Words Kirk Truman
Illustrations Lucy Bayliss
“Liberty is the chosen resort of the artistic shopper…”
At the faint ringing of the clock tower as it strikes ten, the figure of St. George revolves from above the timepiece to slay the figure of a dragon from a valiant steed. If you enter Liberty’s central atrium and step upon its wooden floor, you can just make out its distinct comforting creak. While its wooden beams tower up to the rooftop, its grand windows nestle within pure white walls – more than a façade, a building or a place, Liberty is a familiar character in Soho. Below the timepiece is inscribed ‘no minute gone comes back again’ and that it shan’t.
Born in Chesham, Buckinghamshire in 1843, Arthur Lasenby Liberty’s first job was at the age of 16 assisting his uncle, a lace merchant. At 19, he went to work for Farmer & Rogers’ Great Cloak and Shawl Emporium in Regent Street. With the experience and acumen he’d picked up from 10 years of service there, in 1874 Arthur decided to become an entrepreneur and start his own business. Having borrowed £2,000 from his future father-in-law, he took over a section of 218a Regent Street and with 3 dedicated staff members set up his business. The store hosted a realm of fabrics, ornaments and objets d’art, with Arthur determined to bring his idea of an Eastern Bazaar to London. His vision proved a success. Within just 18 months the loan was repaid and Arthur soon purchased the second half of 218a Regent Street, as well as neighbouring properties 142–144 which became known as Chesham House, after his birthplace. Liberty quickly rose to become one of the most fashion
Liberty quickly rose to become one of the most fashionable stores in London, forging strong relationships with a variety of British designers. Its Liberty Art Fabrics a notable success, being used for both clothing and furnishings and in the store itself. In the words of Oscar Wilde, a friend of Arthur Liberty’s and one of the store’s first loyal customers, “Liberty is the chosen resort of the artistic shopper.” By 1884, Arthur was creating in-house apparel to challenge the fashions of Paris. “I was determined not to follow existing fashion but to create new ones.” He collaborated with Costume Society founder Edward William Godwin, appointing him director of Liberty’s first ever costume department, a successful venture which would soon feature a clientele as prestigious as the famous Pre-Raphaelite artists.
Thanks to its dedication to the quality of its goods, the store soon became a Royal Warrant holder; a level of quality that still can be found in-store today. Arthur continued to build strong relationships with English designers during the 1890s including Archibald Knox, and many others whom practiced Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau. Having helped to develop Art Nouveau through its support of such designers, Liberty became synonymous with this trending style. And in Italy, they even coined a term for the shop’s distinctive style: Stile Liberty.
By the 1920s, Liberty was undergoing a renovation that would become one of its hallmarks. The new emporium was designed at the height of the 1920s fashion for Tudor revival by Edwin Thomas Hall and his son Edwin Stanley Hall. Incorporated into the design, two decommissioned ships; HMS Impregnable and HMS Hindustan. The two ships were up-cycled, making for the mock-Tudor facade we know today. Grade II listed, the frontage of Liberty on Great Marlborough Street is the same length as the Hindustan ship. The father and son duo engineered the design of the store around three light wells that form the main focus of the building. These were surrounded by smaller rooms to create a homely feel. Many of these rooms had functioning fireplaces, with some still visible today throughout the store’s four floors and basement. Though trading continued during the construction, sadly Arthur Lasenby Liberty never saw the finished product. He died in 1917, seven years before the building was completed in 1924.
In the post-war years of the store, Liberty continued its tradition of fashion foresight and eclectic design. The store’s myriad departments had collections of contemporary and traditional designs, many featuring new designers whose work reflected Liberty’s taste for handcrafted work. In the 1950s, Liberty blossomed beyond London opening stores throughout the country: Manchester, Bath, Brighton, Chester, York and Norwich all once had Liberty stores. However, in time, the closure of all department stores outside London meant the company would once again focus on its London flagship address.
Liberty’s Art Fabrics remain one of their most successful creations. Originally manufactured at former textile factory Merton Abbey Mills, they can now be found throughout an entire wealth of brands, from Paul Smith to Barbour. Its association with artists such as William Morris and Gabriel Dante Rossetti in the 19th century, and Vivienne Westwood in the 20th century shows the breadth of the brand’s artistic remit. Recent collaborations include Hello Kitty, House of Hackney, Manolo Blahnik and of course Nike; a particularly successful collaboration, fiercely sought after in-store and online. Liberty’s Art Fabrics have also found popularity in the Far East over the years. In 1988, the company opened a subsidiary in Japan which wholesales Liberty-branded products to major Japanese department stores. And it sells its Art Fabrics to international and local fashion stores in the area.
Today, very little about the mock-Tudor building which we all know and love has changed. And its 4th floor still feels much like a wander through Arthur Liberty’s vision of an Eastern Bazaar: ornaments, carpets and furniture that beguile and comfort in equal measure. ‘No minute gone comes back again’ but Liberty have managed, under the guidance of managing director Ed Burstell, to preserve a time and place true to their founder’s vision.