Imagine your workplace tools are shakers of glitter, links of neon plastic chain and embroidered patches, and your creative inspirations range from Messein monkey figurines to Boy George’s coat of many colors in the 1983 video “Karma Chameleon.”
Such is the crazy, fantastic, mixed up world of designer Johnson Hartig and his Los Angeles fashion label Libertine.
“It really is the ultimate little craft club,” he says, showing me around his new 7,000-square-foot headquarters just off Highland Avenue in Hollywood’s Arts District, which has become a haven for L.A. designers who share a similar, elevated DIY aesthetic, including Nina Garduno of FreeCity and Greg Lauren.
Founded in 2001 by L.A.-based Hartig and New York-based artist Cindy Greene, Libertine captured the fashion zeitgeist for a time in the early aughts. The designers used vintage clothing as a canvas for silk-screened skulls, 19th century portraits, macabre Victoriana and crystal spiderwebs, appealing to the rebel-minded such as fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld and British artist Damien Hirst. Eventually they attracted the attention of mass market retailer Target, which chose Libertine to design one of its Go International collaborations in 2007.
Sometime after the Target deal, Greene lost interest and Hartig became a solo act. Since then, Libertine has risen again with a new, looser spirit.
Today, the clothes are joyful, multimedia, collaged art pieces as likely to be worn by society matriarchs as twentysomething rock ‘n’ rollers.
About 50% of the collection is one-of-a-kind, embellished vintage, such as the 1970s era Bill Blass dress and 1980s era Chanel suit, both kitted out with candy-like neon studs and chains, that are to parade down the runway on Monday during Libertine’s show at New York Fashion Week. The other 50% is hand-embellished ready-to-wear. The collection, which ranges from $345 for a T-shirt to $15,000 for a fur coat, is sold at Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus, Maxfield and other independent boutiques.
In the last year, Libertine’s sales have increased 200%, thanks in part to a robust trunk show business which takes Hartig to New York, Dallas and Aspen, Colo., to meet his customers, including an 85-year-old from Ohio whose Libertine collection numbers in the hundreds of pieces.
The clothes “speak to people who like to go their own way, wardrobe-wise and otherwise,” says Bergdorf Goodman Senior Vice President Linda Fargo. “Unlike the angry early punksters and pranksters, Johnson is more the happy bad boy. Everything he does comes from a frisky, twisted, gleeful place.”
Hollywood has taken notice of the label’s new momentum too. Taylor Swift wears a Libertine iridescent green sequin track jacket on stage during her current 1989 World Tour. Tyga and P. Diddy have been rocking the brand’s Golden Child hooded sweatshirts. And Katy Perry chose a Libertine dress for the Twitter launch party for her new fragrance Mad Potion.
On Sept. 22, Rizzoli is publishing Hartig’s book about the brand. “Libertine: The Creative Beauty, Humor and Inspiration Behind the Cult Label” presents the designer’s creative process in 250 colorful, collaged pages. New York designer Thom Browne, with whom Hartig roomed in Los Angeles in the 1990s when they were both acting, wrote one of the book’s forewords, and Bergdorf Goodman personal shopper and octogenarian style star Betty Halbreich wrote the other.
“To describe Johnson’s work is almost impossible,” Halbreich writes. “To view it and wear it is better than a therapy session.”
“High-low, fine with not-so-fine, color with not-color,” says Hartig, describing his topsy-turvy design sensibility, which translates from his oft-photographed 1920s Hancock Park home to his clothing. The home, most recently featured in World of Interiors magazine, showcases an eclectic mix of antiques, flea market finds and contemporary art. “I don’t want things to look mass-produced,” says the designer, who is itching to do a home collection.
Hartig, who says he is “45ish,” grew up in Whittier and developed an affinity for fashion through vintage shopping. “Finding something no one else has, that’s always appealed to me,” he says. At a Hollywood Hills party in 1998, he was wearing a pair of pants he had “augmented” with crystals, and a buyer from Maxfield noticed them. Soon after, Hartig launched his self-named label at the store, before founding Libertine in 2001.
At the new studio in Hollywood, Hartig’s Chihuahuas Diggy Smalls and Terrence are mascots. And nap time is sacred. Hartig has been napping from 10:30 to noon for the last 15 years. During waking hours, his staff of 12 sprinkle glitter on shoes, sew patches on army green military parkas and embroider crystals on cashmere sweaters and blazers to spell out lines from “Claire de Lune” in sparkly script.
In the last two years, Hartig has started designing his own prints, including an all-over tiger pattern taken from a pillow his mother needlepointed in the 1970s, another made from a collage of photos he snapped of Zen gardens during a recent trip to Kyoto, and a third from images of his collection of Staffordshire dog figurines. The prints cover blazers and caftans, as well as the sweatshirts, sweatpants and tees that have found favor with Tyga, Usher and P. Diddy.
“About two years ago, I started buying the funniest clothes from a shop called Wild Style on Melrose which is frequented by all the hip-hop guys,” explains Hartig. “After about six months, I said, ‘I want to make these clothes.’ So I did, and now they’re all wearing them.... Tyga even wrote a song called ‘Libertine Swag’ and instant messaged it to me on Instagram.”
Libertine has kept its ties to the art world too. After learning Hirst was a fan, Hartig asked him to collaborate on a series of spin art jackets for the spring 2006 collection. One of Hirst’s spin art canvases is the focal point of the Libertine studio, displayed next to a pink shopping cart found on the street.
“A predominant number of our customers are involved in the art world or are big collectors, and I think when you look at the clothes, it’s not hard to understand why,” says Hartig, who tapped fashion illustrator Donald Robertson to hand-paint leather pouches for Monday’s runway show and hints at future collaborations with L.A. artists Piero Golia and Jason Metcalf.
Hartig was one of the first designers to be featured in the Wear LACMA project, a collection of clothing and accessories inspired by, and sold to benefit, the L.A. County Museum of Art. “I still wear my Libertine blazer and I get comments all the time,” says the project’s creator, Katherine Ross, a fashion consultant and the wife of LACMA director Michael Govan.
This fall, Ross has brought Libertine on again as one of several designers who will create items to help celebrate the museum’s 50th anniversary. Libertine’s new Wear LACMA pieces, set to launch in November, are blazers in a custom fabric Hartig made using the museum’s photo archives and a 1965 Los Angeles map. Images on the fabric range from mod L.A. model Peggy Moffitt, to museum benefactors Lynda Resnick and Colleen Bell, to a random snapshot of hot guys in Speedos, “just because,” Hartig says and laughs.
It’s all part of the Libertine life.
“I came to work at 5:30 this morning because I was so excited to be here,” he says. “Creativity can be found anywhere and everywhere and it is every day with me.”