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PASSINGS / Bernard Ashley

He helped take wife's design business global

February 18, 2009|Times Staff and Wire Reports

Sir Bernard Ashley, 82, who teamed up with his wife to build the Laura Ashley fashion and home furnishings brand into a global business, died Saturday at his home in the Elan Valley in Wales, his family said. The cause of death was not announced.

Ashley had the business brain that propelled his wife's flair for nostalgic designs and floral prints into a thriving business.

He was born Aug. 11, 1926, served in the British army during World War II, then married Laura Mountney in 1949.

Inspired by a trip to Italy four years later, she designed some scarves. The couple, who had invested 10 pounds in a screen, dyes and linens, made the scarves in their apartment and found a ready market.

They gradually built up the business; by the time Laura Ashley died in 1985, the group had 220 shops in 12 countries. But in 1990 the company reported its first loss. Critics said the company had expanded too rapidly and had not nurtured new talent.

Expansion into the U.S. proved especially troublesome, and the company struggled for years with losses, management clashes and changing fashion tastes.

Ashley had a reputation as a sometimes prickly and temperamental man -- "a sort of walking whirlwind, full of ideas," in the words of former Ashley designer Brian Jones.

Ashley retired as chairman of Laura Ashley Holdings in 1993 but remained a board member until 1998.

MUI Group of Malaysia gained control of the company in 1998 and it sold the North American stores the next year. The Ashley family cut its connections to the company in 2001.

In 2000, Ashley set up a new fabrics business, Elanbach, at Llangoed Hall, a country house hotel he owned.

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