LONDON — Sir Bernard Ashley, the charismatic British textile tycoon, luxury property investor and widower of the designer Laura Ashley, has died at age 82.
Ashley died Feb. 14 after an 18-month battle with cancer. Together with his wife, he helped build the Laura Ashley clothing, textile and home furnishings business synonymous with English floral prints, and successfully took it public shortly after her death from a fall in 1985. He was given a knighthood in 1987 as the label reached its apex.
This story first appeared in the February 18, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Passionate about prints and the mechanics of producing them, Ashley regularly rolled up his sleeves and built his own presses. More recently, he was working with digital printers at his latest home textiles business, the Wales-based Elanbach.
A South Londoner with no academic qualifications beyond high school, he married Laura Mountney in 1949 after serving with the Gurkhas in India at the end of World War II. Together, he and Laura developed an interest in prints, and as she began designing head scarves and dishcloths, he started teaching himself about silk-screening and dyeing.
By the early Fifties, he’d already embarked on his multipronged career: He produced Laura’s fabric designs and traveled around Britain selling them, and built up Bernard Ashley Fabrics, which specialized in textiles for hotels and cruise ships.
To save money, the Ashleys eventually moved their business from England to Carno, Wales, with Ashley always looking to increase production with faster machines.
By the Sixties, Laura had begun designing a full women’s wear line for fashion-conscious London girls, and the company expanded quickly. By the Seventies, Laura Ashley stores had mushroomed around Britain, and the first of a clutch of Paris stores had opened. By then, Laura Ashley had also moved into home interiors offering furnishings fabrics, wallpaper, accessories and fragrances — and the money flowed.
Ashley, whom friends described as a larger-than-life figure, bought himself a company jet, a helicopter and a yacht — which he kept on the Côte d’Azur. The couple moved to Belgium for tax reasons, and bought a chateau in France.
“He was an enormous character, explosive and totally original,” recalled the designer Belinda Bellville, a close friend. “He and Laura were a brilliant couple, and their talents slotted perfectly into each other.”
However, the powerful personality traits that served to build the business eventually proved detrimental to Laura Ashley Holdings plc. A few years after the hugely successful initial public offering and Laura Ashley’s death, the brand’s appeal began to wane as women began to drift away from the ruffles, lace and high collars.
The company was forced to downsize, and Ashley feuded with a revolving set of company directors. The business increasingly struggled through the Nineties as it tapped a series of chief executives and designers — many of them American — to try to turn the brand around. But the business shrank further and further, and Ashley eventually stepped down from the board in 1998 after Malaysian investors MUI purchased the company.
Over the years, Ashley also dipped into the luxury property business, buying Llangoed Hall near Brecon in Wales in the late Eighties, and turning it into a country house hotel. The hotel is also the base for Ashley’s Elanbach home textiles business. In the Nineties, Ashley purchased similar properties in Virginia and Maryland and later sold them to Orient Express Hotels.
In 2001, Ashley returned to the fabric business with Elanbach, which counts Prince Charles and Cath Kidson among its clients. It supplies textiles to wholesale clients such as decorators and fabric shops, and carries out commission printing for other designers.
Ashley is survived by his second wife, Regine Burnell, whom he married in 1990, and his four children with Laura — two sons and two daughters. A funeral will be held Feb. 24 at the parish church in Carno, Wales.