British department store
Founded: by Arthur Lazenby Liberty (1843-1917) in 1875. Company History: Founded as oriental import emporium, "East India House," 218A Regent Street, London; expanded, 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; Paris, 1890; became public company, 1894; 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. Exhibitions: Liberty's, 1875-1975, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 1975; Art Nouveau, 1980-1914, Victoria & Albert Museum [traveling exhibit], 2000. Awards: Silver Medal, Rational Dress Exhibition, 1883; Gold Medal, Amsterdam Exhibition of 1883; Arthur Lazenby Liberty knighted, 1913. Company Address: Lasenby House, 32 Kingly Street, London W1R 5LA, England.
By LIBERTY OF LONDON:
Aglaia (journal of the Healthy and Artistic Dress Union), 1894.
Liberty Lamp (in-house magazine), 1925-32.
On LIBERTY OF LONDON:
Laver, James, The Liberty Story, London, 1959.
Adburgham, Alison, Liberty's: A Biography of a Shop, London, 1975.
Liberty's 1875-1975 [exhibition catalogue], London, 1975.
The Liberty Style, London, 1979.
Milbank, Caroline Rennolds, Couture: The Great Designers, New York, 1985.
Levy, Mervyn, Liberty Style, the Classic Years: 1898-1910, London, 1986.
Morris, Barbara, Liberty Design, 1874-1914, London, 1989.
Calloway, Stephen, ed., The House of Liberty: Masters of Style and Decoration, London, 1992.
Arwas, Victor, Art Nouveau: From Mackintosh to Liberty, Windsor, England, 2000.
Amaya, Victor, "Liberty and the Modern Style," in Apollo (London), February 1963.
Boyd, A., and P. Radford, "The Draper Who Made History," in the Observer Magazine (London), 6 April 1975.
Williams, Antonia, "Liberty Quality Centenary: At the Sign of the Purple Feather," in Vogue (London), June 1975.
Banham, Reyner, "A Dead Liberty," in New Society (London), 7August 1975.
Nichols, Sarah, "Arthur Lazenby Liberty: A Mere Adjective?" in the Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts (Miami, Florida), Summer 1989.
"Liberty of Regent Street in Big Men's Wear Push," in DNR, 3 April 1996.
Curan, Catherine, "Liberty of London," in DNR, 27 September 1996.
Menkes, Suzy, "Downsizing for the Upscale—Stores Cope with Consumer Caution in a Chilly Retail Climate," in the International Herald Tribune , 17 November 1998.
"Liberty of London Unveils New Collection at Gift Fair," Trade Partners New Products Press Release, 2 July 2000.
Sir Arthur Lazenby Liberty, the founder of Liberty of London, contributed in 1894 to the Healthy and Artistic Dress Union's journal Aglaia, which stated his declared aim to "promote improvements in dress that would make it consistent with health, comfort and healthy appearance, but [dress] should not obviously depart from the conventional mode." Lazenby Liberty had left the Oriental Warehouse, famous among the leading artists and aesthetes of the day for its collections of blue and white porcelain and oriental fabrics in 1874 to set up on his own in half a shop in London's Regent Street. Lazenby Liberty presided over the shop's transformation from an Eastern bazaar to a department store that commissioned and sold modern design of all kinds.
"Liberty art fabrics" in subtle tones, which soon became known worldwide as "Liberty colors," (produced in collaboration from 1878 with the dyers and printers of Thomas Wardle) were the first step toward the creation of the shop's new image, and by the end of the century, Stile Liberty was synonymous in Italy with art nouveau. The quintessential fabric of the Aesthetic Movement was Liberty or Art silk and, aided by such popular successes as the Gilbert and Sullivan opera Patience (where the clothes were made from Liberty fabrics and Liberty artistic silks were advertised in the program) and the cartoons of George du Maurier—Liberty soon to became a household name.
In 1884 Lazenby Liberty opened the costume department, appointing as its first director the celebrated architect E.W.E. Godwin, whom Oscar Wilde once described as being "the greatest aesthete of us all." Godwin had made a study of historic dress and approached his task with almost missionary zeal, aiming to "establish the of dressmaking fame hygienic, intelligible and progressive basis."
