Liberty of London: Designs of Our Times
Anna Buruma is the archivist at Liberty of London 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 fashion history 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 Japan and the Far East. Liberty quickly expanded to include fashionable clothing and furniture as well as decorative items such as vases, clocks, jewellery, 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!
Liberty of London, of course, continued on well after the death of Sir Arthur Lasenby Liberty, expanding it’s operations even further: