Monday, February 16, 2009

A mild and sunny but cold winter President's Day weekend

The Obelisk, Cleopatra's Needl, in Central Park. 4:50 PM. Photo: JH.
February 16, 2009. A mild and sunny but cold winter President’s Day weekend in New York. The city was quiet.

Fashion Weekend style. I went over to the West Side on my weekly pilgrimage to Zabars et al. I first went to get my haircut by a woman named Ludmilla at Jean Louis David on Broadway and 75th.

Ludmilla has been my barber for several years now. She’s a very attractive blonde Ukrainian woman, probably in her late 30s who came to this country a number of years ago with her parents and her two sons. She works with clippers or scissors, depending on your choice. I like the clippers. She’s fast, and she gets it right. I’ve always thought of her as someone who knew how to give me a good haircut. It never occurred to me that Ludmilla gives good haircuts, no matter the head; duh.

Two Saturdays ago I’d gone in and learned that she was on vacation until the 12th. Very disappointed because I’d gone too long without a trim, I made sure to get there right on the 12th. There was a line of men waiting for Ludmilla. I went back on Saturday. There were five ahead of me. I made my Zabars visit and returned an hour later. There was another half hour wait, but I waited. Finally. Excellent. $26 plus tip. A good haircut’s like a fresh start. At least for an hour or two.
Sitting by the just-drained Conservatory Water in Central Park.
The Price of Everything. I first started going to Jean Louis David’s in 1992. I had a good haircutter then too. A Russian kid in his 20s. $12 plus tip.

Swifty’s, which is sort my version
of a local pub (although it is not a pub) was packed both Saturday and Sunday nights. Saturday was Valentine’s and there was a special menu. Prix fixe $68. (I told you it wasn’t a pub). Swifty’s on these winter nights is very cozy en famille (sans the kids under teens). Almost as if it’s fireside (albeit no fireplace). The dress code is relaxed but traditional, jacket and tie for the men, or maybe dark suit and cocktail dress, or no tie, sweater maybe. One of my guests, Marianne Harrison, whose birthday we were also celebrating, wore a red Chanel jacket. The only red in the room.

MEMO: Fashion Week Prep

In these economically challenged times,
the convolutions and cutbacks are already evident in Fashion Week 2009, NYC. Before this sobering backdrop more than two thirds of the shows are being held off-site. Many, such as Betsey Johnson and Zang Toi, have moved their shows to their showrooms.

A large percentage of fashion invitations are now “evites,” a cost-cutting device that also eliminates a lot of style creativity. Only Erin Fetherston appears to have used the dynamic technology available, to create a beautiful designed evite with blossoming flowers fading into actual copy.

In the past, an unofficial “competition” almost existed to create the most innovative and attractive “real” invitation, frequently foreshadowing the more creative designer shows — with the exception of Ports, who delivered accordion-folded, hand-printed scarves, and Baby Phat with its elegant Black-on-Black bejeweled invite, most have dwindled down into low cost standards.

It has been announced that this is the final season for Fashion Week to be held in Bryant Park. Indeed, despite the efforts of Fern Mallis, Director, Senior VP of IMG, to keep the location. The Bryant Park Alliance finally insisted that it is just too disruptive to the community’s beautiful Park with its outdoor Lending Library, ice-skating rink and mini-carousel. However the shows will move to Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center so Artists-In-Fabric will be more closely communing with their counterparts in music, dance and the visual arts.

Although 1500 factories fabricating fashion for the USA are rumored to have closed within one week in China, it is interesting to note that it usually takes only 2-3 weeks for knock-offs from these shows to appear in lower priced retail stores here. These are not to be compared to the exquisite couture designs of an Oscar De La Renta or Chado Ralph Rucci.

-- Jill Lynne
While we’re on the subject of fashion and style: Today’s Telegraph of London is running an obituary of Sir Bernard Ashley who died Friday. Although familiar with the Laura Ashley name in fashion as well as the brand prints, I never knew the amazing story of the brand’s inception and how this couple turned the wife’s very basic fashion idea (small headscarves) into a huge textile and fashion empire that brought them riches, international fame (a knighthood for Sir Bernard) and then a twist of fate that removed much of what was created. It’s a classic story of lottery-like business success in the fashion industry where personality can make it and personality can break it. Sir Bernard’s life was that classic story. And alas, poor Laura, both the brand and the lady.
Laura Ashley and Sir Bernard Ashley
From the Telegraph of London:

Sir Bernard Ashley, who died on February 14 aged 82, was the husband and business partner of Laura Ashley and the co-founder, with her, of the international business empire, based on fashion and textiles, that bore her name.

Laura was the creative force and Bernard the business organiser in the enterprise, which by 1990 comprised a dozen factories and 220 shops throughout the world.

But after Laura Ashley’s unexpected death in 1985 from an accidental fall downstairs, the business lost its sense of direction and Bernard Ashley’s idiosyncratic style of management meant that he lost favour in the City. In 1998, after a run of poor results and a series of boardroom upheavals which saw the departure of five chief executives in seven years, the company had to be rescued from the receivers and control was passed to the Malaysian-owned conglomerate MUI Asia, whereupon Ashley resigned from the board.

Bernard Albert Ashley was born on August 11 1926 and educated at Whitgift School, Croydon, developing an interest in engineering. He held a commission in the Royal Fusiliers from 1944 to 1946 and was seconded to the Gurkha Rifles in 1944-45. After the war he got a job in the City.

In 1949 he married Laura Mountney, whom he had known since she was 17. She had been born at Merthyr Tydfil in 1925, the daughter of a civil servant, and had been a War Office secretary, a Wren and a civil servant.
Chateau de Remaisnil, built in 1760s, restored by the Ashleys in the 1970s.
While on holiday in Italy in 1953 the couple found some headscarves which they decided to reproduce at their modest flat in Pimlico in their spare time. Laura was in charge of the designs and Bernard did the printing on a machine he had designed and built himself. She took the first batch to John Lewis and it sold out so quickly that, by the time she had finished her bus ride home, the telephone was ringing with a repeat order.

Soon they gave up their day jobs and began expanding their range to include napkins, tea towels and aprons — and eventually dresses — using designs which Laura adapted from old plates, books and patchwork quilts. Bernard Ashley was chairman of Laura Ashley from 1954, with his wife as vice-chairman. The couple began selling to Heal’s and Liberty, then to outlets in the United States. They moved their production from Pimlico to Kent in 1955 and finally, in 1961, to a former railway station at Carno, Powys, near Laura’s birthplace.

In 1968 they opened their first shop in London and sales really took off. In the 1970s the fashion-conscious could not get enough of their nostalgic frills and floral prints. At universities around the country, students with Pre-Raphaelite tresses drifted about in Laura Ashley smocked pinafores and puff-sleeved frocks. At country weddings the bridal party plus half the guests would turn up wearing her designs.

The Ashleys’ children were soon roped into the business. David, the eldest son, designed the shops; their daughter Jane was the company photographer; another daughter, Emma, and their second son, Nick, were part of the company’s fashion design team.

The astonishing success of the Laura Ashley brand brought the Ashleys a private plane and a yacht, homes in London and Brussels, a mansion near Maidenhead, a villa in the Bahamas, and also a château in France, where, from 1978, the couple lived as tax exiles.
nother view of the Chateau de Remaisnil.
By the time Laura Ashley died in 1985, the group had 220 shops in 12 countries with an average turnover of nearly £500,000 per shop. The business, which had already moved into soft furnishings, was expanding into products such as wallpaper and paints. The largest store was opened at Oxford Circus, and they had manufacturing plants in Holland and the United States as well as four factories in Wales.

The tragedy of Laura Ashley’s death was compounded by the fact that the company was about to float on the stock exchange. But such was the hype that, two months later, the flotation was 34 times oversubscribed. Thousands of would-be shareholders had to be restrained by mounted police outside the bank sponsoring the float. As a result the family realised capital of almost £40 million.

In Laura Ashley’s heyday, Bernard had led the company’s expansion, travelling round the world to open up new sales channels and using his engineering skills to improve the printing machinery in their Welsh factories. But “BA”, as he was known, had his eccentricities. He was famous within the company for throwing tantrums when there were difficulties in the factories. He had been rumoured to smash wine bottles and had once apparently thrown a fridge down some factory stairs. British Telecom were said to be reluctant to reconnect his telephone after he had pulled it out of the wall once too often.

Within the space of a few years it became clear that the loss of Laura Ashley and the subsequent flotation had upset the delicate balance that had previously existed at the top of the company. At the beginning of 1990, to the surprise of investors, the company announced a loss of £2.5 million, later amended to £4.7 million, a loss which halved the company’s value on the stock exchange.

The company blamed the situation on the general decline in consumer spending, but critics felt that the group had expanded too rapidly and that Ashley and other members of the family had done too little to promote new talent and new ideas.

For several years there had been tension between Bernard Ashley, as chairman of the holding company, and the chief executive, John James, over James’s attempts to impose some discipline on what he saw as the family’s often non-commercial input and over production reforms which led, to Ashley’s dismay, to workers in one factory signing up with a union. James was asked to resign.

At the end of 1990 Aeon, Laura Ashley’s joint venture partner in Japan, was persuaded to invest more than £35 million in return for a 15 per cent stake. Ashley was forced to close all but four of his loss-making factories. But the move brought only a temporary resolution to the crisis.

It was hoped that the appointment of the American businessman Jim Maxmin as the new chief executive would lead to a truce in the boardroom — Maxmin had taken the precaution of having a side letter attached to his contract which stated that Bernard Ashley would not interfere with the day-to-day running of the business — but the hope proved illusory. A series of clashes with Ashley ended in Maxmin’s being ousted in 1994.

Ashley had stepped down as chairman of Laura Ashley Holdings in 1993, but remained a non-executive director with the title of honorary life president. From 1994 to 1998, when he resigned from the board, three more chief executives came, fell out with Ashley and left. By the time Ashley himself resigned from the board the family’s shareholding was diluted to 21 per cent. By 2001 the family had cut its connection with the company entirely.

Efforts by Ashley to develop new businesses were patchy. In 1999 he sold a hotel operation he had built in America for £14.4 million, claiming huge losses, though Llangoed Hall, his country house hotel near Brecon, Powys, continues to thrive. In 2000 he established Elanbach, a fabrics business based at Llangoed Hall.

A keen yachtsman and aviator, Ashley was a member of the Royal Thames Yacht Club and the Army Sailing Association. He was knighted in 1987.

Bernard Ashley married secondly, in 1990, Regine Burnell. He is survived by her and by his two daughters and two sons by Laura Ashley.

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