For four years, Laura Ashley heiress ANGELINE FRANCIS KHOO was caught in the middle of her parents’ high-profile, multimillion-pound divorce. She talks exclusively to Victoria Woodhall about forgiving her father and giving up money for love
Although she grew up with bodyguards, private jets and homes on three continents, it was only when Angeline Francis Khoo’s father’s wealth was disclosed in court during her parents’ titanic, multimillion-pound divorce hearing that she realised its true, eye-watering scale.
‘Of course, I knew he was extremely wealthy; he is a major shareholder in Laura Ashley and hotels [the luxury international hotel group Corus, including the Corus Hyde Park], among other things. But I only became aware of the scale of his wealth during the divorce, because the lawyers had been meticulous. When you see the evidence, it’s, like, “Oh my goodness!”’ says the 34-year-old fashion designer, the fourth of her parents’ five children.
Neither party could agree the precise sum they began fighting over in 2013, but judge Mr Justice Bodey noted: ‘Whatever the precise extent of the husband’s wealth, there is enough in the kitty for it to be said with confidence that they would be hard pushed to spend it all in their lifetimes, even if they wanted to.’
Finally, in April this year, at the Family Division of the High Court, Justice Bodey awarded Angeline’s mother Pauline Chai a £64 million settlement in her divorce from business tycoon Dr Khoo Kay Peng after 42 years of marriage. Khoo has since applied for permission to appeal the decision.
Angeline, who lives in London with her husband Jedidiah, spent university summers working with her father at Laura Ashley in preparation for a career in the family firm. Khoo’s company MUI rescued the iconic retailer – started by fashion designer Laura Ashley in 1953 – from receivers in 1998. ‘The plan was always for me to be involved,’ says Angeline. ‘That was drilled into me since I was a teenager. It felt like my destiny. Mum used to dress us in Laura Ashley dresses before my father acquired the business.’
Angeline and her father are currently not on speaking terms, she tells me, and not for the first time in her life. Divorce has divided this frangible family. Angeline is fiercely loyal to her mother, who raised the couple’s five children, two of whom have special needs, almost single-handedly.
During the many court hearings, countless unedifying details emerged about their relationship: Angeline’s father would spend hours working while seated on a special toilet seat; her mother’s 1,000 pairs of shoes at their house in the UK was given as evidence that she was permanently resident there.
She made an allegation against him of domestic violence, while he claimed that she was ‘dishonest and manipulative’ and wanted the case heard in London where the courts might grant a more generous settlement. Angeline was called as witness to answer allegations that she had been stockpiling her mother’s maintenance payments for her (an allegation that was dismissed by the judge).
How did it feel being dragged into proceedings herself? ‘It was a high-profile divorce and I was the only witness called. As their daughter it was not a nice situation.’
Angeline has chosen to meet at Rossway Park, the family home, a 19th-century, Grade-II listed 15-bedroom mansion set on a 1,000-acre estate in Hertfordshire and widely reported to be worth £30 million. It was bought in 2000 after Khoo became director of Laura Ashley, and joined their opulent homes in Malaysia and Canada. Pauline lives here with her grown-up son Alex, who has autism.
When I arrive, I’m half expecting something out of Downton Abbey: uniformed staff, floral arrangements, tea served in bone china cups and a spread worthy of Mrs Patmore. But despite how gilded the lives of the super-rich might seem, when family disputes come into play, all bets are off. The drive is sweeping but deserted and decidedly unloved – not even a pansy in a flowerpot.
Standing at the peeling front door is Angeline, smiling, softly spoken and barefoot, wearing black leggings, a T-shirt and a chiffon kimono from her own label Rosie on Fire. Her mother is away, and apart from Angeline’s PR manager and a security guard, there is no one else in sight. Angeline tells me that she has spent the morning rushing around opening the curtains. These normally remain drawn –there’s always the fear that someone might be watching.
Khoo is apparently not often in town; since the divorce proceedings began he has based himself in Malaysia, where he is a household name, going by the title Tan Sri – the equivalent of a knighthood. When he is in the UK, however, he stays at Old Rossway, a smaller house in the grounds.
This arrangement was made in 2013 when Pauline surprised him with a petition for divorce on the grounds of unreasonable behaviour and he agreed to abide by non-molestation and occupation orders. ‘I wanted to get away from an abusive, oppressive relationship, which I could not take because of my age,’ she told Justice Bodey in a submission to a hearing in 2014.
This proximity must make an already uncomfortable situation even more tense? ‘It’s about control,’ says Angeline. ‘In these situations with so much money often people are, like, “I don’t get it. Why are they fighting over so much?” But it’s not really about the money, it’s about control and losing that control. That’s something that a lot of people can’t grasp because you’re discussing finances way beyond your basic needs.’ Indeed, her father’s ‘more than usual measure of control’ over his wife was noted in court, including determining what food the housekeeper was allowed to buy – although the judge did note that ‘the wife’s case is likely to have become exaggerated with the passage of time’.
