Essence of England | Chapter 9 ~ Donna May Lynch


Florence Robson


In our Essence of England series, we speak to values-aligned creatives, entrepreneurs and familiar faces from across the South West about their lives, work and what ‘Englishness’ means to them.

When you walk through the door of Studio Ashay, you’re likely to glimpse Donna May Lynch sat at her sewing machine, putting the finishing touches to her latest collection. Based on the cobbled Catherine Hill in Frome, Studio Ashay is not your usual clothing shop. With a store that spills seamlessly into an open plan studio, walls adorned with dried flowers and grasses, and garments left deliberately unfinished to allow Donna to fit them to her customers’ liking, the Studio Ashay experience blends the craft of traditional tailoring with a warmth that puts you instantly at ease.

Donna was raised in London and studied at the London College of Fashion, the Chelsea College of Arts and the Royal College of Arts, before working with designers across London, Paris and New York. She moved to the Somerset countryside after having children and began thinking about creating a brand that served women like her –women who wanted quality, well-cut clothing but who couldn’t always afford designer price tags. The idea for Studio Ashay was born.

We met Donna at the Studio to learn more about the philosophy behind her brand, how her daughter has inspired her sustainability journey, and her conflicted feelings about what it means to be a British designer.

What was your journey to opening Studio Ashay?

I spent the first part of my career working in high-end fashion but later I realised that that lifestyle just wasn’t compatible with children. I moved to Somerset from London and opened a vintage business here while my children were young. A year of two before lockdown, I began thinking about how designer brands will make something for £100 and sell it for £3000, and how consumers were being forced to choose between that and fast fashion brands like Primark. There seemed to be very few good in-between options, particularly for women of my age group. Women who want to look and feel great but don’t want to dress the same way as their teenagers.

I set about designing a collection which would use really high-quality fabrics and simple cuts that would be all about the fit.

I’ve deliberately made my margins very tight. While my clothes are still expensive for some people, unfortunately I am the bottom line. The sad truth is that when you buy clothes cheaper than this someone isn’t getting paid properly.

“As [Studio Ashay] expands I want it to become an even more personal experience, rather than less.”
- Donna May Lynch

What inspired you to create an open-plan studio?

When people come into the shop, I want them to understand immediately that there is one person here making the products. That creative experience is part of the shop; I might not be able to assist you immediately because I’m in the middle of putting on a sleeve, for example!

If I decide to open more shops, each one will have a studio because it’s become such an intrinsic part of the brand. If someone tries something on and it’s not quite right, I can edit it there and then. I have regular customers where I’ve made patterns of all the best sellers specifically to suit their preferences, like making all our dresses and skirts above the knee. As I expand I want it to become an even more personal experience, rather than less.

How would you describe the pieces you create?

I don’t like the seasonal approach - spring/summer or autumn/winter. That train is too fast for me. I took two years to develop patterns, knowing that I wanted to end up with enough patterns to keep me going for 20 years. I didn’t look at what was coming off the runways. Instead, I went for walks in nature, bringing flowers and plants into my studio and drawing on sheets of paper. I started the shop with 12 designs that then became my best sellers. 

My approach is about going with what feels good week to week, rather than having to make something in a particular style or colour to fit with changing trends.

How do sustainable values fit into your business?

Sustainability has really been on my mind recently. I have an incredible teenage daughter who is very passionate about sustainability and the planet. Last year she asked me, “Mum, you might talk about this word ‘sustainability’ but how are you actually sustainable?”. She gave me a list of various things I should be considering and I’ve been using that to move forward. It involves a lot of research to increase my knowledge as it can be quite complicated, particularly when you take cost into account. I’m trying to be as transparent as possible about what I’m doing and why.

All my fabrics are from the UK and I’m moving towards them being 100% organic, or at least natural. I also won’t outsource any of my production to factories, firstly because they require huge minimum orders and secondly because I couldn’t guarantee they were paying their workers a fair wage. Everything at Studio Ashay is made in-house so that I can have a dialogue with any staff I have at the time. I can listen to their concerns and interests and work with the energy in the room.

I don't want to work for nothing, but I'm happy to take a little bit less to make sure that I can be hands-on and maintain the right work-life balance. I will always sit at my desk and design, I’ll always fit the zips or alter seams myself. If that changes, something has gone wrong. 

You work a lot with denim. Is there a particular reason why?

It’s funny, everyone who knows me will know that I've gone through my whole life proclaiming that I would never wear jeans! I always said I didn’t like denim and would only wear softer, floaty fabrics. Now, denim has become one of my favourite fabrics to work with. It’s really nice to handle – it doesn’t slip and it presses really well. It feels like a forever fabric to me, like you could bury it underground for 500 years and then dig it up and it would still be in good shape. I love the longevity of it.

What inspires you and your work?

I'm more of a textile designer than I am a fashion designer so everything is always about texture for me. I do lots of walking and collecting dried flowers. Also I have a lot of funny dreams that feed into my designs. I’m very sensitive to my surroundings.

“ I'm happy to take a little bit less to make sure that I can be hands-on and maintain the right work-life balance.”
— Donna May Lynch

What should be on the agenda for a weekend in and around Frome?

I live in the countryside just outside Frome and my favourite thing about this area is the number of beautiful walks throughout woodlands or up hills with ruins and old buildings. I’m always outside and my children and I love to go on night-time walks to really scare ourselves! We’ll be running through fields, hearts racing, but then the next day we’ll find it hilarious. 

For a day out I go to The Newt which is just beautiful. The gardens are stunning. You can also easily spend an afternoon wandering up Catherine Hill, where we’re based, popping in and out of all the wonderful independent shops here.

What does Essence of England mean to you?

It’s interesting you’ve asked me that because it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. I feel like a lot of ‘Britishness’, particularly in my industry, has been lost. There used to be a lot more textile factories filled with incredible English-made sewing machines and I’m sad that a lot of that craft has disappeared.

Having said that, the word ‘independence’ comes to mind when I think of ‘Essence of England’. People here are open to building and creating in a way I think is quite special. There has been a lot of negativity around Englishness recently and I think it’s good to remember, protect and nurture the positives: freedom of speech, freedom of choice, open-mindedness, industriousness, and our education and healthcare systems.

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