London’s iconic retail emporium Liberty catapults its style into the 21st century with seamless success
There’s a nip of frost in the air, mingling with the smell of roasting chestnuts, as the crowds throng Regent Street clutching candy-coloured shopping bags. Shopfront windows, artfully packed full of gorgeous wares, draw in shoppers like honey for bees. Welcome to London’s West End – one of the world’s most prestigious shopping destinations, hosting over 70 million visitors a year.
The stylish retail premises, tucked in the Grade II-listed Georgian façades, represent some of the most distinguished architecture in London, but none catches the eye as effectively as the 1920s mock-Tudor splendour of Liberty of London.
HOMAGE TO BAZAARS OF THE EAST
Stepping into Liberty is a quintessentially romantic and quirky retail experience that only the British can provide. Like walking onto a stage set fashioned after an Eastern bazaar, the label’s deeply covetable collections are housed in atmospheric wood-panelled rooms, full of open fireplaces, lead-glass windows, and armchairs upholstered in their trademark prints. The original wooden staircase links one floor to another, full of unique luxury gifts, from jewellery, beauty products and designer fashion, to vintage ornaments and classic homeware.
But the star of the show is undoubtedly the fabric. On the haberdashery floor, surrounded by bales and bales of cotton, linen, and velvet, coloured in a hue of rainbow shades, is where the true glory of Liberty lies. Fabrics produced in stunning colourways – from majestic purples to cerulean blues, from deep saffron shades of yellow, to sober metal greys, from a hundred hues of burgundy, to the deepest blush of pink, not forgetting a forest of emerald greens, with an abundance of floral and paisley and a myriad of other prints. Liberty fabric is at once arresting and exquisite, venerable, admired, esteemed and most importantly, loved.
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
The story of the grand London store had a humble beginning. An apprentice draper by occupation, Arthur Lasenby Liberty was a man of great vision and ambition. After a decade of working in the fabric business, where he learnt the secrets of textiles, in 1875 he decided to buy the lease on half a shop, financing it with a loan from his future father-in-law. He grandly named it the East India House, later changing its name to Liberty & Co.
Arthur Liberty spent many years travelling in the Far East, falling in love with all that was exotic and mysterious, glamorous and exceptional, compared to his little corner of London. Returning with jewel-coloured rugs, beautiful fabrics and unusual handicraft, he sold these in his store. As demand and his appreciative clientele grew, he started importing undyed fabrics like Mylore silk from India, getting them dyed and hand-printed in England, but in the oriental style he loved.
Working with English textile designers like William Morris and Gabriel Rossetti (associated with the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood and the English Arts and Crafts Movement) and silk dyer Thomas Wardle, Liberty introduced pastel tints (known as Liberty colours) and exotic prints for his little store. Liberty started marketing his fabrics as ‘Made in England’, which was the start of the iconic British brand.
The 1920s saw the introduction of miniature florals, paisley and abstract prints known as Liberty Prints. Till today, these are absolute best sellers with classic designs from the store’s enormous archives being revisited over and over. These were printed on the beloved Tana Lawn fabric, which quickly became Liberty’s bestselling fabric.
GROWING FROM STRENGTH TO STRENGTH
Within 18 months, Liberty had repaid the loan and acquired the second half of 218 Regent Street. As the business grew, neighbouring properties were added to the original premises. The basement of the store was named the Eastern Bazaar, filled with stunning home interior objects, and in 1883, the fledgling emporium expanded to include a clothing department.
“I was determined not to follow existing fashion but to create new ones,” Liberty once said of his approach to style and design. His influence took hold on the burgeoning fashion trends of the 1870s and 1880s, playing a key role in fashion movements from orientalism in the 19th century, through art nouveau and art deco in the early 20th century.
X MARKS THE SPOT
With a legacy steeped in the Arts and Crafts movement, it’s a huge credit to the craftsmanship of the Liberty brand that it has seamlessly sashayed into the 21st century. A combination of innovation and fruitful collaboration has always been the mainstay of Liberty and its success. Since its early link with designers like William Morris and Arthur Silver of Silver Studios, it has gone on to work with other big names in the industry, always retaining its original ethos and style within the collaborations.
Pairing with the likes of Jean Muir, Cacharel, Yves Saint Laurent and Vivienne Westwood, the brand has now seamlessly embraced the youth market as well. Today, Liberty’s distinctive floral prints adorn some of the hottest fashions in the industry in phenomenally successful collaborations called Liberty X.
This has seen the brand team up with Barbour, House of Hackney and Manolo Blahnik to the delight of its fan base, but the buck literally doesn’t stop there. The list has grown to include Nike, Vans, Uniqlo, Anthropologie, Hypebeast, J Crew, Supreme, The North Face, Dr Martens and Fred Perry, just to name a few.
The Liberty Design Studio creates more than 120 prints and patterns annually, collaborating with artists, writers, craftsmen, architects and illustrators. New textile collections, by in-house and freelance designers, are added to the collection each year. However, classic prints from as far back as 1880 – such as William Morris’s Strawberry Thief – are reintroduced to complement the season’s designs.
It’s no denying that the legacy of Liberty is a lasting one. From fabric prints so distinctive, you can spot them a mile away, to a fan base that includes the royal family (Queen Elizabeth wore summer frocks made of Liberty Tana Lawn) and rock royalty, to stylish Japanese teenagers, the floral motifs associated with a quintessential Englishness embody everything about the charm and quirkiness that Liberty prints proclaim. And who doesn’t want a part of that?