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THE HISTORY OF LIBERTY DEPARTMENT STORE

In his latest book Liberty Style author Martin Wood tells the story of Liberty department store and its rich cultural history 

Liberty Style tells the story of founder Arthur Lasenby Liberty, a man renowned for being one of the great tastemakers of his age. ‘Sir Arthur had a great eye, and he was a great patron of designers,’ author Martin Wood explains. ‘Every important design name, in the latter part of the 19th Century and the early years of the 20th he knew, and he bought from them.’ From Arts and Crafts pioneer Charles Voysey to interiors label House of Hackney, a century of British talent has found a home within its hallowed halls.

Established during the aesthetics movement, Sir Arthur soon cultivated his niche by importing exotic fabrics from the Middle East. He was concerned with innovation, and Martin Wood quotes him as setting out ‘not to follow existing fashions but to create new ones.’ This approach was an instant success. ‘People like Burne-Jones and William Morris went in and raved about this stuff,’ says Martin. ‘They obviously bought as well, because Arthur started off in half a shop unit in Regent’s Street, borrowing £2,500. He repaid it in 18 months.’

In those early days, Liberty’s association with celebrities, most notably Oscar Wilde, propelled its popularity to dizzying heights. A regular customer who bought rare Japanese silks, Wilde was a poster boy for the fashions of the time, and his dedication put Liberty on the map. ‘(Wilde) was very much the aesthetic movement king. But he was like Icarus, he flew too close to the sun and crashed to earth,’ Martin muses.

Liberty Style by Martin Wood £35, Frances Lincoln, franceslincoln.com

Liberty Style by Martin Wood £35, Frances Lincoln, franceslincoln.com

Liberty and textiles go hand-in-hand; those early roots planted in the 19th Century continue to grow and flourish today. Liberty’s signature print is the bread-and-butter, adorning accessories, scarves and most recently shoes, as seen in collaborations with Nike and Dr. Martens. Born in the Arts and Crafts movement at the turn of the 20th Century, the beautifully simple idea of a repeated pattern was championed by designers William Morris and Charles Voysey. Martin cites the latter as ‘one of Sir Arthur’s early protégés’.

To observe the fashions of the 20th Century, you need look no further than the department store that sold them all. Liberty became so synonymous with certain styles that Art Nouveau is referred to as ‘Stile Liberty’ in Italy. As an artistic movement, Art Nouveau would be immortalised in a dozen metro stations across Paris, but Sir Arthur’s interpretation of the flamboyant style was an exercise in retail-savvy caution. ‘He was much more restrained,’ Martin explains. Liberty’s contemporary designers have paid homage to the association with the movement, even playing on the Italian phrase with bespoke fabric designs titled the ‘Stile Collection’.

For a legacy built so long ago upon Arts and Crafts, craftsmanship and nostalgia, Sir Arthur’s eye for good taste has seamlessly carried itself into 21st Century. Since the birth of ‘Young Liberty’ after the Second World War, the classic look has found a youthful market. The fact that the Liberty floral pattern adorns lavender bags and iPad cases, and is loved by men and women spanning all age groups, is a great testament to the man himself. ‘Arthur somehow got connected with the artistic scene in London, and he had what we call an eye,’ Martin explains. ‘You can’t teach that. You can spend all the money you like, they’ve either got it or they haven’t and he just had this sense of taste.’

Liberty Style by Martin Wood £35, Frances Lincoln, franceslincoln.com

Words: Trudie Carter-Pavelin

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