Along with his wife Laura, Bernard – known to his staff as “BA” – launched the chain famed for its floral prints and great success in the 1970s and 1980s.
Retail Knowledge Bank senior partner Robert Clark said: “It’s very sad. He was the business brains behind the company, whereas Laura was the design, flair and fashion behind it. They were a brilliant couple.”
His death at the age of 82, after a battle with cancer, comes 24 years after Laura Ashley died suddenly in 1985.
Derrick Pugh, a former manager at Laura Ashley, described Bernard as a “one-off” and said: “Sir Bernard, in my view, never got over the death of Laura.”
His family described him as a “larger-than-life character, very outgoing and social.
Perhaps his greatest gift was the loyalty and love that he engendered in his employees.”
Despite this, he was known to have a fiery temper. BT is said to have been reluctant to reconnect his telephone after it was pulled out of the wall once too often.
He had also been rumoured to have thrown a refrigerator down some factory stairs.
In 1998, after the departure of five chief executives in seven years, the company was sold
to the Malaysian-owned MUI Asia, and Bernard resigned shortly afterwards.
Bernard, born in 1926, met Laura Mountney in 1943. They married in 1949.
In a statement, retailer Laura Ashley said it was “saddened to hear of the death of Sir Bernard Ashley, who with his late wife Laura established this great British brand 56 years ago”.