Conversation with: Johnson Hartig of Libertine - Neiman Marcus
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Conversation with: Johnson Hartig of Libertine

Regina Campbell

April 30, 2015

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Los Angeles-based designer Johnson Hartig is the founding creative force behind the popularly regaled collection, Libertine. Over the past ten years Hartig has seen great success “revolutionizing the way the fashion industry thinks of graphics, deconstruction of the classic and recycled clothing.” Hartig’s collections for Libertine have paved the way for “ecologically friendly fashion.” Here, Hartig shares his story.

Designer Johnson Hartig.
Designer Johnson Hartig.

NM: How did you get started in fashion?
JH: When I was 16 years old, my grandmother taught me how to sew a straight stitch on my mother’s 1950s Singer sewing machine. I was always interested in vintage clothing, and that’s pretty much all I wore. I would take vintage pieces apart and then learn how to put them back together. All I’ve really ever known is how to sew a simple straight stitch.

In the late 1990s I was here acting in commercials in Los Angeles and still taking vintage things apart and putting them back together and augmenting them with ribbon or patches. The buyer from Maxfield saw me in a piece that I had made and asked who the designer was. He asked if I would make them for Maxfield, which I did for about a year. The line was called Johnson Hartig.

After that I met this woman Cindy Green in New York City who was with this band called Fischerspooner. (We met through a mutual friend.) At one point Fischerspooner was touring in Los Angeles, and I was having a party, and Cindy came and saw what I was working on and really responded to these clothes I was creating. That night we agreed to do this project together, so I went to New York, and we made 15 button-down shirts that I had taken apart and re-sewn, and we applied all these graphics to them, which is what we originally did. I later had an appointment with Fred Segal and showed the buyer these shirts and he bought them. Two days later he said, “We sold out of those as we were putting them out— we need 25 more.” It really started that way and has never stopped. In the first ten years we’ve never made a single phone call of solicitation. It was just people tracking us down. It really was a charmed project from the beginning.

Libertine Spring 2015.
Libertine Spring 2015.

NM: Do you have a favorite era in terms of vintage clothing?
JH: I love the prints from the 1920s and 1930s, but there are things I love about the 1960s and 1970s just as much. I really am a product of the 1980s. One of my biggest educators was waking up very early on Saturday morning and watching “Style with Elsa Klensch” and taping it and watching it over and over again. I really respond to Christian Lacroix and Emanuel Ungaro and really love a mixture of pattern, textures and colors. I think that they did it as magically as anybody, really.

NM: What is the inspiration behind Libertine?
JH: Creating something that Cindy and I wanted to wear but couldn’t find and making one-of-a-kind pieces.

NM: What is the story behind the name?
JH: We couldn’t think of something to name the company, so we would just send these clothes out with no label as we were trying to figure something out. One night I was watching this documentary about Mozart on PBS, and the commentator said something to the effect of “Mozart was really a true libertine,” and I thought wow, what a great name!

NM: What do you enjoy most about being a designer?
JH: The freedom. We don’t really work like many other designers that I am aware of. We design two collections a year, and we didn’t show at all for the first ten years. We’ve just created this entity unlike any other in the fashion industry, so I enjoy the freedom.

Libertine Spring 2015.
Libertine Spring 2015.

NM: What is the most challenging aspect of being a designer?
JH: Keeping up, I guess. I find the never-ending cycle of fashion really challenging. Although we only design two collections a year, it can be challenging at times to be forced to be creative. It’s just an ongoing cycle that never ends. I think it’s a challenge for everyone—I think it’s a challenge for the buyers, the editors, etc. At some point I think “do we all really need all of this?”

NM: What’s next?
JH: I have a book coming out with Rizzoli in September, which I am completely thrilled with!

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