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. The passion to create one-offs didn't stop there. Corrigan and the team were also determined to bring back traditional British-made fabrics to the collection, and promptly headed off to the Harris Tweed mills in the Outer Hebrides. The result was a colourful and exclusive weave that has been cut into slim, knee-length coats and short, natty jackets.
The main elements of the collection - vibrant colours (apple green and raspberry), quirky prints and traditional luxury fabrics (cord, tweed, silk, cashmere and Guernseys) - conjure up the old Liberty eccentricity while allowing it to look fresh and new. The management was so keen for the world to see it that Liberty had its first catwalk outing at London Fashion Week in September. "We needed to renew the enthusiasm for our own collection. It was known for its English country style during the Seventies and Eighties, but we forgot to move it on," says Michele Jobling, Liberty's managing director. "Showing Liberty Collection on the catwalk was an ideal opportunity to re-define its personality." Since then, the management has gone all out to promote Liberty Collection's new image, with a pounds 1m advertising budget for the year.
Corrigan, who is now working on her third collection, for Autumn/Winter 2001, has discovered more about Liberty's heritage. She rattles off her inspirations: "Paul Poiret was a designer here in the late Twenties, his designs are in the archives... It's astonishing, because there were seven couture ateliers at Liberty before the war... Nijinsky used to buy silks here for the Ballet Russes costumes. And Ossie Clark used to save up what little money he had to buy a metre of Tana Lawn fabric," she says. Despite all of its exotic influences, though, the new Liberty look is a truly English affair - and as stunningly so as just about anything that has been seen since the Arts & Crafts movement.
PHOTOGRAPHER'S ASSISTANT: CHRIS PITSIALIS
IMAGING: JAMES RAE
STYLIST'S ASSISTANT: ISABELLE-MARIE CREAC'H
HAIR: EARL SIMMS FOR NICKY CLARKE USING HAIROMATHERAPY PRODUCTS
MAKE-UP: LIZ PUGH AT DEBBIE WALTERS USING SHU UEMURA
MODELS: NATHALIE C AND ALEX PATON AT SELECTReuse content