Liberty Lives

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liberty-illustration By Gabriel Bell

For 132 years, a stretch of London's Regent Street has been home to the world's most beloved and sought-after prints. Through endless renovations, revolutions in style, and financial ups-and-downs, Liberty, perhaps the first true department store, still stands. The charmingly garish mock-Tudor façade is still marvelous. Its print-lined, leather-bound notebook selection is still hearthside. And you can still browse the bewitching collection of textiles, or rifle their bazaar of upper-crust bric-a-brac, as shoppers did a century ago.



Liberty educated the Victorian palate, and it is little wonder that contemporary creatives such as Dante Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones frequented it for inspiration.


The retail roost founded in 1874 by Arthur Lasenby Liberty was always more than an emporium of curiosities. For open-minded Londoners, surveying its wares was a transformative experience. Arthur was a veteran of the 1862 International Exhibition at Kensington, a follow-up to 1851's Great Exhibition (of Crystal Palace fame), which further exposed the British middle class to products from across "the empire on which the sun never sets." Previously, most Britons could not afford the Oriental fabrics, fine china, or carved sandalwood tchotchkes that lined the houses of the upper class. The Exhibitions not only displayed such luxuries to all classes, but they suggested popular access to them. International suppliers, local counterfeiters, and a new generation of bazaar owners happily met the demands of a hungry public, but Arthur went one step further, stocking the real McCoy in situ. He freed goods from their vitrines, placing them in natural, domestic interiors to make their beauty amenable to native aesthetic sensibilities, and suggesting their use in the home. Liberty educated the Victorian palate, and it is little wonder that contemporary creatives such as Dante Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones frequented it for inspiration.

These days, the flag is flying high. After decades in debt and confusion, Liberty is once again on the rise.

Ironically, while Liberty's prints were often "Oriental" in style, they were not, by and large, Asian. The spike in demand for exotic materials following the 1851 Exhibition fragmented an already jury-rigged international textile market, and the low prices and high quality that had made imports lucrative soon dried up, replaced by second-rate work at premium costs. As a market-leader, Liberty faced a crisis. Arthur rebalanced his stock, incorporating more modern and Western items. The store became an important supporter of the Arts and Crafts movement, and was integral to the success of Art Nouveau.

The famous "Tana Lawn" print has been a vital costume element for both entrenched upper class "granny" dresses and the colorful hippie fashions of Carnaby Street.

The turning point came when Liberty began to design and create its prints locally—a massive boon for the English textile industry, which remained a world leader until after WWII. Design-wise, local manufacture transformed the once "Oriental" mode into a strange amalgam of British tastes and Eastern motifs, which by the 1920s had matured into its own style. With their synthetic heritage open to multiple interpretations, the prints have been diversely applied ever since. Whenever a designer wants a touch of the exotic or the traditional, they turn to Liberty. In the last century alone, the famous "Tana Lawn" print has been a vital costume element for both entrenched upper class "granny" dresses and the colorful hippie fashions of Carnaby Street. Liberty owns the rights to their creations to this day, insuring a steady source of income even when retail fortunes flag.

These days, the flag is flying high. After decades in debt and confusion, Liberty is once again on the rise. Recent buyouts, new retail strategies, a revamp of their old HQ, and partnerships with labels such as Cacharel, Miu Miu, Balenciaga, and Paul Smith have brought the white elephant of Regent Street back into the "must-shop" club. Considering their importance to modern fashion, the prints should continue to age like fine wine. As Simon Doonan, Barneys New York buyer and Liberty enthusiast says, "Liberty prints are for the connoisseur. I don't know my Thunderbirds from my Rothschilds—but I know my prints."

BaumundPferdgarten

Liberty print dresses by BAUMUNDPFERDGARTEN. Images courtesy of BAUMUNDPFERDGARTEN.

Marching proudly into its third century, London's Liberty department store remains a retail leader, but also a designer touchstone in cool textile prints. Just ask Simon Doonan.