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In Conversation With Johnson Hartig of Libertine

Johnson Hartig

Libertine burst onto the fashion scene back in 2001, with a collection of quirky-cool reworked vintage duds designed by quirky-cool duo Johnson Hartig and Cindy Greene. Supported by the likes of Anna Wintour, Karl Lagerfeld and John Galliano, Libertine won the Ecco Domani Fashion Award in 2003, was nominated for a CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund in 2004 and did limited-edition collaborations with Converse, Target, Goyard, Muji Be@rbrick and Damian Hirst.

Johnson and Cindy parted ways in 2009 and Johnson continued Libertine on his own, with a newfound focus on modernized prints and patterns that made for a more sophisticated, cohesive collection. Today, the line is carried at Bergdorf Goodman, Maxfield, Linda Dresner, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s, along with dozens of stores in Asia and Europe, including Joyce, Isetan, Colette and Harvey Nichols. Additionally, Johnson won the CFDA Lexus Eco Fashion Challenge in 2011 for his sustainable silkscreened collection, the results of which will debut on the New York catwalk during Fashion Week.

Lauren David Peden: Is this year Libertine’s tenth anniversary?

Johnson Hartig: It was ten years in September, yeah. Amazing.

Lauren: Well congratulations—that’s quite a feat.

Johnson: That is quite a feat. I didn’t appreciate it fully until someone said the other day, ‘You know, you just don’t give yourself enough credit. To run a successful, profitable business for ten years is really something.’ Cindy and I both suffered from fear of commitment, so we always took it very slowly and only took on as much as we really knew we could handle, so it never seemed very overwhelming. I guess there were moments but it’s been, for the most part, such an enjoyable process and just kind of level. Cindy and I, of course, had our little bit [of drama] when we separated, but now it seems like we’re better friends than we ever were.

Lauren: And how is the line different now than when you started?

Johnson: When we started, very few people had seen silkscreening on vintage clothing. I’ve always loved American folk art and the darker side of American history, so we incorporated a lot of that into the ideas for graphics. I remember when we first printed an American eagle on a shirt… Wow, this is kind of punk rock—that we’re taking something so iconic and turning it on its head. But quickly the whole aesthetic was adopted by so many other people that I learned by the third or fourth year that if we’re gonna stay ahead of this, we gotta really keep on our toes. The last two and a half years since, I’ve been doing it on my own, I decided I want to take it in a whole new direction, so I was doing graphics that weren’t representational. The first [solo] season I did these dots, I didn’t do any kind of a presentation or show but I did do a video that’s on the website. I’ve continued with that. It just seems newer, it seems fresher, it seems more modern. The line is less historical and more contemporary feeling—just modern and cleaner. I was fearful a little bit, but the Libertine audience been so responsive and we’ve garnered a ton of new devotees.

Lauren: And as a whole, the line is still based on vintage clothes?

Johnson: Yes.

Lauren: Do you deconstruct them always?

Johnson: No, sometimes we don’t. I have decided recently that next season I’m gonna start deconstructing the blazers, which we’ve always deconstructed less. So we’ll see how that plays out.

Lauren: Why?

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Johnson: I don’t know, it’s just a feeling I had within the last couple weeks that I’d like to see something with a cleaner back. So we’ll see. I’m not sure it’s gonna work and that our customers will approve. It does alter the fit of the jacket. It kind of tightens and shrinks it up a little bit, so it might not work. And then we do produce our own button-down shirts, which we could never find enough of, and we did some sequin jackets.

Lauren: The coats were amazing—the black coats from fall and the women’s skirts with the graphic patterns.

Johnson: Yes, I’d been to Turkey for the first time, Istanbul, six months prior to that show so I was very inspired by it.

Lauren: The mosques?

Johnson: The mosques and tiles and all that, so it was kind of a modification of an Islamic tile.

Lauren: Did that sell?

Johnson: Yeah, the crazy thing is after I show the buyers all want the first appointment and I think the whole show sold within a couple hours.

Lauren: What percentage of the collection is one-of-a-kind?

Johnson: I’d say about 90 to 95 percent.

Lauren: You’ve built a thriving business on one-of-a-kind pieces.

Johnson: It’s kind of amazing, and sometimes I think I don’t give myself enough credit.

Lauren: It’s hard when you’re in it. You just put your head down and you do it and it takes somebody else to remind you. So tell me, what’s your background, do you have formal training in design?

Johnson: No. Well, in painting and drawing. I studied fine art at Long Beach State in California, but I always wore vintage clothing and I always messed around taking things apart, trying to figure out how they were put together. I remember as a teenager never wanting to wear new shoes. I would always look for Florsheim Wingtips and I loved the idea that they were already messed up and worn in—and the same thing with clothes, really. I still do love that. There’s something about the familiarity or maybe spirits of people past. I just love it. I love antique furnishings, too.

Lauren: Well, you worked with interior designers, right?

Johnson: I worked with Randy Hatch in Whittier. He had exquisite taste and was a real Anglophile, and he was responsible for me getting involved with The Attingham Trust study week, which I did in Yorkshire for ten days. And he taught me an enormous amount about antiques and decorating. I remember as a kid rearranging my parent’s living room when I was seven years old, bringing in roses from the garden. I was always very concerned with the way things looked.

Lauren: And how has that affected or influenced your aesthetic as a clothing designer?

Johnson: Well, I’ve never really thought of myself as a designer because I don’t know anything about constructing clothing. I’m someone with a good eye that puts things together and adds things to other things and the combination just happens magically. But it’s hard to compartmentalize. It’s just all in me and it prevails over my world, my vision, my eye and training.

