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Ashley, whom friends described as a larger-than-life figure, bought himself a company jet, a helicopter and a yacht — which he kept on the Côte d’Azur. The couple moved to Belgium for tax reasons, and bought a chateau in France.
“He was an enormous character, explosive and totally original,” recalled the designer Belinda Bellville, a close friend. “He and Laura were a brilliant couple, and their talents slotted perfectly into each other.”
However, the powerful personality traits that served to build the business eventually proved detrimental to Laura Ashley Holdings plc. A few years after the hugely successful initial public offering and Laura Ashley’s death, the brand’s appeal began to wane as women began to drift away from the ruffles, lace and high collars.
The company was forced to downsize, and Ashley feuded with a revolving set of company directors. The business increasingly struggled through the Nineties as it tapped a series of chief executives and designers — many of them American — to try to turn the brand around. But the business shrank further and further, and Ashley eventually stepped down from the board in 1998 after Malaysian investors MUI purchased the company.
Over the years, Ashley also dipped into the luxury property business, buying Llangoed Hall near Brecon in Wales in the late Eighties, and turning it into a country house hotel. The hotel is also the base for Ashley’s Elanbach home textiles business. In the Nineties, Ashley purchased similar properties in Virginia and Maryland and later sold them to Orient Express Hotels.
In 2001, Ashley returned to the fabric business with Elanbach, which counts Prince Charles and Cath Kidson among its clients. It supplies textiles to wholesale clients such as decorators and fabric shops, and carries out commission printing for other designers.
Ashley is survived by his second wife, Regine Burnell, whom he married in 1990, and his four children with Laura — two sons and two daughters. A funeral will be held Feb. 24 at the parish church in Carno, Wales.