Head of design for Liberty London fashion and accessories, James Millar, is the man behind each new collection of ladies’ scarves in the world-renowned Liberty scarf hall. With the best-selling Tree of Life print about to be reworked, we went behind the scenes in the Liberty design studio to find out how an archive print gets updated.
Is there any symbolism in the print?
Yes, tree of life is a common textile name (in the same way that ‘paisley’ is). The print design is Persian in origin and is meant to reflect life and growth with the tree’s flowers and fruits in full bloom – it is a symbol of fertility. It was first used on Indian chintz fabric; the addition of peacocks at the base of the tree was a Liberty touch.
What is the process when updating an archive print?
Firstly we research other versions of the design (if there are any) as often we combine several versions of a print to make a new one. We also decide the size of the design and what areas we think we can improve. We always have to redraw the whole scarf on the computer from the archive image – this can be very time consuming and can last 3-5 weeks. We then spend several days doing the colourways and editing them down to a final selection, before sending off to the factory for a strike-off print to be done. The whole design process is 5/6 weeks. The whole process, from starting the design to the final selling sample, is approximately three months.
What do you think it is that makes Tree of Life a best-seller?
It represents everything that Liberty is famous for: it’s floral and decorative, it’s exotic and rich, and it’s a conversation starter.
How do you plan to further develop Tree of Life in the future?
We are looking at taking the design into other scarf formats and qualities. For the past few years we have had the design as 140cm x 140cm on wool and now we are taking that same size onto chiffon for AW14 (in-store in July). After that we are doing a long size, 200cm x 70cm in crepe de chine. This meant redrawing the scarf from the beginning to fit in this new format. On this one, we have chosen to re-introduce the small floral border around the edge as per the 1990s version. As it’s our bestselling print we are constantly looking for new ways to use it.
The Liberty archive houses thousands of prints, how do you stay organised when researching and designing in the studio?
It gets quite messy in the design studio, but it is organised! You have to know what you are looking for in order to browse the archive and search using keywords, so therefore it’s not that overwhelming. We don’t look through everything! Also we have core designs that we keep going back to every season so it’s not a 100% new collection every season. The hard thing is editing down… it’s a shame when designs don’t make it to the shop floor but we try to be smart and re-use the artwork again for something else the following season. Nothing is ever wasted and it gives us a head start!
Do you have a favourite era from the Liberty archive?
Yes, the early years when ArthurLiberty was alive 1875-1917 – I love all the exotic textiles imported in this time: Japanese, Chinese, Indian and Moorish fabrics. Also the Bernard Neville (Liberty fabric designer) years in the 1960s – I love his drawing style and the bold use of colour.
What inspires you most when coming up with new ideas for Liberty print?
The archive, of course, and then the history of the company and building. Sometimes it’s the idea of the heritage rather than the actual. As a team we also visit exhibitions in London looking for colour inspiration. We always reference artists/photographers/other creative practices when trying to create new colour stories each season.
Do you or the design team have any Liberty studio essentials?
Magic tape and coffee!
Shop the Tree of Life scarf at Liberty.co.uk
Join us as we explore the history of the dress fabric prints featured in the latest Nike X Liberty collaboration
Whilst we wait with baited breath for the arrival of Nike X Liberty’s latest collection of printed footwear, we turn our attention to the iconic designs featured in the new SS14 range. Some of Nike’s most famous styles have been adorned with seasonal floral and paisley patterns, including the Nike Air Max, Internationalist and Dunk Sky Hi trainers. Though all three signature prints used have been given a modern, fresh blue colourway, this collection of patterns is steeped in Liberty’s design history. Lora, Anoosha and Crown are all either based on, or inspired by the rich heritage found in the Liberty archives. With references to the Aesthetic and Art Deco movements, these decorative designs hark back to a by-gone era, yet play up to some of this season’s hottest trends. Invest in these patterns to ease yourself into the oriental, floral and folk aesthetics synonymous with the SS14 trends.
Lora is based on William Morris’ prolific Willow design from 1874. Appealing to followers of the Aesthetic Movement, this print featured a repeated leaf pattern which was then applied to a range of wallpapers for interior decoration. The theme of the Willow tree and its leaves appears frequently in the oriental inspired objet d’art and furniture of the time. This pull to the East was an attempt to inject new life into the abhorred cheery, chocolate box homewares of the Victorian age, with beauty in nature a prominent visual theme throughout the movement. Liberty’s re-worked 1970s version, used in the Nike collaboration, is reminiscent of the blue and white china that became so popular in the 19th Century. It refers to the Chinoiserie designs of a different time, yet is very in keeping with summer’s fascination with all things Oriental.
