Aspire To Inspire

BEHIND THE COLLECTION: JOHNSON HARTIG OF LIBERTINE

My team and I had the extreme pleasure of visiting Johnson Hartig in his studio recently (which sits high above Hollywood with a view of the entire city) to find out more about his spectacular Fall 2011 collection for Libertine and his inspiration for the season.

Before we even met face to face, I knew I was in for a real treat.  Johnson is the type of character that I love: he’s generous, outlandish, funny, un-conventional and a creative genius.  He doesn’t follow the rules, he doesn’t play the game, he’s in it for the sheer pleasure of creativity and when he hits the mark, he is humble and gracious.

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Johnson in his studio

Johnson has braved a path that many other designers have not been able to achieve.  Although he has been in business for 10 years, he still has only a few people on his team. He takes naps everyday.  They have 3 day weekends… regularly.  He puts out only two collections a year so he has time to think and be creative in a way that most designers today aren’t allowed to because of the demands of multiple seasons. He doesn’t follow trends nor does he even know when he produces them. For Fall, he hit the target on many without even knowing:  plaid, sequins, bright colors, textured legwear, high heeled spectator shoes, ladylike tweed jackets, luxe grunge, floral appliques, shift dresses and lots of layers.

 BEHIND THE COLLECTION:  JOHNSON HARTIG OF LIBERTINE   The Sche Report / Margaret Sche

Libertine Fall 2011 runway look

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Looking through the runway looks was amazing!

Johnson is an avid art fan ( Damien Hirst, Hockney, Picasso and Henry Moore to name just a few) and gets his inspiration from art as well as all sorts of other places.  He doesn’t come up with big conceptual ideas for his collections, the ideas usually just come to him fast and then he runs with it.  For Fall he noted post WWI German Expressionism as an inspiration which prompted the screen-printed block pattern that you see throughout the entire collection.

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A vintage Chanel suit re-designed by LIbertine with Fall's block screen print

Since the start of the collection, Libertine has been based on the idea of screen-printing on vintage apparel.  It actually all started when Johnson wore a shirt that he had made to the Hollywood club Les Deux and the buyer of Maxfield approached him.  At the time, the shirts were just re-worked vintage. Shortly after, he met up with his then partner, Cindy Greene (the pair amicably split 2 years ago), who taught him how to develop screen prints.  Their new collaboration featuring silk screened animals and dark imagery prompted Fred Segal’s interest and their first collection of shirts sold within 45 minutes at the store.

For years after that, Libertine became a huge success with its Gothic meets British meets Sex Pistols aesthetic. Everyone from Anna Wintour to Karl Lagerfeld were taking note and at one point Karl’s entire design team was sporting Libertine as their daily uniform.  At a certain point, Libertine’s aesthetic got over-exposed through various mainstream fashion channels that copied his signature Gothic skull print, and Johnson took a step back (as per Lagerfeld’s advice) and decided to re-invigorate the brand with an updated aesthetic.

The concept of Libertine utilizes vintage apparel to serve as a canvas for its dominant silk screens.  They have always been known for their woven shirts (which are not vintage and are produced in house), as well as tweed jackets, which Johnson takes apart and re-works by cutting off the sleeves and the hem and adding more shape.  For the Fall 2011 season, Johnson also sent out tweed coats and dresses, sequins jackets, tulle and taffeta as a canvas for the bright plaid screen print.

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What is most interesting about the line is that Johnson’s approach is to design a screen print rather than actual garments.  Each collection has a print that is then placed all over the vintage pieces that he pulls together. After the screen print is designed, he then sources the vintage pieces that he wants to represent his styled aesthetic. This in turn produces a one-of-a-kind distribution when it comes to selling his product at retail.  The selling approach is a bit different, with buyers selecting the color of the screen print first and then the silhouette they prefer it on.  This gives Johnson some room to be more flexible in his design approach and also gives each piece more cache’ as they are all hand done by him, not made in a factory.

Take a look at Johnson and his assistant Jimmy in the studio walking us through their printing process:

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