It was once described as the fashion label that made British women dress as milkmaids, then in the late 1990s went to the verge of collapse as its floral prints fell out of favour with consumers, but Laura Ashley seems to be blooming again. This year the retailer reported a 4.1 % increase in UK retail sales in the first 18 weeks of the financial year, with profits of £18.8m on sales of £285.9m; quite a turnaround for a label that reported an annual loss of £17m in 1998.
Its Uniqlo collaboration has put Laura Ashley back on the fashion radar, with the fashion blogger Liberty London Girl among those singing its praises. “Uniqlo have launched lots of different collaborations, from J+ Jil Sander to Hello Kitty, but this has to be my favourite so far, tapping into both this summer’s major floral trend, and a particular brand of British nostalgia,” she wrote.
Melanie Rickey, fashion editor at large at Grazia magazine, who blogs at fashioneditoratlarge.com, said the Uniqlo partnership was “a really interesting collaboration for them. Laura Ashley won’t be troubling anyone with its cool status any time soon. However, they have targeted their core market successfully, namely the aspiring English country home owner, and have decent homewares and furniture as well as a significant textile heritage. They could be the Liberty of the high street”.
The brand, which started in 1953, after its eponymous founder’s 19th-century style printed Victorian headscarves became popular, credits two factors for its success in bucking the downward trend amongst retailers: a focus on furniture and a move towards e-commerce.
Website sales are up 18.8% year-on-year, and some say its familiar aesthetic has been appealing in a time of economic turmoil. “One of the symptoms of the current economic climate is that people are a little bit more conservative in their approach to decorating,” said Giles Kime, deputy editor of Homes and Gardens magazine. “Before, if there had been a lot of money around, you might have bought an item of furniture that was quite a dramatic fashion statement, whereas now you are taking a longer term view – you’ll be taking a more centrist approach. Laura Ashley wallpapers and fabrics allow people to create a new look without massive investment.”
The website offers a cheap bespoke service, which allows customers to buy furniture in a choice of more than 100 fabrics. There is also an “outlet” service, run by the retailer through eBay, which offers up to 50% off some furniture lines. Laura Ashley closed its Oxford Circus branch in 2005, but it still has 200 stores in the UK and another 250 worldwide, which analysts suggest have helped online sales.
Bill Webb, a retail expert from the London College of Fashion, said: “Homeware lends itself very well to e-commerce because you can’t carry most of the larger products away. Laura Ashley has used a successful techniquethat we call cross-channel operations where they have integrated the physical shop as more of a brand showroom where people can bounce on the beds, ask for advice, touch and look at products, then order online and wait for delivery later at home.”
Like many British heritage brands, Laura Ashley faces the challenge of retaining its core customers while attracting new ones. Last month, Burberry posted pre-tax profits up 24% to £366m, with sales also up 24% to £1.86bn. By contrast, Aquascutum went bust in April. Habitat, a company which might be considered a contemporary of Laura Ashley, having been set up by Sir Terence Conran in 1964, went into administration in June last year.
“Staying relevant is the key word,” said Liz Mouat, Laura Ashley’s head of buying for home. “We have a customer that has been shopping with us for generations that we absolutely need to retain, harness and delight. Now, their children are shopping, but they don’t necessarily want the same things.”
There are still many people who would not dream of visiting a store to buy clothing, but Laura Ashley is reaching some of them through its collaborations. In 2011 it partnered the ethical clothing brand People Tree. This year, it was one of three designers chosen by Uniqlo for a range designed to showcase British heritage brands, lining up alongside Orla Kiely and Lulu Guinness.
“The combination of Laura Ashley vintage prints with Uniqlo’s modern, innovative materials allowed for us to create a very successful and commercial collection that appealed to both young and old,” said a spokesman for Uniqlo.
Nick Kaloyirou, joint chief operating officer of Laura Ashley, described the collaboration as “a perfect opportunity to introduce Laura Ashley to a new demographic of customer and allowing us to use our archive in a contemporary way.”Laura Ashley originally sold via mail order and through stores such as John Lewis. Its first London shop opened in 1968, its prints happily coinciding with contemporary hippy tastes in Victoriana. The firm expanded throughout the 70s and 80s, when shops opened across the UK and abroad, but by the late 90s the brand dominated high streets, and its trademark floral prints began to be derided as old-fashioned. Sales fell and it came to the brink of administration before it was saved by a Malaysian conglomerate who injected £44m.
The brand’s business model changed in the early 2000s, with the launch of 17 standalone home-furnishing shops. “Home furnishings is really what is driving our business and where our real growth is coming from,” said Mouat. This year, the company will open two gift shops in St Albans and Canterbury to add to the one in London, and announced that it would open a Laura Ashley hotel decorated in its designs in Hertfordshire.