Fashion: Sea Change
Lowthorpe, Rebecca, The Independent (London, England)
It's been a long time since anyone called the Liberty label chic. But now the tide is turning, thanks to a radical reinvention that mixes modernity with old-fashioned individualism
LIBERTY, in Regent Street, London, is about as far as you can get from the usual chrome-and-glass temples of international designer clothes. Dear old Liberty, the very flagship of Englishness, has always been like an eccentric great aunt, hoarding her many treasures within antique walls. Until recently, at least.
But then the store decided to bring its own-line clothing range into the 21st century (via a brief stop in the 20th), and planned a relaunch - which took place in September - of the Liberty Collection. Hard decisions had to be made. How much should remain of the shop's unique heritage; and how far should it be steered away from its tea-room quaintness? Enter the designer Clare Corrigan. "The Liberty collection had become so frumpy, and it was displayed in a side room called the Career Collection Room," she says, "but it was obvious that it had amazing potential." Corrigan, a St Martin's graduate whose first job was to design knitwear for Thierry Mugler (including bikinis with "nipple bolts") and who went on to work for Karl Lagerfeld ("he loved the fact that I wore hideous boots from Kensington Market"), was delighted to take up the challenge of turning high frump into high fashion. The team that has foregone the label's purple- rinse image of dirndl skirts and blouses in favour of "cosmic tartan" and clashing colours consists of Corrigan, Clare Johnston, Liberty's head of design, and Corinne Barker, a textile and scarf designer.
Their first collection, for this Autumn/Winter, brings the best of old Liberty back to life. Instead of recycling the usual catwalk trends, the team gave Liberty Collection its strong identity by delving into the past, through archives dating back to 1875, when Arthur Stewart Liberty opened the first shop bearing his name.
Naturally, the renowned Liberty prints have been given an airing. The team was allowed to rummage through the archives of the late Archibald Knox, Arthur Silver and William Morris, all of whom designed fabrics for Liberty when it first launched. "It's amazing to have these archives - like having our own Victoria & Albert Museum on site," says Corrigan. She experimented with latter-day hand-printing techniques in the current collection, using wooden blocks that were hand-carved in India on a stunning tulle dress. …