Anoosha, originally Floral Blotch, is a typical 1930s floral, completed at Liberty’s Merton Abbey Mills print works. This small, stylised trail print is a good example of the designs of the time, when floral prints of this kind held prominence in women’s fashion. A more free-form style was adopted to produce designs closely allied with the Art Deco movement. Art Deco aimed to move away from more traditional, realistic representations of nature in an attempt to revise existing, outdated ideas about design. Women’s fashion at the time had revisited the romantic, with focus firmly back on the waist, and a neo-classical female figure. This transition can be attributed to the sombre mood the Depression, and was an attempt to regain some of the traditional values lost in the decadent 1920s. Emphasis was placed on the great outdoors and healthy living, with fashion focussed on a range of wearable “sportswear” pieces. Today, you can celebrate this rich heritage with Nike’s Anoosha print trainers, whilst embracing the romantic and sports-luxe trends of the season.
Crown is based on various paisley-style block prints discovered in the Liberty archive. The Paisley motif originates from Persia and India, and has been documented to represent a stylised floral and cypress tree pattern. A symbol of life, a guardian against evil, and a representation of rebellion, this pattern has long been prominent in world-wide fashion history. Imports from colonised India in the 18th and 19th centuries, sparked an obsession amongst the British, which has remained throughout the decades. Notably, this instantly recognisable pattern was closely linked to the psychedelic hippy culture of the late 1960s and 1970s, whose followers turned to the east for spiritual succour and discovery. Today these designs are prevalent in this year’s folklore trend. Revel in this aesthetic with the patchwork and solid designs featured in Nike X Liberty’s new collection.
Shop the SS14 Nike Liberty collection from 7th April 2014, in store and online.
This season, our vast emporium of unique and wonderful treasures and designs from all over the world celebrates its heritage and eclectic collections in the form of a special keepsake. ‘Liberty: British Colour Pattern‘ is a lavishly illustrated book that takes a look into the vaults and archives of our great store and explores the history of our remarkable range of products and prints. Including previously unseen photographs of pieces buried deep in our extensive archive, the book features 135 years of Liberty’s most iconic and groundbreaking textile prints, as well as its collaborations with contemporary artists, fashion designers and illustrators.
Head of Design for the Liberty Design Studio, Emma Mawston, was one of the contributors to the book. We caught up with her to find out how she helped the publishers and authors gather content from the archives and the Design Studio to retell the history of Liberty print.
“This is a historic album of pattern and design for all those who treasure anything artistic and inspiring – especially those who love Liberty. I found the early parts of the book fascinating and learnt wondrous things about Liberty that I was unaware of. It is a work of art to be read over and over again, and each time you pick up on something that you may have missed in previous perusal.
On pages 68 to 87 you’ll find my era of fashion fabrics. We started with hand printed colourways found in my attic, complete with peeling off paint (as we often painted over and over colourways to achieve the desired colour combination). We became masters of colour mixing and discovered which tints mixed best with which. Purple lake was a great base colour. I delved back fifteen years to pull out past collections to give an insight into the brief surrounding each. The most important and relevant collections which most represented each concept were then chosen to be published.
The first collaborator I worked with was Grayson Perry for autumn/ winter 2009, and I can’t think of a more amazing artist to have worked with. Not only did Grayson come up with amazing designs never seen before at Liberty or anywhere else, he also worked each design into perfect repeat by hand. The majority of textile designers struggle to do this. It is very fitting that two pages of the book are dedicated to Grayson where readers can view his sketches of original artworks for the prints Cranford, Sissy and Flo, which are usually only accessible to Liberty and high end customers. Since then we have worked with the most amazing collaborators, not all mentioned in this book but all contributing to the look and ethos of Liberty Art Fabrics.
Just about every designer who has worked within the Liberty Art Fabrics Design Studio has a least one design within the ‘New Direction’ section, representing the diversity of print within this era. We are lucky to be able to draw and research in the most relevant way for each collection, creating original prints from hand drawn artwork.”
Buy the book Liberty: British Colour Pattern
We’ve been having a good rummage through the Liberty archives this week, and came across this retro window by Eric Lucking, who was appointed to take charge of our displays in 1946. Before this each window had been assigned to a separate department, and this was the beginning of our long history of creative and inspiring displays which continue to delight passers by on Great Marlborough Street. Lucking’s work caught the attention of Fortune Magazine in April 1951,
“E. E. Lucking, a leading light in the modern display world, makes of each window a unified composition of form and colour, symbolic, sophisticated, classically simple or dreamily fantastic, sometimes bizarre and surrealist, but always original and imparting to the West End something of that inventive chic belonging to the smartest Continental houses.”
Lucking was one of the first to display male and female mannequins together, and was also fond of unusual props – figures made from wire and straw, bunches of flowers to form heads, and in one memorable case a giraffe with Liberty scarves tied around its neck. The above window was to advertise the Young Liberty boutique, which was opened in 1949.
This Super Hero themed display is one of our favourite ever menswear windows, and treated passers-by back in June 2009.