News that Laura Ashley is selling its US chain for just dollars 1
highlights the poor state in which the once booming fashion retailer
What went so wrong with the business that once represented the
quintessential English rose?
Things began to fall apart soon after the sudden death of its eponymous
founder in the mid-1980s, just before the group’s flotation on the Stock
Market. Since then, the business has had seven chief executives,
culminating most recently with the appointment of TV evangelist Pat
Robertson to the board, prompting jokes that the chain was praying for a
The issues facing Laura Ashley are two-fold. Global expansion, with
backing from its major shareholder Malaysian United Industries, has
over-stretched the group to a point where closures, especially in the US
have become almost commonplace. At the same time, the Laura Ashley brand
has become diluted to the point of irrelevance to its target market.
While Stephen Cox, the company secretary, paints a bullish picture of
the brand being ’incredibly strong on a world wide basis’, one has to
question the validity of an image that is perceived by most to be stuck
in the past.
When fashion retailers such as Next, Dorothy Perkins and even dear old
M&S moved with the times to address the challenges of new entrants such
as Gap, Laura Ashley’s middle-England feel remained. The result is that
many potential Laura Ashley customers now feel little or no empathy for
The dire financial problems in the US, which contributed largely to the
pounds 31.9 million loss for this year represent the lowest point for
Brave decisions need to be taken on the future direction of the
Should it refocus on its core ’Britishness’ and find a new vision for
its place in the UK high streets? It will take clear management and some
savvy PR to effectively communicate the changing personality of the
brand to investors and the high street.
The real issue here is not how well Laura Ashley’s management spun the
sale announcement, but how they start rebuilding the brand. I suspect we
will know when things are on the up for Laura Ashley when a more
contemporary feel is injected into the brand. Only then will they regain
their appeal to any significant size of the market.