December 05 2009
Lucia van der Post
“What I discovered when I came to Liberty,” says chief executive Geoffroy de La Bourdonnaye, “was that there was a huge love out there among the public for the store.” Which, given that he was landed with what some might have considered a poisoned chalice – the task of turning round the Regent Street store that for some 20 years or more had flailed its way through endless upheavals and had not turned a profit for several years – must have been something of a consolation. Love, after all, is very powerful and, if properly nurtured, can be mobilised. And it is true that Liberty is indeed a much-loved store. It’s one of those quintessentially English institutions that even those who have never set foot inside it would hate to see go.
Liberty was founded in 1875 by Arthur Lasenby Liberty, who started selling ornaments, carpets, fabrics and objets d’art from Japan and South Asia. Those were the days when British merchant adventurers sallied forth into the far corners of the world and came back loaded with treasures that seemed exotic and wonderful to those who’d never left their little parish. It played a large part in forming taste and contributing to what came to be called an “eclectic” English style, dependent on layering and the accumulation of exotic objects: battered trunks from Beijing, vivid silks from Bangkok, woven rugs from Nepal, great ginger jars from China.
But that is history, and de La Bourdonnaye’s task in the year 2007 was to rescue and restore this little jewel. It’s no secret that it has struggled, though not for want of effort. So when de La Bourdonnaye arrived some two years ago, fresh from four years with LVMH, preceded by 13 years at Disney, it must have seemed a daunting task. “While it was loved by the public,” he explains, “inside the store the years of difficulties had left many feeling depressed and disillusioned. I also discovered that there was no single vision. The three arms – the own-brand Liberty of London products, the store itself and the fabrics – didn’t seem to work together. I decided that I had to unite the team round one brand, round its DNA.”
He must have done something right for, as Liberty’s buying director Ed Burstell puts it, “We’re defying gravity.” In other words, in the midst of an economic downturn the store experienced double-digit growth in the first half of this year, with sales up nearly 20 per cent, resulting in the turning of a small profit (before interest and taxes). So how has he achieved what must seem like a miracle?
He was lucky to have been encouraged by Richard Balfour-Lynn, the chief executive of Marylebone Warwick Balfour, which owns 68 per cent of Liberty, to act fast and energetically. Dead wood had to be weeded out. “Do it fast and do it deep,” were Balfour-Lynn’s instruction to his new chief executive. “I had to have everybody working together and believing in what we wanted to do,” says de La Bourdonnaye.
But first he had to decide what Liberty was all about, what its DNA stood for. And since de La Bourdonnaye is a Frenchman and his buying director, Ed Burstell, has come hotfoot from New York’s Bergdorf Goodman, it’s interesting to note that it’s two foreigners who are busily engaged in reviving such a quintessentially English brand. “Distance provides perspective,” says de La Bourdonnaye. “When you come in new you see things fresh, and perhaps you are more taken with the history. I always associated Liberty with the 1960s, with Flower Power. And, for me, those are still the values of Liberty – love and rebellion combined. The 1960s were a time of great activity in music, street art, fashion and furniture, and that’s where Liberty needs to be today – always engaged with the creative world, with the avant-garde, the slightly edgy.”
So there we have it: it’s not a “ladies who lunch” kind of place. It’s for those who work in advertising, media, fashion, design, graphics. It’s for those whose tastes run a little bit to the experimental but who above all are open-minded. Those who buy what they like and don’t mind what others think. Think Freida Pinto, the young star of Slumdog Millionaire, who de La Bourdonnaye believes captures the essence of the brand perfectly. “She’s an emerging, young, very beautiful Indian actress who’s made it to Hollywood. She’s perfect. After all, East India House was the original name of the store.”
The other thing both de La Bourdonnaye and Burstell believe in is exclusivity. They want brands nobody else has got. They want to catch them when they’re young and vibrant, and introduce them to their customers. They believe in nurturing local talent, so last April they held an open day when their buyers would see anybody and everybody who turned up with a product to sell. Some 700 (mostly) young people showed up and waited patiently in line to be seen. In all, the store took on only about 20 products, but check them out and it becomes clear how worthwhile the exercise was. There’s a wonderfully charming eco bag by Lost Property of London for £50 – it’s edgy all right, and packed full of urban chic. There’s a beautiful and quirky silk scarf by Michael Birch, which uses inspiration found in pop culture and so is a million miles from the conventional number so beloved of the landed gentry. It’s also pretty and fresh, and it sells for £130. Then there are the gold-topped ceramic milk bottles (£45 by Shan Valla), and a parachute anorak by Christopher Raeburn (£400) so cool it could easily be by Prada. (Anybody interested in turning up to the next open day should make themselves available on the weekend of January 30.)
