Even if you’ve never heard of Liberty prints before, there’s a good chance you’ve seen them somewhere. The eye-catching floral fabrics have been at the forefront of fashion for well over a century, since Arthur Lasenby Liberty left his job at Farmer & Roger’s Great Shawl and Cloak Emporium and opened his own shop in 1875.
The store, on London’s famous Regent Street, imported all sorts of things, from furniture to objets d’art. But it soon became famous for one thing in particular: its fabrics. Artistic types (Oscar Wilde was an early customer) came from far and wide to get decked out by Liberty & Co.
The designs started taking shape a few years later, when Liberty began importing undyed fabrics and having them designed and handprinted in England. Many of the designers were closely aligned with the Art Nouveau and Arts & Crafts movement in the 1890s – so much so that in Italy Art Nouveau is better known as Stile Liberty.
Some of the most enduringly popular Liberty prints date back to the 1920s, when the company started producing more abstract and paisley designs. But as much as the designers have continued to evolve and remain ahead of the fashion curve, they have always remained instantly identifiable as Liberty prints.
That played a big part in maintaining the brand’s popularity throughout the twentieth century, where at various points Liberty prints were used by the likes of Yves Saint Laurent and Vivienne Westwood. A Liberty pattern that screams ‘1920s’ to one person might scream ‘1960s’ to another and ‘1990s’ to another still – and it was probably designed in another decade altogether. They are as close to timeless as you can get.
And these days, the ever-growing library of prints are more popular than ever. The 21st century has seen Liberty pop up everywhere from high fashion to collaborations with streetwear giants like Nike, Uniqlo and Vans. Not to mention, of course, Barkers.
Barkers is carrying a collection of Liberty fabric accessories – ties, bow ties and pocket squares – in addition to the latest range of stunning tailored fit Liberty print shirts.
In 2015, 140 years after Liberty opened his first shop, the Fashion and Textile Museum in London held a major exhibition showcasing some of the company’s hundreds of prints. Much of the exhibition came from the vast collection of Mark and Cleo Butterfield – a collection which has served as a costume wardrobe for films like Eddie Redmayne’s The Danish Girl.
Interviewed about the exhibition, the head of the museum Celia Joicey summed up what it is that makes these prints so enduringly popular, so timeless. “Liberty is steeped in British tradition,” she told The Guardian, “but it has always been – and still is – hugely avant garde.”