When US-based investment firm Gordon Brothers acquired British lifestyle brand Laura Ashley out of administration two years ago, one of the first things it did was dig into the archives. “There’s a very rich archive that we bought along with the company that we store in a salt mine in Wales,” Tobias Nanda, Gordon Brothers’ president of brands, told Inside Retail. “You have to go deep down into the depths of the earth. It’s where a lot of National Archives in the UK are kept
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What they discovered was “an incredible library” of exclusive prints and designs just waiting to be reinterpreted for a modern consumer.
The first example of what the new owner had in mind came last October, when Laura Ashley unveiled its first ever designer collaboration with US-based ready-to-wear label Batsheva. It was an immediate success, with Vogue calling it “autumn’s most romantic collaboration”.
“We’ve got some additional drops with Batsheva [coming] because it was so popular,” Nanda said.
For Gordon Brothers, the collaboration was proof of the enduring appeal of Laura Ashley, a name that conjures up long floral dresses, puffed sleeves and ruffles. While the look might have had its heyday in the 1980s, Nanda believes the core aesthetic is timeless.
“One of the things that I think is really interesting and exciting about Laura Ashley as a brand, especially in the fashion space, is there’s a timeless element to our designs,” he said, noting that vintage Laura Ashley dresses often sell for “thousands of pounds” on eBay.
Gordon Brothers is now looking to follow up its designer foray with a more accessible range. Earlier this month, it announced a new, multi-year partnership with licensing management experts IMG to relaunch Laura Ashley as a standalone fashion brand.
It plans to offer apparel, footwear and accessories and is currently seeking global partners with sourcing and design capabilities to licence the brand.
While Gordon Brothers has primarily focused on Laura Ashley’s homewares offering since buying the brand in 2020, Nanda believes the majority of its growth going forward will come from fashion. The company currently generates US$250 million in revenue globally.
“If you look at the relative size of the market, fashion is the largest from a consumer perspective. For us to be a relevant brand, we have to be a meaningful brand in the fashion space,” Nanda said.
Gordon Brothers’ could hardly have picked a better moment to revive Laura Ashely’s fashion offering, with the cottagecore trend still fresh in people’s minds. The last few years have seen brands like Doen and Christy Dawn create a blueprint for selling prairie dresses and smocked blouses to millennial consumers.
Similarly, Nanda plans to “pay homage” to classic Laura Ashley designs while updating the colours and silhouettes for a younger consumer.
“A lot of people have fond memories of their mother or grandmother wearing a specific dress, so there’s an element of nostalgia, and just wanting to bring that forward,” he said.
Designer collaborations, like the recent one with Batsheva, will be a key part of the relaunch strategy.
“It’s a really good way of staying relevant with customers who are asking to see Laura Ashley in the fashion space,” he said.
When it comes to actually selling products, however Gordon Brothers’ doesn’t envision opening its own bricks-and-mortar stores or online shopping sites, but rather, working with different retail partners to sell the brand on its behalf.
The company has already done this with Next in the UK, which launched an exclusive Laura Ashley Home collection in stores and online last year, and formed strong partnerships with other retailers in the US, Japan and South Korea.
Now, it’s actively looking for retail partners in markets where Laura Ashley has had a presence historically, such as Australia and New Zealand, as well as China, India, the Middle East and Europe.
“We know consumers want it. It’s just a matter of finding the right partner and finding a way to speak to consumers in those markets,” Nanda said.
Beyond fashion, Gordon Brothers will continue to round out Laura Ashley’s homewares offering and distribution channels.
It currently offers furniture, bedding, rugs and lighting and plans to expand into the garden category by the end of this year. In addition to Next, Laura Ashley Home products are currently available in the UK through John Lewis, Marks & Spencer, Homebase and B&Q.
“What you’re going to see is Laura Ashley in more retail places, in more online places and also in more categories,” he said.