At the same time, Burstell has been charged with jazzing up the jewellery department in particular (anybody who has drooled – as I have – over Bergdorf Goodman’s jewellery department will understand why) and already it’s brimming with life and a whole raft of designers little-known to the British public. There are Diana Broussard’s chunky pieces in rose gold (from £105), Eddie Borgo’s street- and music-inspired wares (very cool, from £150) as well as delicate designs by the House of Waris (from £3,210), which specialises in using intricate fine gold netting to encase coloured stones. And that’s just to scratch the surface. Burstell and his team have taken jewellery upmarket, creating a more adventurous, design-led collection. Now taking centre stage on the ground floor, there are eye-catching displays and some of the gorgeous ethnic pieces are particularly dazzling. As Burstell says, “I thought Liberty was one of the last great emporia left on earth – but that it needed dusting off.” Which is exactly what he’s doing.
Meanwhile, scarves are one of the hits of the season; an instant way of updating an outfit and a uniquely democratic accessory available to all. They account for an astonishing 15 per cent of the store’s business. Go into the department and you’ll immediately see why. It’s buzzing. In the centre a zebra head oversees the proceedings – “We chose it,” says de La Bourdonnaye, “because the zebra is very good at discovering new pastures, and because we felt that, like the zebra crossing, we were at a junction.” From September 7 to October 18, a pop-up Hermès shop appeared, selling a collaborative range of traditional Hermès designs printed onto Liberty’s Tana Lawn cotton and hosting workshops to show people how to loop, tie and knot.
But besides that, there are all sorts of other scarves well worth investigating: Ronnie Wood’s vivid paintings have been turned into vibrant scarves (from £110, as well as T-shirts, dresses and leather bags), Grayson Perry has collaborated on a scarf collection (from £20) and some of the less well-known labels are also worth a second look. The German line from Ebony and Ivory (from £199) is wonderful – every single scarf is unique, made from several different fine fabrics sewn together to create something strangely different. One bears a quotation from Oscar Wilde (£240) that seems to reinforce everything that de La Bourdonnaye and his team are working towards – “Liberty is the chosen resort of the artistic shopper.”
Furniture and design have always been Liberty specialities. As in jewellery and accessories, you’ll find the avant-garde – with Squint furniture and the Swedish brand Svenskt Tenn being some of the most original, but look out too for Deadgood’s Wire table light (£300) and intricately worked cushions by Margo Selby (from £50).
The beauty counters have also championed small, niche, precious brands, whether it be Frédéric Malle and Serge Lutens’ perfumes, Omorovicza’s Hungarian-inspired balms and creams (from £45), Le Métier de Beauté’s artisanal make-up range (from £13) or Green & Spring’s bath and shower gels (£45 a set). And it’s the same whether you turn to shoes, underwear or fashion, now under the buying direction of Yasmin Sewell, ex-Browns.
What Burstell and de La Bourdonnaye seem determined to do is provide their customers with a carefully edited collection of products that share the same essential ingredients of being fresh, adventurous, quirky and desirable. So in among some well-known names (Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney – the adventurous end, you could say, of the fashion establishment) you’ll find a whole bunch of labels you’ve never heard of. Opening Ceremony (from £165), for instance, with its quirky take on Americana, Isabel Marant Etoile (from £95), the Parisian street-scene queen, Raquel Allegra’s layered and distressed cotton and jersey from LA (from £195), Sharon Wauchob’s delicate take on everyday dressing (from £195).
Which is just as it should be. Arthur Liberty opened the eyes of the British public to a world beyond their shores. He brought them treasures from across the sea. “We want this to be a place of discovery,” says de La Bourdonnaye. “We see ourselves as the curators of the exclusive and the avant-garde in fashion, design and beauty.” So he and his team are busy unearthing treasures very much nearer home and some of them look likely to find just as strong a niche in the hearts of the great British public as anything Arthur Liberty ever found. Liberty has always been a store apart – quirkier and more tightly edited than Selfridges, less slickly metropolitan than Harvey Nichols, artier and more creatively inclined than Harrods. Long may it remain so.