Liberty

Article excerpt

The London retailer used its design credentials to overcome a decline that began in the 80s and 90s.

One of the oldest department stores in Britain, Liberty became synonymous with wealth and luxury soon after draper Arthur Liberty started trading in 1875.

Originally named East India House, the store at 218a Regent Street attracted customers by importing household goods from the Far East, sourced by Liberty himself.

'Exotic' goods from the Orient were status symbols and highly coveted at the time. The shop quickly expanded to become a department store. It was renamed Chesham House after its founder's Buckinghamshire home, and by the 1880s had seven departments.

Liberty bought up neighbouring properties to accommodate the growing business; and the basement of one was labelled the 'Eastern Bazaar', due to its selection of decorative objects.

Architect Edward William Godwin, a founder member of the Costume Society, was employed in 1884 to lead a costume department charged with creating Liberty's own apparel. His designs included printed textiles, wallpapers, tiles and metalwork.

Arthur Liberty fostered relationships with numerous designers from the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements throughout the 1890s. Unhappy with the quality of the Japanese fabric the store was importing, he began using plain, good quality fabric to be dyed and printed in England. Liberty would become renowned for its print style and its fabrics remain central to many of its products today.

The shop was relocated to Great Marlborough Street in 1927, where it remains in the mock-Tudor building today. After a decline in popularity in the 80s and 90s, Liberty recorded its first annual profit in a decade after a store redesign in 2009. This renaissance 'recaptured the store's original spirit and cutting-edge design' according to chairman Richard Balfour-Lynn.

Collaborations with artists including Grayson Perry, designers such as Erdem and brands such as Nike have proven successful, cultivating Liberty's image as an exclusive and exciting store.

BRAND LESSON BY ANDY KNOWLES, CHAIRMAN, JKR

Liberty can teach us more from its mistakes than its triumphs. In particular, that one dilutes a defining design ethos at one's peril.

A self-evident truth, you would think, for an organisation with a particular identification with the Arts and Crafts movement; yet it is a philosophy that Liberty has ignored under various owners in recent times. …