In 1875, after working with women’s fashion specialist Farmer & Rogers for ten years, Arthur Liberty decided to launch his own shop selling ornaments, fabric and objects d’art from Japan and the East. Occupying a small portion of 218a Regent Street, his company quickly gained a reputation for providing the finest examples of items from the Japonism movement, and many other popular styles at the time.
By 1884, this small store was creating its own in-house apparel that rivalled the finest garments and fabrics of Paris, and became synonymous with the art nouveau movement that was dominating Western Europe. Forging strong relationships with many British designers, the company developed a reputation for producing iconic graphic and floral prints that it maintains to this day, as well as providing a wide range of luxury goods.
In 2014, Rapha met with designers at Liberty to discuss the combination of Rapha’s state-of-the-art technical products with a print from the store’s influential archive for a new women’s collection: Rapha + Liberty.
“Historically, Rapha haven’t featured many prints, so we didn’t want to simply go for the obvious choice of putting a small floral design on a jersey,” says Robin Hulme, senior designer at Liberty.
“We have an archive of roughly 40,000 prints that dates back to the early 20th century, and when people think of Liberty, they will usually picture small florals – which is correct – but there’s a huge amount of other prints that don’t get used. I really liked the idea of speed on the bike, and wanted the print to give the illusion of motion and speed, which matched the theme of ‘flight’ that Rapha has set for its women’s collections this year. With the help of Anna Buruma, our archivist, we tried to find something that matched Rapha’s aesthetic.”
Spanning three Rapha collections, Women’s City, Women’s Road and Souplesse, Rapha + Liberty gives new life to a print from the 1930s, the decade when the arts and crafts movement gave way to modernism. Evoking the image of starlings in flight, the print has been reimagined in a range of stylish and technical apparel tailored for riding, racing and time off the bike.
“We were obviously aware of the collaborations that Rapha has done with Paul Smith and Christopher Raeburn, and as a business, technical fabrics is certainly something we’re trying to branch out into,” explains Robin. “We’ve worked with technical fabrics in the past, but what interested us with Rapha was the demand for the collection not just to look good, but to also excel in practicality and performance.”
As Liberty begins to work with more modern fabrics in its products, its vast archive of prints and samples is also going through a process of modernisation – being digitised one sample at a time. When Robin and his colleagues were searching through the digital files and boxes for the Rapha collaboration print, they discovered documents and artefacts from the company’s history that showed a commitment to sport, and indeed cycling, that dates back further than was first thought.
“When Arthur Liberty founded the store, a job was a job for life. This was reflected in the way companies looked after their staff, and Liberty was no exception. When we looked at the archive, we discovered that during the summer Liberty used to run sports days for its staff, and one of the things that they did was a women’s cycling race. It was a very short race, only half a mile, but they held it for decades in a stately home just outside London. There’s a book within an almanac that details the sporting events that took place, and it lists all the winning names of the half-mile cycle race. We even have the silver cup that Arthur Liberty would award to the winner every year. It’s a perfect story.”
This historic connection with riding and racing still resonates, providing inspiration for the Rapha + Liberty collection for 2015.
“We now have a small department in our store that features premium sports wear products, and it continues to grow,” says Robin. “There’s an expanding desire for high quality technical products, and people are getting more excited about cycling, whether it’s commuting or charity rides. The Rapha + Liberty collection is something special, and we’re really excited about its release.”