Johnson Hartig seems a little overwhelmed, and more than a little giddy, when he steps back to take a moment to celebrate Libertine’s 20th anniversary this year.
“It’s remarkable for a little company to have made it this long,” he said in a call from his Los Angeles studio on the eve of his spring show during New York Fashion Week. Even more remarkable, he said, is that he’s “never taken a dollar of financing” to create and produce his women’s and men’s collection, “and it’s been profitable since Day One.” That comes in spite of the fact that he’s also received “very little support from the mainstream fashion industry.”
Instead, Hartig attributes Libertine’s success to his ability to translate a “really unique idea” into reality. “We’ve always forged our own path, done exceptionally creative things and in the end have seen that authenticity can’t be replicated and I think that’s why the business has grown so tremendously over the past few years,” he said. “We work really hard keeping it fresh and have one of the most devoted client bases” that flock to his personal appearances and trunk shows around the country.
Those rabid customers are first in line to snap up Libertine’s highly embellished dresses, jackets, suits and other pieces in Hartig’s signature eye-poppingly colored prints on one-of-a-kind pieces created from vintage fabrics and emblazoned with everything from skulls and flowers to fruits and spiderwebs.
Although Libertine is usually inspired by Hartig’s world travels, the pandemic put a screeching halt to any plans to visit far-flung places this year. But that didn’t stop this self-described “ideas person,” from coming up with the concept of “Ghosts From Our Past” for his spring line.
“This is one of the collections I’ve been most excited about for a while now,” he said. Because of the anniversary, Hartig decided to “take it back to the early Libertine days.” He broke out his mother’s Fifties-era Singer sewing machine and got to work. “It felt so good to do that again,” he said, recalling how the brand’s first designs were produced on that machine. “I was a lot more hands-on this time, and early Libertine fans will recognize that. It feels like the first year, but it also feels fresh.”
As an example, he offered up printed khakis this time around, “and I haven’t done that for 15 years.” He also revisited the skull-and-crossbones and whale motif prints that he used for his Target collaboration in 2007 and created crystals that he placed on khaki chinos and cashmere sweaters. This speaks to “the current state of the planet, and just feels so right,” he said.
Hartig also dug out some 18th-century toile remnants with tiny skeletons hidden within the print that he’d purchased at a flea market in Paris 20 years ago and re-created the print in patchwork patterns “and added classic macabre Libertine imagery,” he said. On Twenties and Thirties button card print, Hartig sewed on vintage buttons to create a trompe l’oeil effect, and he also created a jacket with a ruffle on the shoulder and covered buttons that he described as a “twill monster.”
Looking ahead, Hartig said that despite losing almost $400,000 as a result of the Neiman Marcus bankruptcy, he sees a bright future for Libertine.
Asked what his goal was for the next 20 years, Hartig said: “My goal for the next five years is to figure out where we’re going.” Although he’s been independent for most of his career, he revealed he’s now “working with advisers, talking to investors and [exploring] licensing deals.” His popular collaboration last year with Schumacher, the home fabric and wallpaper company, is being offered again this year and he’s eager to continue to expand his reach in home furnishings such as rugs, tabletops, linens and more.
So two decades in, Hartig is still going strong. “It all feels exciting, even in this dark time. I feel proud that in 20 years, we’ve done it our own way. We’ve been fashion outsiders and we haven’t followed the rules. If I’ve learned anything at all over the last 20 years, it would be: the power of manifesting your dreams and to be careful what you wish for. Through having a great idea, drive, a nonstop creative mind, lots of work, and some very committed people beside me, we have created something very powerful.”