Meet the man behind LA’s most vibrant label, Libertine’s Johnson Hartig.
LIBERTINE CLOTHING SHOULD be required to come with a warning: not for the faint-hearted. Attendees at the brand’s AW16 show at New York Fashion Week were greeted with stickers, to make up for the previous season’s apology notes — United Parcel Service had lost half of Libertine’s collection in transit that year. The show itself was a party, as always: a stampede of models travelling down the catwalk brandishing neon banners and placards in clothes that were even more fantastical. Johnson Hartig, founder of Libertine, does love his fluoro. The seasons may change but the collections remain, in their most basic form, the same — always dripping with embellishments and slapped with slogans. It’s pop art you can wear.
The brand’s runway debut in AW04 (back when Libertine was a duo comprised of Hartig and co-founder Cindy Greene) set a precedent for the next 12 years of shows, with a celeb-studded audience (Jimmy Fallon, Helena Christensen, Patti Hansen and Monet Mazur were all in attendance) and a vintage-inspired collection offset with unexpected motifs: swallow silhouettes stuck onto tartan and bulging eyes sketched onto tweed.
After being invited into the Libertine archives and to preview next season’s collection, we got acquainted with Hartig to hear his success story first-hand, and find out why stars flock to him like A-list moths to a bedazzled flame. If it’s good enough for Elton, it’s good enough for us.
Wonderland: Hey Johnson! Let’s start at the beginning. Do you remember the day you decided to start at Libertine?
Johnson Hartig: It wasn’t quite that easy. I had messed around with vintage clothes since I was a teenager. I’d take things apart and put them back together. I did that into adulthood and happened to be wearing a pair of pants that I’d made for myself one day, when the buyer from Maxfield ran into me and asked who did my pants… He said: “Will you make some for the store?” At that point, I just didn’t have the confidence to go through with it… Finally after six months, I made the pants. I remember calling a couple of weeks later to see how it was going and he said nothing had really happened yet. But he called back the next day and said Michael Stipe had bought a pair, Elton John had bought a pair and that he needed 10 more! That’s when I decided that I’d get involved, it was kind of by default.
W: I feel like all the best things in life happen accidentally…
JH: I think so too. We knew we were onto something magical really from the beginning, with Libertine.
W: Once Libertine had become established, did you set out with a mantra of what you wanted to achieve with the brand?
JH: I haven’t really, even within 15 years… Thankfully, I’ve always had a much better business acumen than I ever gave myself credit for. We’ve been profitable for 15 years consistently without any outside backing, but it has continued to be a labour of love from the onset.
W: Would you say your intentions for Libertine have remained the same since you began?
JH: You know, things are changing now. It’s been a particularly frustrating last couple of years when I’m seeing much bigger, mostly Italian brands, being very influenced by our aesthetic. Frustration has grown, how they’re making millions and billions off this aesthetic that I’m really responsible for. A plan has kicked in recently, because of being forced to deal with that.
W: Do you think that’s the most important lesson you’ve learnt over the last 15 years?
JH: I think that the fundamental, universal principles are so true… I’ve had so few problems with the business. It’s just by merely treating people well and treating employees well and trying to do the right thing.
W: Is that why your customers are so loyal, too? I’ve heard about the lady in Ohio in her eighties who has a 75-piece archive of Libertine. And so many celebrities wear your designs, too. Do you think you’re drawn to these iconic people, or do they come to you?
JH: I’m usually drawn to more creative people — writers and artists. We made a really strict point early on, Cindy [Greene, former partner in the business] and I, when the band U2 asked us to make some clothes customised for them. They weren’t as happy with them as we’d hoped they would be when we got them back. So we thought, let’s not engage in that aspect of [fashion]. So many celebrities, rock stars and actors were buying it from Maxfield and we were a struggling business trying to support ourselves through this art, why would we give the clothes away? I love to see that [celebrities] buy it… In all honesty, I’m much more thrilled to see the 85-year-old woman in Ohio wearing it.
W: I was amazed when I read about her, she reminded me of my Nan. She’d love your clothes — she’s 77, but acts 20.
JH: I would love your Grandmother! It’s so easy to get wrapped up, a very conscientious lesson I learned early on: go where the love is. And it’s not from Vogue magazine, it’s from the people who admire the work and are willing to spend their money on it.
W: If you’re not interested in the press, which kind of milestones have been significant to you?
JH: To be asked by Keith Richards to come to Madison Square Garden to see [the Rolling Stones] perform, and have them wearing Libertine, and be invited to their after-party. It’s a thrill.
W: How about the pieces themselves… Do you have a collection you’re most proud of?
JH: When Cindy and I separated in 2008, I was unsure if I could do it myself… I think the last six years, we’ve created these extraordinary, one-of-a-kind pieces of art… We’ve just started doing our own prints in the last three years, I think that they’re beguiling and bewitching and as fantastical as anything I’ve ever seen.
Amber Duarte using Oribe at www.therexagency.com
Steven Autro at The Only Agency using Smashbox cosmetics & Dermalogica skincare
Avery at Next, Taylor Bagley at Photgenics, Anna Sophia at Wilhelmina, Laine at Hollywood Model Management, Jimmy at Next, Turner Barbur at Photogenics, Ryan Valentine at Next, Cameron at David Todd