Angeline gives me a tour of the ground floor. The impressive double-height hallway is framed on one side by a sweeping wooden staircase and on the back wall hangs a huge nativity tapestry, commissioned by Pauline, a devout Christian. The two reception rooms are wall-to-wall last-century Laura Ashley: pastel carpets, yellow sofas, swagged floral curtains and ornate light fittings – her father’s taste, she says.
Her mother’s design touches can be seen in the two enormous tree sculptures growing out of the middle of the dining table, hung with golden baubles and birds that she made herself. ‘Mum is so creative,’ says Angeline. ‘Now I can see that it’s an outlet, an escape from the reality that is [the situation] with Dad.’
I don’t get to see the shoe collection, which is upstairs. When I ask why anyone would need so many shoes, Angeline explains, ‘I wouldn’t call her a hoarder, but she has never thrown a pair away.’
She describes her mother as quite frugal, having had to go to court several times in disputes over maintenance arrears (she received £2.4 million before the settlement – half of which has been channelled into taking care of her children). Angeline describes how her mother dyed her own hair rather than pay for a hairdresser, ‘which I think is crazy, especially before appearing in court. She did it once and it turned orange and she was, like, “Oh, I’ll fix it.”’
Pauline, a former Miss Malaysia, now 70, is elegant and groomed. Even the judge noted that she looked younger than her years, while her 78-year-old ex-husband looked ‘more like his chronological age’ and appeared fragile. The judge described them both as ‘inscrutable’ and difficult to evaluate as witnesses, but dismissed Khoo’s claim that the settlement should be based on his ex-wife’s need and that she should receive £15 million.
In the end, the kitty turned out to be nothing like the £440 million that Pauline had originally estimated, but it was her final share of the wealth that was significant. In apportioning her 40 per cent of the assets, the judge struck a blow for stay-at-home mothers, while acknowledging the value of their contribution to the family: ‘When I set the husband’s substantial contribution as breadwinner against the wife’s substantial contribution in the home and in caring for the children – much of it on her own, on different continents from the husband – I conclude that there is no room here for a reduction from equality based on any differential between the parties’ respective contributions to the marriage.’
Angeline hopes one day for a rapprochement with her father, ‘in the sense that he can let go of his anger and his hurt and there can at least be some [form of] cordial, warm relationship’.
By Angeline’s account, Pauline worked tirelessly to make a happy home for her and her four siblings, going all out at Christmas when their father would be home. The children – Alfred, Angelina, Andrew, Angeline (named after her elder sister in the hope that she would be an equally good baby) and Alex – were schooled first in Australia, where Angeline was born, and then in Canada. Angeline laughs when she explains how she acquired her name – one of the many quirks of growing up in such a singular family.
After the move to Canada, their father spent most of his time in Malaysia for business. ‘He was only around once or twice a year. When we were growing up, we felt his role was to troubleshoot. We knew that when he came we would be called into his office and given a list of things to fix: “Your grades are not good enough, you’re not behaving, you’re not presenting yourself properly.”’
Does she have happy family memories of time spent with her father? She struggles. ‘There was always a strain. One time he played Monopoly with me. Just once. Is that happy? Or is it weird? I can’t tell you. I really can’t say whether I was happy or not. The other time I remember was when we watched the World Cup together on TV.’
After school in Canada, Angeline moved to the UK in 2001 to study law at the University of Buckingham. Pauline, meanwhile, had been shuttling back and forth between Canada and the UK, where she had become involved with Laura Ashley as chair of the fashion committee, helping revamp that side of the business, according to Angeline. In 2009 she moved to Rossway permanently. Khoo had had a stroke in Malaysia the previous year, and she had left Canada to care for him.
In the university holidays, Angeline would do work experience at Laura Ashley. ‘For around six months of the year, I worked in different departments, learning the business, because the plan was that I would get involved in the retail side of Dad’s company.’
How did she feel having her life mapped out for her? ‘You’re painted a future that looks amazing, and Laura Ashley is an incredible brand and a heritage company. It would be a privilege to work there. That’s how I viewed it – a responsibility, but also an opportunity. I don’t know whether I really thought that or whether that was told to me.’
But it wasn’t to be. While studying for a master’s at Oxford in 2008, Angeline met Caribbean-born data scientist and student Jedidiah Francis, then a junior dean at Pembroke College. She told her father she wanted to marry him. Her father didn’t agree.
Angeline knew that marrying Jedidiah would mean walking away from her family’s financial support, as well as from contact with her mother, who, she claims, was duty bound to side with her father. But her decision was clear. ‘I believed Dad’s stance was wrong, so there was no question about what was right. I’ve been fortunate to have that perspective: you can have money and it’s a blessing; it allows you to do things and gives you options, but there are also things that come with it, such as control. Money amplifies negative characteristics and that can cause problems. To walk away from that was actually very easy. I didn’t even consider it.’
