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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
His strategy is quite genius if you ask me. Whether he planned it or not, his business model has sustainability at its core. By re-designing vintage pieces, he eliminates a lot of overhead and essentially has little to no production waste. His brand was founded on this idea 10 years ago, before people even knew what sustainability was.
He is definitely way ahead of the fashion curve and has been since he first placed screen printed graphics on polos before anyone else was doing it.
All the animal graphics you see on homogenized fashion out there? Yep, he started that.
The British influenced rock aesthetic you’ve seen so much of over the last few years? He did that first too.
And when I saw his Fall 2011 runway show and the amazing bright colors of the clothes (most of the NYC collections were black and minimal), I knew he was telling the right story for the season. Sure enough, London and Milan rolled around and his palette was a major theme.
I had a ball searching through closets looking at older samples and I kept finding things from a few years ago that I saw on the runways for this Fall. Fur sleeves and feathers were everywhere this season….but Libertine did that a few years ago.
Mongolian fur chubbies from the Gucci show? Yeah he did that awhile back too..
Johnson was also an early leader in the idea of “Brand collaborations”. He was one of the first to work with Target on a collection, he designed a bag for Goyard, tennis shoes for Converse, interiors for Muji, and he has also collaborated with good friend and artist Damien Hirst. (BTW, he also notes some of Fashion’s biggest stars as his friends including Laura and Kate Mulleavy of Rodarte and Thom Browne to name a few).
For his Fall collection, he collaborated with Jean Michel Cazabat on the amazing color blocked spectator heels that we saw in his show. So sad to report that these will not be seen at retail, but we hope it is a sign of things to come in the future.
The excitement of his Fall collection wasn’t just felt by The Sche Report; the line was bought by bigger accounts such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdales for the season.
Currently, Libertine is sold in top stores all over the world including Bergdorf Goodman in NYC, Maxfied in Los Angeles, Colette in Paris, Joyce in Hong Kong, Giselle in Moscow and Harvey Nichols in London.
I became a fan after watching Libertine’s Fall 2011 runway show and I’m a bigger fan now after getting to know Johnson and his team. Working with many designers in my business, I have to say Johnson is the first I have run across that approaches fashion in such an unconventional way and I love people that create their own path and don’t follow the rules. He likes it that way too, he set it up that way, he’s happy and by the looks of his Fall 2011 collection, it shows.