Style-conscious shoppers buy floaty dresses from labels like Ganni or Kitri, not Laura Ashley

Style-conscious shoppers of 2020 buy floaty, flowery dresses from labels like Ganni or Kitri, says RUTH SUNDERLAND – not dear old Laura Ashley

Puffy sleeves, pie-crust collars, gathered skirts and pretty sprigged flower prints: in its 1980s heyday, Laura Ashley was a huge success.

To women of a certain vintage, who bought their party frocks and even wedding dresses there, it is sad to learn that the company is in crisis talks with its lenders.

Its sales slumped by nearly 11 per cent in the second half of last year and it desperately needs emergency funding from its banks in order to continue trading.

Grim: Laura Ashley sales slumped by nearly 11 per cent in the second half of last year

Grim stuff. In truth, though, the business has been a shadow of its former self for years.

In the turbulent 1980s, a decade marked by industrial strife and social division, Laura Ashley’s nostalgia – with fashion shoots in idyllic rural settings – tapped into a longing for a gentler, slower era.

Laura herself died in 1985 shortly before the company floated on the stock market, sparking a mania for its shares, which peaked at more than £2 in the mid-1990s. They plunged to 2.03p yesterday.

Laura Ashley is suffering from woes common to all retailers, such as having to stump up for heavy business rates. But the root cause of its predicament is that it failed to move with the times.

The company has been struggling to establish an online presence, and its plans to expand in China, where the brand still has some cachet, have been dealt a blow by the coronavirus.

One issue may be a lack of authenticity. The business has for some years been majority-owned by the Malaysian MUI Group, controlled by tycoon Khoo Kay Peng, and may have lost touch with its tradition of British decorative design.

The brand has tried to reinvent itself with a collaboration last year with fashion chain Urban Outfitters and has also launched into themed hotels and tea rooms, but with no visible signs of success.

But whatever the brand’s future, its influence has been pervasive.

Its retro ethos is visible everywhere from Cath Kidston homewares to the floaty, flowery dresses that are as popular as ever.

But the style-conscious shoppers of 2020 buy them from labels like Ganni or Kitri, and not dear old Laura Ashley.