By Rhonda Riche
Photography by Jaclyn Locke and David Pike
When you think of Cool Brittania, the classic paisley and mini-floral prints of Liberty of London always spring to mind. Labels from Marc by Marc Jacobs to See by Chloė have recently used these distinctive designs to create floaty, uber-feminine fashions, and in fact, Liberty has been at the forefront of great British design since 1875 when Arthur Lasenby Liberty first opened up his eponymous shop.
Aside from the fact that Liberty had the best name ever, his timing was great. He was active during the most influential moment in British design, Arts and Crafts — a group (and movement) that was formed in reaction to the industrial age that advocated for a return to craftsmanship and to making every object in the home a work of art.
With a £2000 loan, Liberty set out with one goal in mind: to change the way we looked and the way we lived. Not only did he sell ornaments, fabric and objets d’art from Japan and the East, he employed leaders of the Arts and Crafts movement such as the jeweller Archibald Knox and the Pre-Raphealite artist William Morris.
The shop was a huge success from the get-go. By the end of the century, Oscar Wilde was singing its praises, “Liberty is the chosen resort of the artistic shopper.”
It was also the chosen resort of the artist. The association with Morris proved to be one of Liberty’s most important collaborations. Influenced by medieval tapestries and paisley patterns from India, Morris designed innovative prints —such as “The Strawberry Thief” (1883) which incorporated floral themes — that are still in production today.
Silk scarves are still Liberty’s signature item. The intricate prints and elaborate floral designs are still hand-printed using wooden blocks. (These scarves are so desirable that in 2009, Hermès collaborated with Liberty for a one-off silk square that sold out in days.)
Since the gorgeous prints could not be contained by silk scarves alone, the company started its Art Fabric Department, providing cotton, wool and cashmere textiles for clothes, upholstery and drapery. And every season, new designs, both contemporary and traditional, are added to the archive.
Liberty also invites artists from across all disciplines to curate mini collections of classic prints. We’re still fans of Florence and the Machine’s frontwoman Florence Welch’s rediscovery of a 1920s floral called “Dancing Ladies.”
Which brings us to the reason Liberty remains so relevant: Throughout the 20th century, Liberty of London’s Tudor-revival flagship shop has continuously showcased inspired artists and giants of the industry. Fashion designers like Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen, Marc Jacobs, Vivienne Westwood, Cacharel, and Yves Saint Laurent, and furniture maker Tom Dixon have all been drawn to the rich history and outstanding impressions of the Liberty archive and used the ditsy floral prints to create fun and fresh fabrics.
Liberty has also stayed true to the guiding principles of the Arts and Crafts movement, which aimed to bring art not just to the wealthy, but to everyone who sought it. The company has collaborated with everybody from mass marketers Hello Kitty to M.A.C to Nike. Our current favorite is, of course, the micro floral print shirts and kicky wedge-heeled kicks for Lord & Taylor.
This spring, fashion is all about pattern mixing, soft but saturated colors and floral prints. The best way to wear this look is to embrace the eclectic sensibility of the company — mix and match large bloom patterns with smaller buds. Or take an Indian-inspired print blouse and wear it as a jacket over a peasant dress for a free-spirited feeling. Enjoy your Liberty moment while it lasts.