20 February 2012 by Liza Campbell

Nick Ashley: a design classic

Inspired by his family's heritage, menswear designer Nick Ashley, 52, has carved a career based on timeless British style. Liza Campbell meets him

Bick Ashley on horse

Nick Ashley and friend outside the Notting Hill store

If you could only use two words to sum up Nick Ashley they would be ‘design‘ and ‘family’. As I arrive at his shop in Ledbury Road, Notting Hill, his teenage daughter is packing boxes for him. “I have less energy these days,” he says. “I’m finally learning to delegate.”

There is little evidence of this energy deficit at Ashley Stores, his recently opened menswear shop. Nick, 52, may have the languid way of someone utterly comfortable in his own skin, but he has made something of a pastime out of action and adventure: he’s a helicopter and fixed-wing pilot, holds motorcycle and car race licences, and is a ski mountaineer.

Nick_Ashley_MV_Agusta

Biker boy: Nick on a classic MV Agusta

Nick is the son of Laura Ashley, who, with her husband Bernard, built a global success from the ultimate cottage industry. He has schmutter in his bones. “I pretty much knew I was being groomed,” he says and, indeed, he became a design director of the company.

But in 1985 the Ashleys’ world was shattered when Laura died in an accident. The company’s flotation two months later was a wild success but, ultimately, it spelt the end of family involvement.

In 1994, Nick launched his own menswear range. “People can’t see any similarity between the Victorian prints my parents produced and my stuff, but in fact I’ve emulated everything they taught me. The concepts are identical: make stuff we like and hope our friends like it too. Being a man, though, I was never going to produce frocks.”

His well-made, practical, outdoorsy kit built up a cult following in England and was a huge hit in Japan, where he had ten shops.

In the meantime, Nick had married, had two daughters and moved to Wales. Eventually, leaving his family so frequently to be in the Far East proved unbearable. He turned his back on the business to enjoy uninterrupted fatherhood in the countryside.

Ashley interior 3His design vision was too much in demand to be left alone for long. Soon Dunhill tempted him into the role of head of design, with a promise that they would not compromise his commitment to home life. He says, “For the three years I worked for them they made it very easy for me to pop up to London for a couple of days, and gave me a whole team to support me.”

Fast forward to 2009, his girls now grown and gagging to be in London. Nick received a perfectly timed call from Manchester factory-owner and old business friend, Mike Stoll. Mike, the last coat-maker in Britain, had teamed up with his best friend’s son, James Eden, a successful financier. But they lacked a designer. Nick was in.

Ashley shop doorThey were inspired by the story of James’s great-grandfather, Private Jack White, a 20-year-old soldier and military hero who came out of the army and started a coat-making business in the very factory now run by Mike. Together, they launched Private White VC.

In keeping with this honouring of the past, Nick opened Ashley Stores in November 2011, as the brand home for the Private White VC range, and named the shop after his great-grandfather’s hardware business.

Nick has taken influences from WW1 military styling, and given them a modern makeover using Gortex and commissioning tweed that is half wool/half cotton to make it lighter.

“Like my mother, I’m into heritage,” he says, “but I use hi-tech fabrics that you can wash and will keep you dry, rather than keeping you cold and making you smell. I call it ‘techno-retro’. The Nick Ashley label was all about me, but Private White is all about us; James and Mike are family now.”

Liza Campbell is a writer and artist who lives and works in London. Her memoir, Title Deeds, about growing up in Scotland with a glamorous, demented father, was published to acclaim. Her next book, a novel, is proving 'a hard egg to lay' but is expected some time in 2013.

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