Poppy Marshall-Lawton: bringing Laura Ashley back into fashion | Laura Ashley


When Poppy Marshall-Lawton quit her degree to live by the beach in Bournemouth 20 years ago, she can hardly have imagined it would eventually lead to her heading the revival of a beloved British brand.

The chirpy redhead, who has just turned 41, was the surprise name to take the reins at Laura Ashley under its new American owner in April 2021 – promoted from within for her knowledge of licensing and passion for homewares.

The brand, best known for its floaty floral frocks, had been one of the first business victims of the pandemic, collapsing into administration in March 2020 as potential financial backers balked at efforts to secure a £15m emergency loan for an ailing retail chain as lockdowns loomed.

All 70 UK stores, a factory in Wales and the Chelsea head office closed, and its precious archive was moved into storage in a salt mine in Cheshire. Many thought the brand, which was listed on the London Stock Exchange but controlled by Malaysian group MUI, would quietly disappear, but US restructuring specialist Gordon Brothers stepped in to rescue it.

Three years on, it is celebrating the 70th anniversary of its founding and preparing to relaunch its fashion arm. Sales of furniture and homewares are bouncing back under new deals with Next, DFS and John Lewis, though they are still about half the level they reached before the collapse. Laura Ashley has no stores of its own, but operates at 48 Next shops in the UK and 75 stores in 18 countries overseas via a network of licensees.

When Gordon Brothers acquired the brand, it was widely expected to bring in new management. But it took on Marshall-Lawton, who as head of franchising had spent weeks working with administrators. “It felt like I had a months-long interview,” she says.

The workforce had shrunk from hundreds before the collapse to just four; she has since rebuilt that to 16, with a mix of new and old blood overseeing its global licensing operation, including one individual who had started at the company when Marshall-Lawton was in nappies. Numbers are boosted by her miniature dachshund, Woody, who regularly accompanies his owner into the office.

Marshall-Lawton, who has dyslexia, started studying for a degree in mechanical engineering at Kingston University but dropped out and moved to Bournemouth, where her first step towards her current role came via the unlikely route of a job in licensing at PlayStation magazine.

She moved on to similar roles at lifestyle magazines including Elle, Livingetc and Wallpaper* before joining Laura Ashley’s licensing team in 2014. She believes her main qualification for her job is her love of homewares. “Shopping is my hobby. My family shop for interiors – that’s what we do.”

Laura Ashley homeware store
Laura Ashley homeware stores closed in spring 2020. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA

Laura Ashley homewares were back on the market in 2021, speedily enough to take advantage of millennials’ interest in “cottagecore” – a reaction to the style choices of parents who had “chucked out the chintz”, as instructed by Ikea in the 1990s.

Its furniture, linens and decorating accessories are produced under a series of licensing deals, with partners including UK firms Graham & Brown (wallpaper and paint) and Ashley Wilde (textiles). Finding fashion partners has proved trickier, but it hopes to relaunch Laura Ashley womenswear this year. It has perhaps missed the ideal moment, having collapsed just as interest in its frilly, floral prairie dresses peaked.

Its only adult fashion venture in three years has been a collaboration with US brand Batsheva, which sells retro-inspired dresses online via sites such as Matches and Net-a-Porter. It has been producing girlswear in partnership with Next since 2021, a move that has helped to boost overall worldwide sales by 60% last year compared with 2021.

Sitting in an office surrounded by vintage Laura Ashley products, Marshall-Lawton says interest in secondhand items on auction sites is still brisk, but insists the brand is about more than traditional frocks. “There is a lot of fun to be had with fashion,” she says. “Laura Ashley from the 1990s was all about black velvet dresses, and some of it was quite racy. In the 80s there were dresses with bold prints. There is an amazing heritage, and I get so much inspiration from looking back.”

Founded on Laura and Bernard Ashley’s kitchen table in 1953, the brand distilled a vision of country living into affordable products, starting with headscarves and napkins. In the 1970s it took off as a fashion brand, its floppy floral dresses becoming a wearable mainstream version of hippy culture.

By the time of Laura’s untimely death from a brain haemorrhage in 1985, the brand had 220 stores globally and was a staple of the Sloane Ranger set, led by Diana, Princess of Wales. But the good times didn’t last: sales and profits declined from 2016 and culminated in several years of losses before it went bust.

During the noughties it had built up its homewares business, which by the time of its collapse made up 80% of the business as fashion foundered and the group’s Malaysian owners invested heavily in unsuccessful overseas expansion. Today, Marshall-Lawton says research from Next shows Laura Ashley products have a broader appeal than had been thought, with half its customers aged 35-55 – a much younger cohort than in the past.

She believes the brand was always strong and that its troubles stemmed from an outdated and costly retail operation. Now, she argues, the brand’s focus on quality plays to a desire for long-lasting products: its homewares are now developed with a view to being on the market for 10 years.

Which all nicely echoes the principles of Laura Ashley herself, who, Marshall-Lawton says, was “quite practical” – “the beautiful, floaty dresses had to be functional”.


Age 41
Family: Lives in Ealing with husband Paul, stepson Finlay and miniature dachshund Woody.
Education Stratford-upon-Avon grammar school then mechanical engineering at Kingston University, but did not graduate.
Pay Undisclosed.
Last holiday A three-year-delayed road trip from New Orleans via Memphis to Dallas.
Best advice she’s been given “‘What is, not what if.’ It doesn’t stop me overthinking, but does help me look to the future and try to come up with solutions rather than thinking what if I had done something differently.”
Phrase she overuses “At work my team would probably say: ‘I was thinking while walking Woody this morning …’ I find it hard to switch off and will always be thinking about the next thing, drafting an email in my head or writing a list somewhere.”
How she relaxes A wander around a car boot sale. “We used to do it as a family when I was young. It gets me in the fresh air, walking the dog and finding treasures.”
Biggest career mistake “Not believing in myself sooner. I don’t feel as if I made any significant career mistakes, but I wish I’d discovered my confidence in those early years.”

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