Inside Laura Ashley’s underground bunker: When the label folded in 2020, its archive went into subterranean storage. As the British brand celebrates its 70th anniversary, Jenny Wood drops in for a special viewing
- Laura Ashley designs making a comeback as it celebrates its 70th anniversary
- Jenny Wood visits the stylish mine which houses the British brand’s archive
- READ MORE: Now you can get a Laura Ashley dress AGAIN
The industrial site in Winsford, in the heart of the rolling Cheshire countryside, looks a lot like any other, with heavy machinery and piles of grit waiting to be spread on the nation’s motorways. Yet more than 500 feet beneath this prosaic setting, in a still-operational salt mine, lies a treasure trove of British fashion history, a repository filled with thousands of rare finds: the secret Laura Ashley archive.
Few labels stir affection and nostalgia like Laura Ashley. Most people over the age of 35 have memories of prairie-style floral dresses or chintz cushions on their grandma’s sofa. The fact that Ashley was a real person – and her designs sold on the high street rather than in high-end boutiques – made the brand more relatable than others of the day.
But while its popularity soared throughout the late 20th century (Princess Diana caused pieces to sell out when she wore them), the English romantic countryside look fell out of fashion; the brand failed to move with the times and it finally went into administration during the Covid pandemic.
It wasn’t the end of the story, though. Celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, Laura Ashley has risen again. Rather than sell directly, the brand now works with partners: M&S, John Lewis, Next and B&Q. There’s also a collaboration with New York designer Batsheva Hay to create a collection of dresses in updated 70s prints from the archive.
The reason for this resurgence? When the firm folded in 2020, global advisory and investment firm Gordon Brothers, who bought the brand and intellectual property rights, had the foresight to preserve the archive, sending everything from the London and Wales headquarters to Deepstore. Part of the UK’s oldest working mine, it provides grit for our roads – but also secure storage for over 3.2 million sensitive documents, priceless artworks and historic artefacts.
Archivist Bronwyn Gaffney with the 1953 Pelham scarf. Celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, Laura Ashley has risen again
Public records, museum pieces, private art collections – even Sir Norman Foster’s architectural records – sit in caverns excavated from mining millions of tons of rock salt. Larger than 700 football pitches, Deepstore maintains an ambient temperature of 15C and balanced humidity, required to preserve delicate materials. Naturally free from ultraviolet light, vermin and flooding, it is also difficult to access. Few even know it exists.
Being the first ‘civilian’ to enter the archive is slightly surreal. After my safety training, I don a high-vis vest and hard hat (adorned with on-brand floral stickers) and buckle up a leather belt with a ‘self-rescuer’ kit containing emergency breathing apparatus. Fresh air from above is constantly forced through, but with only three shafts serving the 175km warren of caverns, it’s best to be prepared.
Crammed into a clunky carriage, I feel my ears pop as we descend the height of the Blackpool Tower in one and a half minutes, a flurry of salty dust pluming around us as we reach the bottom. Inside the mine, it’s totally quiet. A fine layer of pinkish dust covers everything, while salt crystal walls glisten under lightbulbs overhead. It all smells musty, like the inside of a vintage wardrobe.
We’re taken by minibus along dark tunnels to the archive, a space the height of two double-decker buses in places, filled with unassuming cabinets. They house hundreds of thousands of priceless items: clothing, accessories, sample books, hand-drawn artworks, fabrics and wallpapers, including much-loved prints as well as never launched, unseen patterns.
Author Jenny Wood and head of design Helen Ashmore with drawings from the collection. After the panic of the pandemic, archivist Bronwyn Gaffney and her team are now busy cataloguing collected items both vintage and modern
Iconic designs from the 1960s, 70s and 80s flank a sample wedding dress that was modelled by Kate Moss
After the panic of the pandemic, archivist Bronwyn Gaffney and her team are now busy cataloguing collected items both vintage and modern: fragile pieces and photos, racks of dresses and random items, from crockery to bedspreads. These treasures are the key to the brand’s resurgence. ‘This is a living, working archive,’ explains Helen Ashmore, head of design. ‘We come here to research each season’s design direction.’ But the team aren’t just replicating the past. ‘We’re constantly tweaking and fine-tuning, updating colours, reimagining tiny prints on a bigger scale; finding, say, a flower bud from one piece and combining it with a shape from elsewhere.’
Ashmore shows me vintage sketches shared with Batsheva Hay. ‘The colour, sleeves and details on many are timeless, so we’re constantly going back to old drawings, interpreting them for a modern silhouette,’ she says, as we flick through 1977 designs for smocked bikinis, balloon trousers and voluminous dresses with dropped waists.
