LIBERTY BETS ON WOMEN’S

Byline: James Fallon

LONDON — Liberty is hoping women’s wear will jump-start its brand.
The venerable London retailer and manufacturer, which relaunched its private label women’s line for fall, is taking a major step forward for spring 2000.
It is staging a runway show today during London Fashion Week and plans to set up Liberty shops-in-shops in major department and specialty stores worldwide. Liberty also will show at the Fashion Coterie in New York.
The new women’s wear line is part of a major revamp being overseen by Michele Jobling, who joined Liberty as managing director in March 1998 after a series of senior management jobs at such other British retailers as Kingfisher, Tesco and J. Sainsbury.
Jobling helped draw up a five-year plan for the Liberty brand, which includes a $16.2 million remodeling of its Regent Street flagship here; the installation of a new design team to oversee Liberty’s women’s wear, accessories and home furnishings collections, and the launch of a mail-order catalog and an e-commerce Internet site.
“We aim to take all the old and traditional values of the Liberty brand and bring them into the modern world,” Jobling said in an interview at the Liberty showrooms.
The company needed it. Liberty in the last few years has been racked by disagreements among the Stewart-Liberty family shareholders (Elizabeth Stewart-Liberty continues to control 13.1 percent) and turmoil surrounding a bid for the company by investor Brian Myerson, who now owns 16.8 percent of Liberty. Overexpansion in the Eighties and a lack of focus on the brand cost Liberty aftertax losses in three of the last four years.
Last week, Liberty reported reduced aftertax losses of $2.5 million on almost flat sales of $50.6 million for the half ending July 31. This compares with aftertax losses of $3.2 million on sales of $50.8 million in the corresponding period a year earlier.
The losses stemmed from Liberty’s retail operations, however. Its wholesale business recorded profits before tax and interest of $1.1 million on a 34.3 percent increase in sales to $12.3 million. The growth was fueled by increased business in Japan.
Liberty also benefited from a strong performance by its fabric operations in the first half, and the company believes that is the key to the success of its women’s wear line.
“The big thing is the excellence of the fabric development,” said Clare Johnston, head of design. “We want to develop weaves and prints that give the collection its own handwriting.”
For spring-summer, that handwriting includes a new abstract print called Cosmic Tartan, little Fair Isle knits, narrow taffeta striped tops, a long linen floral print skirt and a reinterpretation of its traditional Tana Lawn floral print, which is used on everything from long coats to trim on camisole tops. Colors range from natural tans and creams to iridescent pinks and greens.
Liberty will launch a new line of bags and shoes in Liberty prints for spring. The shoes were designed with Jimmy Choo.
The collection is aimed at the bridge market. Pants will retail for about $200, long skirts for about $325 and long jackets for about $525.
“We want customers to be able to buy a whole outfit for $800,” Jobling said. “Our target market is the 35-year-old affluent woman who works and who follows fashion, but isn’t a slave to it. She’s more interested in the intrinsic worth of a garment than in whether it’s exactly the right thing of the moment.”
The same philosophy applies to all Liberty products, she said. The company continues to expand its successful scarf and gift lines and is examining expanding its home furnishings line to include more furniture and silver and glass. Liberty was a major force behind British design from the Twenties through the Seventies, and Jobling’s goal is to regain that influence.
“We don’t see ourselves as a department store doing private label collections,” Jobling said. “We have our own designers and our own fabric manufacturing. We’re a lifestyle brand. The Regent Street store is the first home of the Liberty brand, but it isn’t the only home.”