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Woocommerce Category Post Widget
Laura Ashley is to revive the “timeless” designs of its late founder in the latest attempt to breathe new life into the struggling British heritage brand.
Ashley, who started printing her trademark floral fabrics on her kitchen table, took the high street by storm in the 70s, but the appeal of her frilly world peaked in the 80s, when Princess Diana was among its famous fans.
More recently, the company that still bears the designer’s name has made its living selling sofas, cushions and curtains rather than floaty dresses. But sales of expensive home furnishings have collapsed as the uncertainty created by Brexit weighed on consumer confidence and put the brakes on the housing market.
On Thursday, its first female chief executive, Katharine Poulter – who joined the company last month from discount chain Wilko – insisted that Laura Ashley had a bright future despite losing £4m in the first six months of its current financial year. “We are listening to our customers and bringing Laura back,” she said of the revival plan.
Poulter said the company had been a trailblazer when it moved into home furnishings in the 80s, bringing French chic such as chandeliers and armoires to middle-class homes. To get back on track, the company would raid its extensive archive to develop products that were recognisable as “iconic, exclusive Laura Ashley designs and prints but desirable today”, it said.
Laura Ashley was started by the eponymous Welsh designer and her husband, Bernard, in 1953. She initially experimented with headscarves, napkins and tea towels, but was so successful that within two years later the company was using a factory to produce its floral fabrics. The first shop opened in Pelham Street in London’s upmarket South Kensington district in 1968 and within a decade the couple had a chain of 70 sites and were generating sales of £25m a year.
Despite Laura Ashley’s pedigree, the company has struggled to keep up on a cutthroat high street as rivals ranging from Cath Kidston to Ikea and design-led online brands like Made.com moved into the business it had helped to shape. Analysts also point to a lack of investment in the business, which has also spawned branded hotels and tearooms.
More recently, though, the company’s situation has been aggravated by grim high-street trading conditions. The listed retailer, which has a market capitalisation of just £15m, has blamed Brexit for deterring shoppers from making big-ticket purchases or starting big DIY projects.
At the same time, the housing market has slowed, and house moves are key to the health of specialist home retailers. In the second half of last year, like-for-like sales of decorating products such as paint, curtains and wallpaper were down 21% at Laura Ashley, while demand for soft furnishings like cushions and bed linen fell by 14%. Furniture sales were down 6%.
The overall financial picture was also grim, with pre-tax losses more than doubling to £4m in the six months to 31 December on sales of £110m. Sales at stores open for more than one year slumped 10%. Poulter’s turnaround is expected to result in more store closures in the UK, where it has already scaled back to 147 outlets.
Maureen Hinton, analyst at retail consultancy GlobalData, said the company was out of step with current interior design trends. “Laura Ashley doesn’t seem to have any relevance today – it’s an also-ran,” she said. “It’s all about clean lines, and when you get into pattern, it is not the country look of flowers and things [that’s in vogue]. It looks like it’s selling to a pensioner’s bungalow.”
Laura Ashley clothing arm – which accounts for about a fifth of its £232m annual sales – is holding up better, with sales level with a year ago as women embrace the trend for demure, 1970s-style dresses. The retailer has also been collaborating with other fashion brands including Barbour and Urban Outfitters.
Laura Ashley’s chairman, Andrew Khoo, said that talks between the company’s main shareholder – the Malaysian investment firm MUI Asia – and Wells Fargo about the terms of a £20m loan facility had now been concluded successfully. “It’s business as usual,” he said. “Whilst these results are disappointing, we believe that with the right focus and support, Laura Ashley has a strong future and can be successful again.”