura Ashley’.”
That clout has massively affected sales. Siena Barry-Taylor, Senior Marketing Executive/Spokesperson for online resale platform Thrift+, told me, “We sell lots of pre-loved items from Laura Ashley and it’s a brand people seem to love - it’s ageless, with Gen-Z to Boomers buying. The recent Cottagecore trend has definitely influenced sales but brands like Laura Ashley who have a strong DNA or signature style are always going to remain of interest to a fashion crowd. With Laura Ashley, the clothing also has the reputation of being long-lasting, good quality and relatively timeless in terms of style.”
Photo: Net A Porter
Similarly, Susie Nelson, vintage expert and founder of vintage boutique Modes&More, understands the vintage draw to the brand but, unfortunately, doesn’t think the boom in secondhand pieces means that Laura Ashley’s new releases will ever be as popular. “There’s a huge demand for vintage Laura Ashley, especially with the earlier items that were made in Wales and it’s predominantly the under mid-30s buying the pieces,” she told me. “Whether it’s mock frocks, floral prints, frilled collars, or pockets which are an especially popular practical detail people love, Etsy, Ebay, Vinted, and vintage shops all want to stock the brand. While I think it is too early to say whether modern Laura Ashley pieces will ever be as covetable as the old pieces, I think it’s fair to say probably not.”
It would be unfair to limit Laura Ashley’s revival as simply another trend-cycle-induced happening. The brand has an unparalleled draw, a timeless yet unique and exciting aesthetic that’s backed with sustainable business practices in a space where the idea of a circular economy is ever-dwindling. With the brand celebrating its 70th birthday this year, albeit within a vastly different business structure to when it first began, where is Laura Ashley going to go? In my opinion, it’s going nowhere. The heritage label has carved out its space and is holding down the fort no matter what challenges are thrown its way. The cult lives on and, while members may drift and return sporadically, its leaders know how to work the crowd and will continue to draw them back time and time again.