Liberty (department store)

Liberty Ltd
Private company
Industry Retail
Genre Department store
Founded 1875 (1875)
Founder Arthur Lasenby Liberty
Headquarters London, W1
United Kingdom
Key people
Ed Burstell (Managing Director)
Products Quality and luxury goods
Services Offering innovative and eclectic designs to the public

Liberty is a department store on Great Marlborough Street in the West End of London which sells luxury goods including women's, men's and children's fashion, cosmetics and fragrances, jewellery, accessories, homeware, furniture, stationery and gifts, and is known for its floral and graphic prints.

Turnover for 2015 was forecasted to be £145 million, up from £132 million in 2014.[1]


Exterior of the store
Liberty art fabrics advertisement, May 1888
View from Argyll Street

Early history

Arthur Lasenby Liberty was born in Chesham, Buckinghamshire in 1843. He was employed by Messrs Farmer and Rogers in Regent Street in 1862, the year of the International Exhibition at Kensington in London. By 1874, inspired by his 10 years of service, Arthur decided to start a business of his own, which he did the next year.

With a £2,000 loan from his future father-in-law, Arthur Liberty accepted the lease of half a shop at 218a Regent Street with only three staff members.

The shop opened during 1875 selling ornaments, fabric and objets d'art from Japan and the East. Within eighteen months Arthur Liberty had repaid the loan and acquired the second half of 218 Regent Street. As the business grew, neighbouring properties were bought and added.

In 1885, 142–144 Regent Street was acquired and housed the ever-increasing demand for carpets and furniture. The basement was named the Eastern Bazaar, and was the vending place for what was described as "decorative furnishing objects". He named the property Chesham House after the place in which he grew up. The store became the most fashionable place to shop in London and Liberty fabrics were used for both clothing and furnishings. Some of its clientele was exotic, and included famous Pre-Raphaelite artists.

In 1884 Liberty introduced the costume department into the Regent Street store, directed by Edward William Godwin (1833–86). Godwin was a distinguished architect. He was a founding member of the Costume Society in 1882. He and Arthur Liberty created in-house apparel to challenge the fashions of Paris.

In November 1885, Liberty brought forty-two villagers from India to stage a living village of Indian artisans. Liberty's specialized in Oriental goods, in particular imported Indian silks, and the aim of the display was to generate both publicity and sales for the store. However, it was a disaster commercially and publicly, with concern about the way the villagers were put on display.

During the 1890s Arthur Lasenby Liberty built strong relationships with many English designers. Many of these designers, including Archibald Knox, practised the artistic styles known as Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau, and Liberty helped develop Art Nouveau through his encouragement of such designers. The company became associated with this new style, to the extent that in Italy, Art Nouveau became known as the Stile Liberty, after the London shop.

The store became one of the most prestigious in London.


The Tudor revival building was built so that trading could continue while renovations were being completed on the other premises and in 1924 this store was constructed from the timbers of two ships: HMS Impregnable (formerly HMS Howe) and HMS Hindustan. The frontage on Great Marlborough Street is the same length as the Hindustan. It is a Grade II* listed building.

The emporium was designed by Edwin Thomas Hall and his son Edwin Stanley Hall. They designed the building at the height of the 1920s fashion for Tudor revival. The shop was engineered around three light wells that formed the main focus of the building. Each of these wells was surrounded by smaller rooms to create a homely feel. Many of the rooms had fireplaces and some still exist.

The architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner was very critical of the building's architecture, saying: "The scale is wrong, the symmetry is wrong. The proximity to a classical façade put up by the same firm at the same time is wrong, and the goings-on of a store behind such a façade (and below those twisted Tudor chimneys) are wrongest of all".[2]

Arthur Lasenby Liberty died in 1917, seven years before the completion of his shops.


Liberty, during the 1950s, continued its tradition for fashionable and eclectic design. All departments in the shop had a collection of both contemporary and traditional designs. New designers were promoted and often included those still representing the Liberty tradition for handcrafted work.

In 1955, Liberty began opening several regional stores in other UK cities; the first of these was in Manchester.[3] Subsequent shops opened in Bath, Brighton, Chester, York and Norwich.

During the 1960s, extravagant and Eastern influences once again became fashionable, as well as the Art Deco style, and Liberty adapted its furnishing designs from its archive.

In 1996, Liberty announced the closure of all of its department stores outside London, and instead focused on small shops at airports.[3]

Since 1988, Liberty has had a subsidiary in Japan which sells Liberty-branded products in major Japanese shops. It also sells Liberty fabrics to international and local fashion stores with bases in Japan.


Liberty's London store was sold for £41.5million and then leased back by the firm in 2009, to pay off debts ahead of a sale.[4] Subsequently, in 2010, Liberty was taken over by private equity firm BlueGem Capital in a deal worth £32million.[5]


From 2 December 2013, Liberty was the focus of a three-part hour-long episode documentary series titled "Liberty of London", airing on Channel 4.[6][7] The documentary follows Ed Burstell (Managing Director) and the department's retail team in the busy lead up to Christmas 2013.[6][8]

Channel 4 further commissioned a second series of said documentary on 28 October 2014. This series featured four, one hour-long episodes based on six months worth of unprecedented footage. Series two commenced on 12 November 2014.[9]


Liberty has a history of collaborative projects – from William Morris and Gabriel Dante Rossetti in the nineteenth century to Yves Saint Laurent and Dame Vivienne Westwood in the twentieth. Recent collaborations include brands such as Nike, Dr. Martens, Hello Kitty, Barbour, House of Hackney, Vans, Onia, Manolo Blahnik and Uniqlo.

See also

References and sources

  1. Hendriksz, Vivian (2015-06-01). "Liberty's owners set their sights on a future floatation". FashionUnited. Retrieved 2015-06-09.
  2. Bridget Cherry and Nikolaus Pevsner (1973). The Buildings of England – London 1: The Cities of London and Westminster (third edition). London: Penguin Books. p. 579. ISBN 0 14 0710 12 4.
  3. 1 2 Blanchard, Tamsin (1996-06-13). "Has Liberty finally lost the thread?". The Independent. Retrieved 2013-05-30.
  4. Fletcher, Nick (2010-03-15). "Retailer Liberty agrees sale of flagship store for £41.5m". The Guardian. Retrieved 2013-05-30.
  5. Kollewe, Julia (2010-06-28). "Liberty's new owner sets out plans for growth". The Guardian. Retrieved 2013-05-30.
  6. 1 2 Jones, Nina (20 December 2013). "'Liberty of London' a Hit in the U.K.". WWD. Retrieved 20 December 2013.
  7. "Liberty of London". Channel 4. 2 December 2013. Retrieved 9 December 2013.
  9. "Liberty of London – Series 2". Channel 4. 28 October 2014. Retrieved 6 November 2014.

Alison Adburgham, Liberty's – A biography of a shop, George Allen and Unwin (1975)

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Coordinates: 51°30′50″N 0°08′25″W / 51.5139°N 0.1402°W / 51.5139; -0.1402

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