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When Libertine returns to New York Fashion Week after a two-year hiatus, audiences will notice a significant volte-face. For starters, designer Johnson Hartig taking a solo bow.

This story first appeared in the February 3, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

He and Libertine co-founder Cindy Greene first made waves with their screen-printed vintage clothes when the Los Angeles-based label launched in 2001. They were named finalists in the 2004 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, and, along the way, found a serious fan in Karl Lagerfeld, who reportedly owned 19 Libertine jackets. But in 2009, the pair split. “We were growing in different directions,” says Hartig. “Cindy wanted to close the company down altogether — she was interested in doing other things — but I wanted to continue.”

Hartig resumed designing the clothes on his own, but didn’t feel the time was right for a splashy (and public) return. Until now. “It’s a comeback,” says Hartig, who will show 25 women’s looks and eight for men on Feb. 12 at Exit Art. “A lot of people thought Libertine had just gone away. This is going to be a real departure for them.”

Libertine still revolves around screen prints and reworked vintage, but now the look is more electric and loaded with color — coats, dresses, blouses and skirts are artily splashed in vivid blues, fuchsias and greens. And though the effect could read as an Indian Holi celebration, the inspiration actually stems from a trip Hartig took to Istanbul last October. “There was a wall of white tiles next to a wall of pink and blue ones — the effect was dazzling,” he recalls. “I wanted to recreate that within an ensemble.” Hartig also lifted patterns from some of the ancient tiles, riffing on classic Islamic pomegranate and tiger stripe motifs.

Still, Hartig says he’s striving for something even more abstract, especially when it comes to Libertine’s prints. He ditched the illustrated graphics that the brand was known for (skulls, busts of Queen Elizabeth II) and is now deconstructing new ones “so they become almost part of the fabric,” he says, noting that he’s shooting for a more refined Bloomsbury feel versus the brand’s familiar WASP sensibility. “Personally, I’ve been going through a real growth spurt the past couple of years and the collection is indicative of that. It feels like a really complete, mature collection to me.”

The fall offerings also include accessories — floral brooches, fingerless gloves and graphic tights, as well as Libertine’s first entrée into footwear, via a collaboration with Jean-Michel Cazabat. A home collection of bedsheets, towels, rugs and furniture is also in the works, which Hartig hopes to sell through HSN or QVC (details and a time frame have yet to be confirmed). “In a lot of ways, I’m a frustrated decorator,” he remarks.

As it turns out, Hartig’s former partner is heading down a similar route. Although Greene said she initially left Libertine because she wanted to start a children’s line in the same vintage-meets-silkscreening vein (working name: Libertini), she eventually abandoned that idea and, in 2010, opened her own interior design firm in New York. She’s currently revamping Bon Appétit editor in chief Adam Rapoport’s new Condé Nast office, as well as Arden Wohl’s apartment in NoHo.

So now that Greene and Hartig are both delving into interior design, could they team up again? “No,” responds Greene without skipping a beat, yet still making clear that there’s no bad blood. “Oh, c’mon, what do you think?” she says when pressed for gossip. “Sure, we had our difficulties, but it’s all good now. I’m glad he’s doing well.” To prove it, she plans to attend Hartig’s first solo show.

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