Liberty of London: at the V&A with Anna Buruma

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Liberty of London: Designs of Our Times

Anna Buruma is the archivist at and she spoke at the V&A’s Friday evening talk. (You can see her in the 3rd image, she’s wearing a black dress with a red necklace). I wanted to go to this lecture because Liberty has been such an important part of London’s for more then a century and I also love some of their handbags!

Sir Arthur Lasenby Liberty opened his first shop with three employees on Regent Street in 1875, where he sold ornaments, fabrics, antiques and artifacts from and the Far East. Liberty quickly expanded to include fashionable clothing and furniture as well as decorative items such as vases, clocks, , textiles, and wallpapers. In 1877-78 the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A) purchased antique embroideries and rugs from Liberty.

Liberty catered for an eclectic mixture of popular styles while developing his own distinct style. Although many designers and artisans worked for Liberty, the store’s policy of maintaining the anonymity of its designers allowed the shop to create the Liberty Style. In 1890 Liberty opened a shop in Paris, and the shop became synonymous with Art Nouveau, so much so that in Italy the new style became known as Stile Liberty!

In 1884, Liberty asked architect-designer Edward William Godwin to set up the “Artistic Costume Studio” to showcase Liberty designs and fabrics. They made dresses for its elite clientele, including Isadora Duncan and Mrs. Andrew Carnegie. Proust bought his ties there, and Gilbert and Sullivan dressed their casts in his fabrics. The demand Liberty created for his fabrics was greater than the resources of his suppliers and he decided to import ready woven fabric and dye and print them in the UK. Liberty relied on the experts of two printing companies: Thomas Wardle of Leek, in Staffordshire and Edmund Littler of Merton Abbey in Surrey. By the 1890s Merton Abbey was sending its entire production to Liberty and in 1904 Liberty purchased the company.

Liberty had become famous for its prints and textiles and by the 20th century Liberty fabrics were used by great designers like Paul Poiret, Yves Saint Laurent, Cacharel and Jean Muir.

It’s important to understand how relevant and popular these prints still are today. Just take a look at Luella using Liberty prints for her Spring 2008 collection!

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Sir Arthur Lasenby Liberty – timeline:

  • born August 13, 1843
  • 1864-1874 Worked at Farmer and Rogers’ Great Shawl and Cloak Emporium in London, and later at the firm’s Oriental Warehouse.
  • in 1875 Rented 1/2 of a shop 218A Regent Street and named it the “East India House”
  • expanded the shop 1876, 1878, 1883, 1924;
  • produced Liberty Art Fabrics, from 1878;
  • introduced Umritza Cashmere, 1879;
  • opened furnishing and decoration department, 1883;
  • debuted costumes, 1884;
  • introduced jewelry and metalwork, 1899;
  • opened Birmingham branch, 1887;
  • open Paris branch, 1890;
  • became public company, 1894;
  • died in May 11, 1917
  • Liberty of London, of course, continued on well after the death of Sir Arthur Lasenby Liberty, expanding it’s operations even further:

  • opened branch in Manchester, 1924;
  • established Liberty and Company Ltd., wholesale company, 1939;
  • acquired Dutch firm, Metz and Company, 1973;
  • expanded men’s offerings in flagship store, late 1990s;
  • opened U.S. distribution center in Fort Worth, Texas, 2000;
  • acquired by real estate company Marylebone Warwick Balfour, 2000.
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    3 comments on “Liberty of London: at the V&A with Anna Buruma

    1. Anonymous
      January 22, 2008 at 9:09

      thanks for this excellent record of Anna Buruma’s lecture…I was there too and thought it was brilliant. What a great story the Liberty story is. Had to go and look at the fabrics the next day – as beautiful and inspiring as ever of course…

    2. susanne barrie
      April 6, 2008 at 4:04

      I was in London for the first time 32 years ago and spent an afternoon at Liberty rapturously looking and feeling the textiles. I had the feeling of discovering a great treasure house. I wish the Regent Street store still had the creaking floors filled with silks, wools and cottons so that everyone could have the same experience.

    3. Rosemary McGowan
      October 5, 2008 at 20:20

      I am writing up a history of my family for my children. I know that both my grandfather and grandmother worked at Liberty’s in the 1890’s. My grandfather was a Jerseyman and totally bilingual – my father told me that he (my grandfather) was sent to Paris to open a branch there. He would have been only 20 at the time which seems very young – he must have been part of a team, surely. Is there more information about this endeavour – I’d appreciate any facts at all.

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