Godwin's death three years later did not mean the end of his influence on Liberty dress, and the catalogues showed a wide range of Liberty Art costumes, ranging from a Grecian costume in Arabian cotton, to a peasant dress in thin Umritza cashmere, embroidered and smocked (a skill revived by Liberty and used on the finest materials). Smocking was also a striking feature of the Kate Greenaway-influenced artistic dress for children, a range of clothes hugely popular with Liberty's customers from the late 1880s onwards.
In the 20th century, Liberty fabrics were used by the best known designers of each decade, from Paul Poiret to Yves Saint Laurent, from Cacharel to Jean Muir. The famous Liberty silk scarves and ties are sold all over the world, and the distinctive fabrics are still used by home dressmakers to create their own "Liberty style" in a fashion familiar from the time of their 19th-century forebears. Liberty also relaunched its own clothing collections, described as "contemporary yet classic. Simply yet beautifully styled, they could be worn by the modern girl or she of between-the-wars-era alike."
Of all the major London department stores, the character of Liberty's Regent Street flagship store and the quality and range of the goods it offers have changed least in recent years. In fashion terms, Liberty's offers a unique combination of its own entirely distinctive and yet ever-changing fabric and clothing designs for womenswear and menswear and the fashion collections of such distinctive contemporary designers as Nicole Farhi, Kenzo, Issey Miyake, and Paul Smith.
During the 1990s, Liberty of London expanded its Liberty consumer brand from mainly soft goods and apparel into a broader range of products encompassing home furnishings, decorative accessories, and gifts. At the same time, the Liberty brand has maintained as its centerpiece the colorful prints with which it has long been associated. To remain fresh, the company has continuously updated its designs under the Liberty of London label to achieve a more modern look, as it did with its men's ties and scarves (licensed to Salant in the U.S. and Mitchelson's in the UK) in 1997.
Although the company's brand division—which operates separately from its retail unit—drove significant sales and profit for Liberty in the late 1980s, its performance fell off in the 1990s. This trend had begun to reverse itself by 2001, thanks to the company's efforts to invigorate the brand. As of the early 2000s, the company was trying to rebuild its brand by focusing on three main product categories: women's fashions, gifts, and home furnishings. An in-house design team created Liberty of London-branded products for distribution in Liberty's own stores as well as in other retail locations throughout the world. The goal is to set trends with Liberty of London merchandise designs yet to remain true to the sensibility of founder Arthur Lazenby Liberty.
Liberty's 2000 giftware collection, shown at the New York International Gift Fair, was emblematic. Fifteen products, ranging from sleepwear to kitchen, bed, and bath products, featured floral-based prints in pinks and greens. Some favorite Liberty products, including kimonos and cosmetic bags, were focal points of the line. And as part of its objective of solidifying sales in the North American market, Liberty opened a Fort Worth distribution center in 2000 to enhance fulfillment in its U.S. operations.
The printed patterns highlighted in the Liberty of London giftware line typically reflect those in the company's fashion range. The label's spring 2001 women's apparel collection, as described in a review on the website supporting London Fashion Week, featured beachwear and daywear in a wide variety of colors, from solids to avant-garde prints to stripes. The site made note of the 1960s-influenced themes on the collection, which were updated for 2001.
Liberty has also been active in its department store operations, which comprise its largest division in terms of sales. Its flagship store on Regent Street—other Liberty stores are located in Windsor and at London's Heathrow Airport—expanded its men's offerings in the late 1990s, focusing on cutting-edge designers. These included names such as Dries van Noten, Helmut Lang, and Alexander McQueen, as well as designers considered classics "in Liberty's terms" such as Yohji Yamamoto and Jean-Paul Gaultier, according the Daily News Record in April 1996. It also expanded its sportswear selection, which featured lines such as Mossimo and Griffin Laundry, and maintained its strong designer suit business featuring Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani, Hugo Boss, and others.
Despite all its activity in both its branded merchandise unit and its stores, Liberty suffered financial losses throughout the 1990s and, in 2000, was acquired by London property company Marylebone Warwick Balfour. The purchase marked the end of 125 years of family ownership. Marylebone set out first to renovate the Regent Street store and made clear its intention to rejuvenate and further develop the Liberty of London brand.
updated by Karen Raugust