Executives at Laura Ashley didn’t have to sell Batsheva Hay on a collaboration.
”I’ve been a huge fan of Laura Ashley’s, since I literally knew about clothing. It’s been my main inspiration point,” the New York-based designer said. “I’ve been tracking the company for years.”
Starting today, shoppers in the U.S. and the U.K. can buy her 15 collaborative designs online at Laura Ashley. Hay needed no convincing when the floral printed dress company approached her in August 2020 about teaming up. Growing up in Queens, N.Y., her mother loved printed textiles, which meant that as a child, Hay had Laura Ashley sheets, a Laura Ashley bedspread, and Laura Ashley clothes. “It was just such a captivating world to me – all of the Laura Ashley stuff,” Hay said.
Personal preferences aside, the designer said the brand’s prints are “amazing, beautiful and really stand the test of time.” Like Liberty of London, Laura Ashley is distinctive for its floral designs, the designer said. “Laura Ashley is its own thing. Also, the fantasy that they create around the world, this Welsh countryside kind of thing works for so many different women. The shapes of their clothes are so comfortable and functional with pockets. That’s why I got into it. They kind of tap into fantasy but also in a very practical way.”
Teaming up with a fashion designer for women’s apparel is a first for Laura Ashley, which is rebuilding again after decades of difficulties. In March, Gordon Brothers acquired the brand, archives and intellectual property. As for what took so long for a designer tie-up, the company’s global president Carolyn D’Angelo said, “Obviously, the company was experiencing difficulties, which was when Gordon Brothers came in and purchased the brand. They were in administration prior to that. I can’t speak to what happened prior to administration. But if someone is in administration, they’re not necessarily operating on all cylinders.”
Set to celebrate 70 years in 2023, Laura Ashley relaunched its home collection in March with the U.K. online retailer Next. Other retailers will carry the home line at a later date. Plans are underway for Laura Ashley to restore fashion to be an important part of the business. Next year other collaborations in different fashion categories will debut to get the name back in the market. “Collaborating with people like Batsheva has been wonderful for us. She is a humongous brand fan and has been so inspired by the brand,” D’Angelo said.
While the Batsheva collaboration is brand new, Laura Ashley’s existing apparel being offered online at the company’s site are leftovers from its stores. That limited product is “winding down.” D’Angelo said. “It wasn’t bad product but it isn’t product that we lean into. Fashion today is very small, because we don’t have the product. In Japan, we do have fashion and home, which literally just started. Fashion is tracking almost equally as home. When we do fashion, there will be regional differences, based on the region.”
With 40 stores in South Korea, eight stores in Japan, and stores in Spain, Portugal and other locales globally, the company has not determined yet if U.S. ones will open. These retail partners use the Laura Ashley name and buy product to put in the stores, D’Angelo said.
There will most likely be some new hires to support fashion, but Gordon Brothers’ model is an asset-light one with the emphasis on licensing. Women’s will be the core for fashion. Laura Ashley collaborated with Rag & Bone a few years ago for men’s wear, a category that it expects to bring back. Children’s wear has been very successful in years past, and the brand recently launched girls’ dresses in the U.K. with Next. “Our hope is that we will be partnering with some key licensees for fashion,” D’Angelo said, adding that a robust fashion assortment is planned for 2023.
She declined to comment on projected volume for the Batsheva collaboration. “It’s not a hugely extensive collection, but it’s a really well thought out collection of product that works together,” D’Angelo said. “This is really about the perception of the Laura Ashley brand, gaining new consumers and looking at how Batsheva has used our patterns and has updated it in a more modern way. Getting existing and new consumers to see the Laura Ashley brand in today’s environment is really important to us.”
Pandemic-related travel restrictions nixed visiting the company’s archives in Wales, but Hay still hopes to dive into them at some point. Rather than rework the tried-and-true, working remotely she culled from the archives some things that may not have been the most popular or the most used fabrics and silhouettes. Some of the archival line drawings that were scanned for Hay had “interesting, beautiful and dramatic” shapes. She tapped into the new and played around with things that hadn’t been unearthed in a while “with a sense of fun.” Translation – neon colors were infused in a demure floral print in beige or mashing up an ’80s yellow print with an old-fashioned, conservative one.
There are also two children’s looks in the exclusive line. Mother-daughter styles was one of the aspects of Laura Ashley that Hay always loved and was intent on including. “I also have a daughter. It’s funny how the whole women’s clothing business carried me away. But it was fun to revisit that mother-daughter thing that I started off doing. My first looks were mother-daughter looks,” Hay said.
Somehow Laura Ashley still resonates with legions of consumers decades after its namesake British founder died in 1985 at the age of 60. To update the advertising, Hay wears her designs in campaign images taken by her photographer husband, Alexei. Having done that when starting her own collection and business, the designer decided a similar route made sense for Laura Ashley, which had been a family business. The photos include reenactments of Laura Ashley catalogue images, such as one of Hay running on train tracks with a carpetbagger suitcase that is reminiscent of a catalogue cover titled “New Horizons.” Collectively, the Manhattan-centric shots are meant to evoke, “Who is she? What is she doing running around the city in Laura Ashley?”
The fact that Ashley started her company with her husband Bernard was another point of connection for Hay. “She was screenprinting napkins at home, and he would do the paperwork. I started going to patternmakers and seamstresses with my fabrics and shapes. When I would go home, my husband would say, ‘Let’s go to the park and take photos of them.’ I’d put them on and he would photograph me. That was part of the building of the brand, developing an image that way. He always helps me with editorial and creative shoots. We really work together to build these images,” Hay said.
Another pandemic project that they worked on was two cookbook lookbooks, featuring women wearing Hay’s designs in their kitchens making their favorite dishes. In search of a publisher, the plan is to turn those 100 images into a cookbook and hopefully donate a percentage of the proceeds to a food bank. First up is a children’s collaboration with the Georgia-based home-sewer and Instagrammer Jabella Fleur. Hay has another collaboration in the works with Anna Sui.