Liberty has been a part of the British landscape since its founding by Arthur Lasenby Liberty 140 years ago. Originally a warehouse supplying fashionable goods from the Far East, Liberty soon established a style and approach that was distinctive in the milieu of British retailing. Liberty’s contribution to British fashion, both that produced by the company and its impact on the work of other designers, is celebrated in this exhibition.
Arthur Liberty’s ambition was to create new fashion rather than follow the existing styles. The development of Liberty ‘Art Colours’ and the production of its own fabrics in Great Britain ensured that the founder’s vision would become reality. The distinctive qualities of Liberty’s goods would become a descriptive term in countries such as France – any softly draping silk was known as soie Liberty – and Italy, where the Art Nouveau movement became Stile Liberty.
Beginning at Farmer and Rogers Great Cloak and Shawl Emporium in Regent Street, the young sales clerk was soon put in charge of the Oriental Department where he met and was befriended by the artists and intellectuals of the Aesthetic movement. It was this patronage that would help Arthur Liberty when he left Farmer and Rogers to establish his own shop across the street.
A Dialogue With The East
With the opening up of Japan to trade with the West in the 1850s, the Japanese look soon became synonymous with Liberty.
Originally, Arthur Liberty’s Oriental Bazaar sold coloured silks imported from the Far East, together with costumes, fans, china, lacquer and enamel wares. The far-sighted Liberty soon began to source items from other countries to satisfy the demand for more exotic merchandise.
Throughout the twentieth century, Liberty took inspiration from the East for its own textiles and collections, including the kimono, which provided the basis for dressing gowns and wraps.
The Aesthetic movement promoted a romantic, fluid way of dressing in contrast to the corsets, embellishments and upholstering of women’s clothing of the 1860s and 1870s. The movement referenced the past and the East; the loose fit and plainer silhouette of the garments celebrated a natural shape and became the preferred style for women with artistic taste. The lack of frills allowed the subtle art of embroidery to become the main attraction.
The idea of historic and artistic dressing continued as an important element of the Liberty look.
A Dying Art Revived
Liberty was responsible for the rediscovery of a variety of traditional skills including smocking, which was found on the clothes worn by agricultural labourers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Smocks were rectangular shirt-like outer garments in which the fabric was pleated and stitched to create flexibility and increased durability.
The romantic associations of rural idylls were invoked in the clothes produced by Liberty, inspiring a revival in the art of smocking. Kate Greenaway’s wistful, historicist images directly influenced the style of children’s garments made by the company, including smocked dresses based on traditional versions, which became a trademark of the retailer.
The Fabric of Fashion
Before the First World War, Liberty had begun producing delicate floral prints but this increased rapidly during the inter-war period. The 1920s’ shopper tended towards prints on a dark ground; these gave way to pastel shades on a light ground, which reflected the more romantic mood of the 1930s. Around the world, this is still considered by many to be the archetypal Liberty print.
Textiles such as Tana lawn and Sungleam crepe were extremely popular and were sold as finished garments as well as lengths for the home sewer. Liberty scarves, then as now, were a highlight for many.
The Art Nouveau Revival
During the 1950s, Liberty sought to innovate in retail and design, establishing the Liberty Design Studio with the aim of producing and commissioning the best in patterned and woven textiles.
From 1958 to 1960, a series of exhibitions re-evaluated the Art Nouveau movement. Liberty quickly realised the potential of its own archive and designer William Poole redrew a selection of original Art Nouveau patterns. Re-coloured in vivid shades, the designs were released as the ‘Lotus’ collection, after the original Liberty trademark. Sold as dress fabrics in silk, wool and cottons, they became very popular and pointed the way to the retro revivals of the 1960s and early 1970s.
A new wave of British fashion design came to the fore in the 1960s, personified by a youthful style and freedom. Young designers were determined to create a novel way of dressing and Liberty’s wholesale fabric collections provided a major resource. The collections were not only fashion forward but also the Liberty brand presented an association with the desirable concept of ‘Englishness’.
Designers including Mary Quant, Foale and Tuffin, Marion Donaldson, Gerald McCann and Jean Muir, as well as larger manufacturers, used Liberty prints in their trend-setting collections.
The late 1960s ushered in an era of increased historicism as the optimism of Swinging London gave way to a yearning for the past and a new generation discovered afresh Art Deco, classic cinema, flea market finds and antique clothing. The quintessential Liberty prints, the small dense florals that had been produced by the company for 50 years, perfectly suited the period and were a favourite of designers.
Textile designer Bernard Nevill trained at Central Saint Martins and the Royal College of Art. It was through a fashion show at the RCA that Liberty became aware of Nevill’s work and he was hired as Liberty’s designer in 1963. By 1965, he was design director and had introduced the successful fabric range, ‘Jazz’.
Nevill’s most famous design is his ethnic-inspired ‘Macedonia’. Famously purchased by Yves Saint Laurent, it also appeared in designs by Annabelinda and Liberty’s own dress range. Nevill’s influence could be seen right across Liberty’s fabrics, from the high-end silks to Tana lawns and Varuna wools.
Susan Collier and Sarah Campbell
Susan Collier became the design consultant for Liberty of London Prints after Bernard Nevill left. A skilled painter and self-taught designer, Collier had supplied textile designs for scarves to Liberty, Richard Allan and Jacqmar in the early 1960s; her sister, Sarah Campbell, had begun to assist her in her textile work for Liberty before studying graphics at Chelsea College of Art. Campbell sold her first design to Liberty in 1969, the year of her graduation.
By the late 1960s the duo were producing a wide range of designs for Tana lawns, Varuna wools, chinon silks and cotton, used for dresses, furnishings and scarves.
Liberty’s collaborative relationships with artists, designers and stylists expanded from the 1990s as its distinctive prints and fabrics were used by established design houses and new talent alike, who were drawn to its unique blend of tradition and innovation. A roll-call of British and international names has been linked with the company, including Vivienne Westwood, Anna Sui and Junya Watanabe. Collaborating with classic British brands such as Barbour, Harris Tweed and Dr Marten alongside international fashion brands such as Acne, Kenzo, APC and House of Hackney, Liberty continues to be at the forefront of fashion.
Since opening its doors in 1875, Liberty has offered its customers an exciting and eclectic mix of beautiful goods sourced from around the world. These carefully selected items are imaginatively displayed by Liberty’s in-store Visual Merchandising Team, which devises windows that both tempt and visually dazzle the consumer. Just as Arthur Liberty’s aim was, as he said himself, to create new fashions, Liberty today continues to inform and educate as well as to inspire and delight its customers.
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