The wedding at Pembroke College Chapel was conducted on a shoestring (she thinks they spent £1,500) with just 30 guests – mostly their Oxford University friends and Jedidiah’s relatives. No one from Angeline’s family came. Once married, the couple lived in Jedidiah’s college lodgings while Angeline took on several jobs in marketing.
Her biggest learning curve was budgeting. ‘I always had a budget, but it became critical. To me it was the hardest but the best time of our lives. I think Jed would say the same. It was the most bonding; it gives you a foundation. Mum was really good about making us aware of people in less fortunate circumstances, but unless you experience what it’s like to worry about how you’re going to pay for your food and bills, you can’t ever really get it.’
The main leveller in Angeline’s life has been her younger brother Alex. ‘If I had been born in a slightly different way, in a slightly different place, my life could be totally different. Even in our family you can see it: the fact that Alex was born with autism and I wasn’t – our lives have been totally different because of that.’
Just how different their lives were came into sharp relief when Angeline visited Alex at the family home in Canada in 2012 where he was living with another of their brothers, who has Tourette’s syndrome. In order to support himself, Alex was working in McDonald’s. He couldn’t cope; the work was fast-paced and stressful. When Angeline saw him he was covered in burns from the chip-fryer.
She brought him back to the UK to live at Rossway, sought medical help for him, and, together with Jedidiah, helped him set up a small Ebay business, buying and selling things from around the house ‘to teach him how to operate the platform, wrap and ship. It was a tiny thing, but for us it was showing Mum that he would be OK.’
Soon after Alex’s return to the UK, Pauline filed for divorce. Angeline found her mother legal representation via Google and spirited her away from her ever-watchful bodyguards to attend lawyers’ meetings in London: ‘It was the first time my then 69-year-old mum had ever taken the tube.’
It soon became clear that the divorce wasn’t going to be over quickly; in fact, it was to take over their lives for the next four years, with legal costs running to £9 million. ‘It was such a negative experience. I wanted to turn it into something hopeful, and something positive for mum to focus on as well.’ That positive step was Angeline’s fashion business, Rosie on Fire, a collection of colourful, floaty chiffon kimonos in modern prints.
‘I’ve always worn kimonos because I feel they hide the bits you want to hide, but they still have style and femininity,’ says Angeline. After the falling-out with her family over her marriage, she fell into a depression and gained a lot of weight.
‘I felt horrible. I learned that something as simple as the way you look [is important]: it’s about having that self-confidence, taking pride in your appearance, in yourself. When you don’t feel your best, don’t act your best, don’t behave your best, don’t treat other people [well] – these things are all connected. I wanted to make something that would work for all women. A kimono is flattering and forgiving, no matter what your size is.’
It was important to work the causes she cared about into her business model. The garments would be made as much as possible by low-income women in Malaysia who would otherwise have to move away from their children to find work. ‘I wanted to have a company with a purpose. We’re a for-profit business, but we can still make decisions that are not only about the bottom line but about the impact we have on each individual. I haven’t done anything to earn this privilege that I have, so I take it really seriously,’ Angeline reflects. ‘There is a responsibility that comes with privilege; you have to do things to help other people.’
Her vision is also to provide work for people on the autistic spectrum with roles that play to their strengths. In the UK, order fulfilment is now done by Alex. He tells me via email: ‘I’m happy because I’m finally working somewhere that people understand my needs and I can do the job well and we all respect each other.’
As the company expands, Angeline hopes to provide similar roles for others. Now in its third year, the business is doing well in Malaysia, where Angeline has a profile because of her father (the Malaysian press reported extensively on the divorce). It is also growing in the UK, where it has been featured in Vogue. She hopes to open a shop in London later this year.
Angeline does her best to give life an optimistic spin, but how does she feel towards her father now? ‘Sad. He had everything: a loyal, beautiful, smart wife, and children who love him regardless of whether he has money or not. I feel that at his age he’s vulnerable.’ I’m not sure whether she means because of his health or his status as a wealthy divorcé, but I suspect both. ‘When you don’t have that much longer ahead of you, you shouldn’t spend your days being angry and resentful.’
Pauline’s old age isn’t how she planned it either. ‘I think it’s scary to be 70 and suddenly facing life by yourself; it is not what my mother expected her life to be. She’ll have to work through that.’
As Angeline boils the kettle and finds me a teabag in the vast kitchen, I can’t help noticing the cracks in the walls, the damp, the cupboard doors hanging off their hinges. While the family assets have been being contested, it seems that no one has wanted to take ownership of Rossway’s repairs. It may be a palatial family home, but it is neglected and unloved – if ever a visual reminder were needed of a dilapidated 42-year marriage.
The future mapped out for Angeline on the board at Laura Ashley failed to materialise, too. Not that she regrets this for a moment. Her business-with-a-conscience is now her focus.
And somewhere in all of this – for Angeline, her mother and her brother – is freedom.