Let’s start with a pretty amazing fact: Liberty has 43,000 prints in its archive. Luckily they are not all on show at the London Fashion and Textile Museum’s new show, Liberty in Fashion but there is an inspiring selection highlighting the trends that Liberty fabrics have inspired since Arthur Lasenby Liberty founded the business 140 years ago. Liberty’s current Managing Director, Ed Burstell, points to this fact to demonstrate the power of a consistent vision. Promoted to his position after private equity firm, Blue Gem Capital bought Liberty in 2010, he is acutely conscious of the commercial value of its heritage but equally firm in his resolve to remain authentic to the brand and somewhat eccentric reputation of the store.
He has initiated a series of wildly successful collaborations that have put Liberty prints onto Hermes scarves, Doc Martens boots, Nike trainers, Levis jeans and Terry de Havilland platforms and, at a recent appearance in conversation with FTM’s Celia Joicey, hinted that another was to come next spring with a big high street retailer beginning with “U”.
Mr Burstell has just published his memoirs, At Liberty, and they are a great read because he is a rather amazing character. In person he is charismatic, but with the suggestion that there is much more going on behind his piercing gaze than he might say. He is the most unlikely accountant you may ever meet but retail is his passion and he is extremely good at it. He came to Liberty in 2008 as Buying Director after already working in many of the glitziest names in New York stores: Bloomingdales, Henri Bendel, Bonwit Teller and ultimately Bergdorf Goodman. He says he was attracted to Liberty because his skill is in building or re-building businesses.
He has certainly transformed Liberty, re-opening the scarf hall, front and centre on the Ground Floor; devoting an entire floor to the famous fabrics, and introducing a new generation of customers to its delights through the UK TV documentary series and through the brand collaborations. He still isn’t finished: he wants to develop the roof space into something beautiful – a garden, a club, a restaurant? He wants to sell the fabrics to other international department stores. He would love to collaborate with Lanvin or Marc Jacobs. As he talks about these ideas he becomes more and more animated, exuding verve and excitement. When asked why he doesn’t start his own business he seems genuinely surprised by the question and it is clear that Liberty is still capturing his imagination.
He is also admirably committed to identifying and supporting design and artisan talent with Liberty’s Best of British Open Call. Since 2009, this annual event has given designers and craftworkers the opportunity to pitch their products to have them showcased on Liberty’s shelves. Some have gone on to become best-selling brands for the store, including Alexandra Mann printed washbags, Silken Favours’s gorgeously kitsch silk prints and True Rocks jewellery. So clearly, the benefits are felt as much by Liberty as by the artisans. What is his advice to young designers, emerging from college? The retail sector is a tough environment: don’t rush to start your own label but take your time, serve an apprenticeship with an established brand and learn as much as you can about the commercial side of fashion. It is advice that comes from a retailer that helped to support designers like Mary Katrantzou, Peter Pilotto and Alice Temperley but also from hard experience in the rapidly evolving retail environment.
So what is the secret of Mr Burstell’s success? “Continue to be curious about life.” It is a sentiment at the heart of Liberty’s culture too, selling vintage and ethnic objects alongside avant guard and emerging designers. In Mr Burstell it has found its ideal champion.
Liberty in Fashion is at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum until 28 February 2016. It features some wonderful clothing: a gorgeous blue velvet opera coat; an array of 1940s print tea dresses like a magnificent bouquet; punchy 1960s floral prints; soft-focus 1970s bohemian dresses; and a pair of seriously lovely Jimmy Choo heels. There is also a room dedicated to the Liberty fabric designers, Susan Collier and Sarah Campbell, responsible for some of the most iconic prints.