By Michael Small
September 24, 1984 12:00 PM

David Ashley, 29, rummages through the oak clothing racks in an airy Laura Ashley boutique on New York’s Madison Avenue. Surrounded by the floral-print fabrics and frilly smock dresses that for 25 years have made Laura Ashley the goddess of style for preppies everywhere, he searches for something different. “Here,” he says, grabbing onto a row of $75 parachute-style overalls with wide, bright red stripes. “These were designed by my sister Emma,” who is 19. Wheeling around, he clutches the lapel of a dark blue-and-black-check tailored jacket and skirt priced at $250. “Now that, that’s pure Nick,” says David, referring to his 27-year-old brother. Across the room David points out a glass closet full of bridal gowns. “I was the one who introduced that department,” he says as a saleswoman withdraws a $375 taffeta antique-style gown designed by his sister Jane, 30.

It may sound like a small-time family store, but don’t be fooled. The four Ashley children now help run, and are changing, one of the most successful design companies in the world. Their parents, Bernard and Laura Ashley, started in 1953 by printing fabrics in the dining room of their London flat. This year the company will sell about $190 million worth of Laura Ashley products and employ some 3,500 people at 10 factories and 150 boutiques worldwide. The Ashley line now includes lamps, linens, china, fabric and wallpaper that can be found in such distinguished abodes as Kensington Palace and the British Embassy in Washington.

Although he is still chairman of the board, Bernard Ashley, 58, is quick to include his children among the firm’s greatest assets, but with a bow to his and Laura’s parenting. “Very early we gave them a lot of leeway and responsibility,” he says, adding, “I’ve made sure they earn their salaries and positions and don’t get an extra penny until they do.” The company namesake has been less cautious about letting go. Last year Laura, 59, passed on the title of design director to her son Nick and now submits her ideas to him. “All parents,” she says, “hope their children will follow them.”

If things seem harmonious in the Ashley empire, however, it hasn’t always been that way. In fact, the four heirs often seemed headed far from the fold, let alone the family business. Before settling down Nick went through 13 schools by the age of 18, partly because his parents moved a lot and partly because he “was an extremely bad boy,” he says. At one school he heaved cobblestones through a stained-glass window; when the headmaster tried to cane him, he snatched the cane and broke it. But Nick felt destined for the family trade, and after studying art in London and Paris, he joined up at 21, photographing interiors and doing art for the catalogs. A year later he switched to design and set out to enliven the “old and frumpy” fabric collection.

As bumpy as Nick’s road was, his older brother claims to have been the true black sheep of the family. At 17, David so infuriated his father by “borrowing” his Porsche for a date that the two didn’t speak for three years. “We never got on,” David says. “He wasn’t interested in children.” David quit school at 17 to work in a factory and race motorcycles. “I never wanted to go into the family business at all,” he says. But in 1977 he accompanied his mother, with whom he has always been close, to the U.S. and saw so much potential in their San Francisco shop that he decided to sign on. He helped to open 52 more U.S. stores, with another 15 planned for next year. “The idea is to create an English warmness in the shops,” he says. “I never put in anything my mother wouldn’t have in her own house.” Divorced, he is avowedly independent and single. “I work hard, and I play bloody hard too,” he says. He reconciled with his father eight years ago. “He now considers me useful, which I take as a compliment,” David says dryly.

Emma, the youngest Ashley, got on well with her parents, partly, she says, because she was put in boarding school at 9 and “had nobody to rebel against.” She began designing clothes at 14 after complaining that the Ashley line contained nothing for her or her friends. “It was very boring—all the colors were dull,” says Emma, who studies at a London art school. “Now at least, the stores carry clothes that any young person could wear.” As for the classic Ashley togs, “I disguise them. I’ll cut off an evening dress to make a mini, or add fur or ruffles.” Jane, the eldest, has moved in a different direction. For 10 years the firm’s photographer, she recently became a part-time design consultant in London because the company’s photographic needs “grew too commercial for me.” Despite their business connections, geography often keeps the Ashleys apart. Bernard and Laura live in a spacious town house in Brussels. To establish nonresidency in Britain for tax purposes, they can’t set foot in England till 1985 and even had to miss Nick’s wedding this summer to Arabella McNair-Wilson, a photographer and the daughter of a British MP. The Ashleys meet periodically at the family’s 18th-century chateau in northern France or in the south of France, where Bernard sometimes docks his 55-foot ketch, Quaeso. Nick and David try to leave their work behind. “We have a little rule that we don’t talk business after 6 p.m.,” says David. “We all need a lot of space and get along best in small doses.” Laura finds all these arrangements just fine. “It works beautifully like this,” she says. “I can’t imagine that it would be ideal for a young person to have his mother in the same office. As Nick once said, ‘We need a continent each.’ ”