Has Liberty finally lost the thread?

Tamsin Blanchard on the decline of our favourite fabric emporium

Tamsin Blanchard
Wednesday 12 June 1996 23:02 BST

It is ironic that in the centenary year of William Morris, the man who aimed to improve the nation's taste by giving ordinary people the chance to buy and make beautiful things, the 20 regional Liberty shops that are scattered from Brighton to Glasgow are to close. Morris's Arts and Crafts movement lives on in the printed fabric rolls that form the backbone of the regional Liberty business, but ordinary people from ordinary places around the country are now to be deprived of one of the few affordable legacies of the Arts and Crafts aesthetic.

As a result of pre-tax profits for 1995 falling from pounds 3.6m to pounds 2.1m, the bastion of twee English heritage fabrics is to close all of its regional shops. Instead, Liberty's out-of-London outlets are to relocate to airport shopping forecourts, alongside the other tourist merchandise from Harrods and Wedgwood.

Liberty first opened its doors in 1875 and the original store in Regent Street still thrives with tourists flocking into the mock-Tudor wooden interior. The out-of-town shops are not as cosmopolitan in outlook as the London store, with its designer floors for men and women stocking one of the most extensive selections of contemporary clothing in the country. Instead, they concentrate on fabrics, crafts and the accoutrements of dressmaking. And therein lies the problem: interest in dressmaking is declining.

Nora Doerfel teaches dressmaking at the Hampstead Garden Suburb Institute. There are five classes each week, but numbers attending are dropping. "Around five to eight years ago, we had people on a waiting list to come to classes," she says. Class numbers have gone from 20 at their peak to 15 at most, and the average age is over 40. Mrs Doerfel has noticed general stock in fabric departments being reduced, but she is a particular fan of Liberty when it comes to buying special fabrics unavailable anywhere else. "It's awful that Liberty is closing its regional shops," she says. Her sentiments will be echoed whole-heartedly by fellow home dressmakers around the country.

Mrs Doerfel blames the waning numbers in her classes on the availability of relatively inexpensive clothing in the high street at shops like Marks & Spencer and Next. Women - and her pupils are almost exclusively female - also have less time on their hands to spend making clothes for themselves or their families.

The first out-of-town Liberty opened in King Street in Manchester in 1955. Over 40 years later, the loss of Liberty on the high street in towns such as Chester and Bath represents more than just a decline in dressmaking. The familiar purple sign has become as much a part of the heart of those places as the Roman ruins in Chester, the Pavilion in Brighton, or the Spa at Bath. Shoppers, who might have never even walked through the doors of their local branch, will mourn it when it closes, to be replaced by another branch of Oasis, or a craft shop filled with New Age papier-mache, scented candles and aromatherapy oils.

Belinda Morris is a fashion writer and stylist who lives near Norwich. She visits Liberty whenever she is in the city, and sees its closure as a sad loss. "It isn't just tourists who shop there," she says. "It's more the local people who will miss it. In a place like Norwich or York, Liberty is so in keeping with the ambience of the place. It raises the tone of the street and makes you feel very nervous about what might replace it."

Ian Thompson, chief executive at Liberty, says: "It's not a decision that was taken lightly. It is extremely sad, particularly for our staff." But the shops were losing money. There is no way that a shop space measuring 900 square feet in Bath could replicate the diversity of merchandise in 100,000 square feet in Regent Street.

Liberty in London is more than a tourist attraction, selling printed silk squares to anyone that has room in their suitcase to take back home as a present or souvenir. As well as the floral prints and Art Nouveau furnishing fabric designs that may be a decade or two past their sell- by date, the store has retained the spirit of Liberty in the 1890s by featuring contemporary designs. The out-of-town shops have been laid to rest far too readily. Why not give the provincial customer the opportunity to share William Morris's vision by bringing modern-day products to ordinary people?

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