Lauren: Speaking of your eye, yours was my favorite presentation last Fashion Week. The clothes, the way you presented it…the models had energy and they were having fun and they weren’t robotic automatons walking down the runway looking glum cause they’re making $10,000 a day. I sometimes feel like, ‘Come on, really? Fashion is fun!’ Yes we’re in tough times but fashion still could be a little bit fun, and you did that and made a statement, too. It wasn’t like you were ignoring the realities of the world.

Johnson: Thank you, because from what I saw I thought it was the funnest presentation I’d seen in New York in the last five years. It was really a super fun happening.

Lauren: That is exactly what it felt like. I was so excited about the clothes and just to be there having that experience. It was like being at a rock concert where you’re just with those people in that room at that moment. It felt special.

Johnson: Yeah, it felt super special. Honestly, one of the best things that happened out of that was my assistant and I were packing everything into the truck to take back to the hotel and this guy came backstage and said, “Can I help you guys?” I said, “Yeah, sure.” And he said, “You know, I’ve never been to a fashion show in my life; I don’t know anything about fashion. I only came tonight because one of my friends is the co-owners of Exit Art.” But he said, “I have to tell you,” and this was, like, a totally straight construction guy, “your show blew me away, and I know that probably means nothing coming from a guy like me, but I haven’t been that excited about something.” I thought, ‘No, it means everything coming from you. That’s fucking awesome.’ It just felt so empowering. It was funny because I had this idea that I wanted the show to look like that. I remember [my publicist] saying this might not go off as well, but I thought, ‘I just want to try it.’

[The waiter comes and Johnson chats with him about his upcoming trip to India.]

Johnson: I think India is gonna change my life. I hope it does—that’s the idea. I’m going this kind of awesome way that my business manager suggested. I hired this firm out of Boulder, Colorado called Asia Transpacific. They organize every detail from someone meeting me at the airport to the hotels, tours and a driver for the whole ten days. So it’s a pretty lovely way to travel.

Lauren: Are you going by yourself?

Johnson: By myself.

Lauren: Nice. I want to talk about how politics and current events influence your work, like the whole “Tax the Rich More” t-shirt, and you’ve done the World War II dazzle boat prints.

Johnson: Uh huh. Well, I guess it inspires me, in that it’s an integral part of me. I care about these things.

Lauren: Do you consider yourself politically active?

Johnson: Yeah. And I’ve always been one to fight for the underdog. I think probably because growing up gay I was an underdog.

Lauren: Did you see that Jonah Mowry video that was making the rounds? He’s an eighth grader now and he’s talking about how he’s been bullied every day.

Johnson: Yeah, it’s fucking hard growing up gay and I don’t think anyone that’s not gay knows that. I mean, every day, every day waking up thinking, ‘Am I gonna get teased? Am I gonna get beaten up today?’ It was rough. But watch that video that’s called Two Lesbians Raised a Baby and This is What They Got from Iowa.

Lauren: Yes, I did.

Johnson: Breathtaking. And I think that we have one of the most articulate, smart, caring presidents in office now that we’ve had since Clinton, maybe. But he just doesn’t stand a chance. I feel like right after the inauguration, he was led into this room and the old boys said, ‘That was a lot of fun, but let us tell you what it’s gonna really be like.’ It’s just awful because I feel like in a way—and I don’t want to get too political, because I’m sure a lot of the Libertine clients are Republican, but I’ve got to say it—everyone responded to that “Tax the Rich More.” I think it was a couple weeks later that Warren Buffett came out with that New York Times article saying, “I’m not taxed enough. I’m taxed less than the average American.” It just makes sense. I’m just tired of big business running our county. Libertine started during Bush and I’ve got to say I was in a very low-grade depression for those full eight years, every day thinking, ‘Why aren’t we waking up and having revolution on the streets?’ I felt, this is my way of saying, “Fuck you.” It was kind of awesome, like Libertine was a powerful little movement. So “Tax the Rich More” was kind of tongue-in-cheek but I thought, ‘It’s a simple way for me to make a little statement on these t-shirts and this skirt.’

Lauren: And you’ve been doing statement t-shirts since the inception.

Johnson: Yeah, but they weren’t political. They were just kind of more fun messages. I don’t know, I just feel so discouraged by the state our country is in. We do have this man in office that really, really cares and he can’t get anything done. We were educated in these institutions that were funded by public money and are transported on public roads, so we all have this obligation to give back. I make a very nice living. I wouldn’t call myself rich, but I think I would be in the top one percent and I’m more than happy to pay my fair share of taxes if everybody did. I’m not gonna feel good about doing it if billionaires are paying eight percent tax and I’m paying 40. It just doesn’t add up. I’m feeling super hopeless. I felt very excited about the Occupy Wall Street movement, but then I didn’t feel like they were organized enough and I felt like half the people there didn’t really know why they were there. This is just a feeling, but I felt like it should have been more focused.

Lauren: Well, I don’t think that’s realistic. Everyone keeps comparing OWS to the radical movement of the ’60s, but we’re looking at that in hindsight, 40 years later. Occupy Wall Street’s only a few months old, and there are so many different aspects to it. It’s going to take time for it to coalesce. People expect them to come out fully formed and it’s not realistic.

Johnson: It’s not realistic, but when you’re dealing with these companies who’s livelihood and continuance depends on it, I think action does need to happen really fast. Obviously we’re a nation that has a very short attention span. And after a couple weeks, people are onto the next thing. I do feel like nothing will ever be the same after this movement, because this movement hasn’t died; they’re morphing and populating, so it still seems very exciting. It’s the first time that something that I thought should have happened during the Bush administration every day is happening.

Lauren David Peden is editor of The Fashion Informer and contributing editor at Rue La La. The former copy director of Vogue, she writes for numerous publications.

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