Wednesday, 2 September 2009

In Praise of Liberty

The Carnaby Street entrance is given a floral makeover
A doll gets a Liberty dress in the Prints Charming exhibition
A fabric covered house was artist Helen Benigson's homage to the classic Liberty print at the Prints Charming exhibition

Even Nike joins the Liberty print party

This Liberty print dress was part of Kate Moss' collection for Topshop

“Meet me in front of the flowers at Liberty.” No further directions needed. Bustling your way off Oxford Street seems to take you back in time, as the Tudor fronted store rises above you. The best time to visit is the evening, when the lights inside glow invitingly and cast a Christmassy twinkle on the street below.
Perhaps my meeting place amid the lilies and roses is poignant, as flowers and Liberty have been unquestionably intertwined for years. Go to the back entrance on Carnaby Street and the message is clear. The brick fronted facade is currently swathed in colourful florals; the iconic Betsy design. This transformation happened over night - whilst everyone was sleeping the Liberty magic was spun, and by morning a fairy dolls house stood at the end of Carnaby Street.
Unfortunately the decoration is only temporary, it celebrates the current Prints Charming exhibition (ending today). Say Liberty, and I picture the shop’s iconic black and white front, the purple bag that whispers luxury and the dark wood, curving staircases inside. But I also cannot help but think of fabric. Vintage-look, floral-covered fabric. And it is a celebration of this fabric that forms the Prints Charming Exhibition. Modern artists were asked to take the traditional designs and rework them in a modern way that was significant to them. A floral clad wendy house, teapot and bike were some of the results. Smiling dolls were dressed in Liberty dresses, and colourful armchairs were patchworked with flowers.
Liberty print fabrics have been around for over a century, since Arthur Liberty started painting fabrics in 1875. Perhaps some of the most iconic are from the 1960s - the dense all over florals that are often described as ‘Liberty print’. Even these, however, would be re-workings of much older designs. Liberty never forgets its heritage.
The prints are scented with nostalgia; chintz curtains that hung in a childhood home, a musty floral scarf dug out from your grandmother’s wardrobe, great-aunts as children in Liberty print dresses. Yet the designs are still desirable, now more so than ever.
The proof is in the Dunks. Last year Nike used the Liberty print fabric to adorn their most famous shoe. For a brand more associated with track and field than flower field, this was perhaps surprising. The shoes were a sell-out. Kate Moss was next to pay homage to the prints, using the florals in her range for Topshop. Liberty passed the Topshop test with flying colours. Not just nostalgic, the Liberty print is very much a la mode. Kate Moss says so.
For me, the Liberty florals embody British style. Taking a twee part of British heritage and messing around with it until it looks entirely new and entirely nostalgic at the same time is something British designers excel at. A reworking of a classic - like Luella giving tweed a sherbet coloured facelift last season. Similarly to tweed, florals have been a part of British style for years. Even before the printing techniques made floral fabrics available, I think the flowers were in our hearts. English roses, primness and optimism.
Liberty is a landmark. Even my french friend knows where to go when I tell her to meet me at the flower stall spilling out from the main entrance. Like the name and the black and white beams, Liberty print fabrics are iconic. And with floral prints not about to disappear any time soon, they remain coveted and stylish, and a treasure of British fashion that is worth celebrating.