A Historical Look at Liberty London

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From world-famous ateliers to designer hotspots, Historical Interiors is your weekly column for iconic decor, rare residential imagery, and cultural fashion landmarks.

Arthur Lasenby Liberty, the founder of legendary department store Liberty London, was forward thinking when it came to style. His vision? “I was determined not to follow existing fashions but to create new ones,” he said.

The store began began in 1875 with Liberty himself at the helm and only three staff members at its location on Regent Street in the West End. Though he only had a £2,000 loan from his future father-in-law to bring his ideas to life, Liberty harbored dreams of offering luxury goods and fabrics from faraway places, like a ship that has docked in the city streets. With that, the retailer amassed a vast range of merchandise from around the world to sell in Central London. In fact, he was so successful that he repaid the loan within 18 months. As demand grew, Liberty bought more adjacent properties to accommodate his well-edited stock of fashion and furnishings.

Centuries later, the extraordinary architecture of the emporium today includes several neighboring buildings acquired from business growth. Just as their founder’s original concept, their structural style borrows elements from ships: Edwin T. Hall and his son Edwin S. Hall designed the stately Tudor revival building and over 24,000 cubic feet of ship timber from old battleships—formerly deck flooring—became the Liberty shop floors. The entire store as everyone knows it today was completed in 1924.

The inner and outer details of Liberty make it a special place right from the moment anyone walks into the vicinity. A vibrant, fragrant flower market at the main entrance on Great Marlborough Street greets passers-by on the sidewalk and at the doors. And the inside feels like a well-loved home with creaky wooden staircases, glass paintings, and one of the longest chandeliers in Europe dangling in the main atrium. Fireplaces—some that still work—stand in a few rooms, and for those who need a break from browsing the racks, the staff at Arthur’s restaurant serves classic afternoon tea complete with scones, sandwiches, and pastries.

Alas, Liberty London is unlike your typical department store. Among its redeeming qualities, it repeatedly tops shopping lists in London. The reasons—even after one visit—have always been clear: this grand dame of retail with a posh British accent welcomes shoppers from around the world especially at the height of gift-giving season in winter. The shop’s own designer line, printed fabrics, and other high-end luxury brands make it a style destination. If lucky, it’s possible to spot a celebrity or two here like Naomi Watts or Victoria and David Beckham.

English model Erin O’Connor once admitted that Liberty is her favorite department store: “I just love the experience of wandering around that beautiful old building. It’s an institution—it’s very representative of that quirky British style.” She gushed that,”It’s got that spirit as soon as you step into that main entrance—I defy anybody not to want to do a full lap.” And she’s not alone–the store has a tradition of collaboration with the like of actress and cult style icon Chloë Sevigny, Kate Moss, and burlesque star Dita Von Teese, as well as brands from Supreme to Uniqlo.

To do a proper store tour is to visit all six floors. Each level today has something enticing for home and fashion, from the basement where the men’s collections are up until the top floor where home furnishings can be found. The ground floor houses its thoughtfully curated beauty section, and it’s the same place where customers can peruse Liberty silk scarves, printed bags—like their iconic Iphis tote—and purses. Up on the third floor are bolts of their famed fabric, shelved on display and sold by the meter.

A part from its history, it’s easy to be charmed by the space just on appearances alone. To step inside its impressive architecture is to be spellbound, and a repeat visit is likely to be guaranteed.

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