Exploring the Laura Ashley archive at the company’s London HQ.
‘If self-renewal is the world’s aim, then there must be the need to feed from the past, not only spiritually but practically as well.’ Laura Ashley, 1973. Fashion history is something that’s always fascinated me, from the way that style can sum up so much about a socio-political moment in history – think first wave feminism and the ’20s flapper – to the cycle of fashion that sees styles return and influences reworked. Laura’s sensitivity to the nuances of fashion history (especially her love of Victorian and Edwardian style) influenced a clear vision of practical femininity – a heritage the company is still very much in touch with today. My love of all things Laura Ashley and ever-expanding collection of vintage dresses has been well-documented, so when the company invited myself and the lovely Jojo (all-round crafty queen) to their London HQ to visit the archive – usually under lock and key – it was an absolute dream come true.
The opportunity to meet the team and lose myself in the records of clothing, photography, fabric samples and more for the afternoon was a true privilege. Lovely archivist Holly talked us through everything, telling the stories behind some of the pieces – as fascinating as the designs are beautiful – and explaining how they evolved into designs in the shops today. The main archive is in Wales, headed by long-serving Laura Ashley employee Anne, but the on-site London archive allows all the different departments to draw on that rich heritage on a day-to-day basis. Holly had picked out lots of ‘seventies pieces for me to look at (I think having spotted my latest vintage Laura Ashley post!) and kindly agreed to offer her insights in a little Q&A to accompany my photos, which hopefully goes some way to bringing the archive alive for all of you too.
How do you go about sourcing pieces for the archive?
We are lucky to have many loyal customers who donate their vintage Laura Ashley clothes when the time is right for them. It’s a way of carrying on their story and means that dresses once loved can continue to be cared for in a safe environment.
What’s your favourite item in the archive?
My favourite changes every day! At the moment, I’m rather attached to a forest green smock from around 1973 that we were given by a wonderful lady who had kept it for years. It was delivered with a beautiful letter explaining why the dress was important to her and it was really touching to read. The things I like the best here are the objects that come with stories.
And the most unusual?
The most unusual is possibly the wallpaper that David Bowie designed for us in the nineties, for the charity War Child. He chose to embellish one of our classic designs with a portrait of Lucien Freud. I think it’s really special.
How did you get into archiving?
Whilst studying Fashion History and Theory at Central Saint Martins, I often visited archives for research. It was a natural progression to begin working in them too, and I was drawn to the sense of secrecy that surrounded all these dark, strange rooms I encountered. To begin with, I wanted to peek in all the boxes! Also, I believe it’s important to look after the past and I enjoy reawakening pieces for the designers to be inspired by.
What’s your favourite Laura Ashley decade?
I rarely come across one of Jane Ashley’s photographs for the company without pausing for a moment. Although she was photographing in the seventies and afterwards, it’s not always clear right away what decade they’ve come from. There are elements of Dorothea Lange in some of her countryside scenes. They’re really evocative of another time. The dresses then were pretty too and the spirit of the Laura Ashley girl was carefree, feminine and I think that’s still evident in the clothes as they exist today.
Is there an average day in the archive?
There’s always something happening, whether it’s a new collection, a book, a press story. I might be giving a tour one day and then be knee deep in wedding dresses the next! The archive is a treasure chest and so it is used in different ways across the company. I keep an eye on everything, whilst carrying out my duties as an archivist. I wish I could tell you what an average day would look like, but I don’t think I’ve had one here yet.
A huge thanks to Laura Ashley for inviting me to the archive! It was a real honour to explore the history and inspirations that have shaped a company I love so much, as well as meet the team too. It was lovely to finally meet Jojo in person as well – if you love DIYs you must check out her blog, go go! Special thanks to Holly for showing us round and taking the time to answer my questions.
The two images above are by Jane Ashley, courtesy of Laura Ashley. All other images by me!