Today marks 20 years since Libertine made its runway debut, and—to borrow a phrase from the Grateful Dead—“What a long, strange trip it’s been.” And so it continues to be.
Founded in 2001 by Johnson Hartig with Cindy Greene, who left the company in 2009, that first collection was made up of silk-screened vintage garments. The brand continues to hand-print and bedazzle pieces in its Los Angeles atelier, but these days vintage inspires silhouettes and motifs, such as fall’s archival lip print. Likewise, decorative buttons were based on historic ones. These could be found scattered across coats and adorning some dramatic sunglasses, which had a pretty fantastic fabulous back story. Hartig explained that during several hypnosis sessions someone named “Peggy” was present; she finally revealed herself to be Peggy Guggenheim. It’s no stretch at all to imagine the eccentric art patron gravitating towards Libertine’s joyous, colorful clothes.
Another larger-than-life personality referenced in the collection was Lord Byron. Lines from his 1816 poem “Darkness” were printed black on ivory and ivory on black on fabric that was made into suits to which Hartig added bondage straps, recalling a much later era of British rebellion, ’70s punk. Hartig’s photo collages and patchworks could even be seen as an extension of that subculture’s DIY. He’s less aligned, however, with the slash-and-burn aspect of the movement. Hartig is a magpie at heart and his natural instinct is to gather and collect. This continuous layering of meaning and references is one of the secrets of Libertine’s longevity; it animates the collections, each of which is like a diary of the designer’s obsessions.
This season a blown-up houndstooth check referenced an Adolfo piece in Hartig’s archives; there were some homages to the great French romantic maximalist Emanuel Ungaro as well. An image of Hartig himself could be found in one of his prints, alongside several friends of the house, his dogs, and belonging of the Libertine staff, which were scattered across study plaid coats in a medley of autumnal browns.
The show closed with variations on the house’s surreal “five senses” motif. This featured floating eyes, noses and lips rendered using Ben-Day dots, which were popularized by Pop artists who borrowed from a mechanized 19th-century printing technique. Proof that the brand really does appeal to the senses was provided by the audience which, as usual, was full of people wearing their own Libertine. Backstage, Hartig said he’s never given his clothes away or paid anyone to don them. What better testament to success could a designer ask for?