In one chest we find hand-painted gouache artwork for a 1992 tulip print that’s being reworked for the 70th anniversary. Elsewhere, pullout racks contain neatly folded fabric samples; cardboard boxes are packed with tissue paper-wrapped shoes, grosgrain-ribboned hats and lace-trimmed parasols; there are bottles of No 1, the first perfume, launched in the 80s; and a crate of old wallpaper sample books, one of which, with swan patterns and a vivid 70s colour palette of emeralds, ochres and purples, fed into Hay’s collection for her label Batsheva. Another swatch shows a delicate 1988 chinoiserie summer palace print, recently reworked for nightwear.
The dresses draw my biggest gasps: a green striped 1966 gardening smock; a late 60s purple bibbed dress in hand-printed chequerboard fabric; a blue 70s high-collared maxi with romantic puffed sleeves; an 80s drop-waist sailor dress; a ruched 80s frock in pastel floral Emma print (named after Laura’s daughter); and a flouncy sample wedding dress worn by Kate Moss for a 1991 Brides magazine shoot. It’s striking how beautifully made everything is, with an attention to detail that’s rare these days.
The team is constantly hunting for new additions to the archive. As well as accepting donations (one Facebook fan group has half a million followers), they scour online auctions for unusual pieces. ‘Heraldic animal prints are particularly sought-after, fetching £400-£500 for a dress on Etsy or Ebay,’ says Gaffney. ‘We also found an Emma dress for about £150 on Vinted; and recently bought a tiny-waisted skirt and jacket for nearly £600 from an Instagram seller – it was a swan print but in a lime green we’d never seen before.’
How much is all this worth? ‘While some of the vintage dresses are expensive – for instance, we never see garden smocks come up for auction – the real value is historical and sentimental,’ says Ashmore. ‘Particularly anything from the early days, such as Ashley’s handwritten letters. It’s impossible to put a price on a legacy like that.’
Ashley in 1976. The fact that Ashley was a real person – and her designs sold on the high street rather than in high-end boutiques – made the brand more relatable than others of the day
The rarest, oldest piece is the Pelham scarf, a screen-printed cotton square with a red geometric design, handmade by Ashley on her kitchen table in 1953 and bearing her signature. After visiting a Women’s Institute exhibition of handicrafts at London’s Victoria & Albert museum, Ashley, then 28, was inspired to create her own prints and patterns. ‘Her husband, Bernard, bought the materials to make a screen-printing press for just £10,’ says Gaffney. ‘She started with tea towels and scarves, progressing to aprons and tablecloths then gardening smocks in the 60s: her first foray into fashion.’ Apart from a small exhibition of dresses at Bath Fashion Museum in 2013, nothing from the archive has ever been on public display.
It wasn’t all made by her – the archive houses antique Victorian clothing, original artworks and photographs collected over the years. ‘It often surprises people to hear Laura wasn’t an artist or designer,’ says Ashmore. ‘She was more what we’d term today a creative director, and the look was her vision. She didn’t sketch designs, but was very hands-on. We’ve found notes asking designers to do something in a specific colour, or for stripes to be a particular width, as well as annotated pages of photographs, magazines and books. Ashley loved travel – she and Bernard had homes in France, Florida’s Palm Beach and the Bahamas, so she’d wander around museums, finding inspiration everywhere.’
At the height of the company’s success, in 1985, Laura Ashley died, after falling down the stairs at her eldest daughter Jane’s house in the Cotswolds, where she’d just celebrated her 60th birthday. While the business continued without her, many felt its soul had gone. ‘By the time it went into administration, it seemed out of style,’ says Ashmore. ‘But fashion goes in cycles and always comes back around.’
As we head back to the surface, I wonder how Laura might feel, 70 years after that first scarf, to see her life’s work preserved in this way. ‘I think she’d be amazed and incredibly proud,’ says Ashmore. ‘A new generation is discovering [her] and this archive will play a crucial part in its future.’
LAURA ASHLEY THROUGH THE AGES
1925: Laura Mountney born in Dowlais, South Wales
1953: Begins to screen-print scarves and tea towels at her kitchen table
1959: Gardening aprons and smocks are introduced – and bought by style-savvy customers to wear as dresses
1968: Expanding into fashion, the brand opens its first shop. In 1970 the Fulham Road store launches and sells 4,000 dresses in a week
1972: Laura’s favourite wildflower, the bramble, features on the new logo: the perfect reflection of her brand
1980: Lady Diana Spencer, a brand fan, is photographed wearing a diaphanous skirt. The ‘Diana effect’ sends sales soaring
1981: Laura Ashley Home – the mail-order catalogue – is published. The Laura Ashley Book of Home Decorating follows in 1982
1985: Laura dies just days after her 60th birthday. Two months later a stock market launch values the company at £200 million
2000: With high-street sales in excess of £276 million, the company unveils its website
2019: Iconic Laura Ashley fashion from the 70s and 80s is revived in a collaboration with Urban Outfitters
2021: The brand partners with Next to reintroduce the home collection, and with design label Batsheva to reimagine iconic styles and print.
2023: To celebrate 70 years of heritage there will be a special edition collection across both interiors and fashion
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