There are very few true creatives in the world, and Johnson Hartig is one of them. In a world where every creative decision is informed by retail trends, and economic forecasts, Johnson Hartig keeps Libertine firmly grounded in the purely creative. Championed by the fashion-world’s biggest names, such as Anna Wintour and Karl Lagerfeld, Hartig reinvents iconic vintage pieces into wonderfully deconstructed and avant-garde creations that give Libertine a truly special niche in the fashion world.
Libertine is a coalescence of art, fashion, history, design, travel, and culture — and at the center of it all is Johnson Hartig. His deeply fantastical aesthetic which borders between surrealist streetwear and whimsical high fashion, have garnered him the moniker of a cult label and some high-profile collaborations with the likes of Damien Hirst. We sit down with Jonson Hartig and reminisce about the early days of Libertine, the merits of learning fashion via Style with Elsa Klensh, and the increasingly important role of environmentally and socially conscious brands in today’s increasingly capitalist world.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background; what inspired you to start Libertine back in 2001?
I was born and raised in Los Angeles and lived there until I was thirteen. My family travelled extensively around the world because of my father's occupation. Travelling has greatly informed my perspective and point of view. I had worn second hand clothing since I was a teenager, being a punk rock/new wave kid in the late seventies, and early eighties. I've often said that my fashion education was watching Style with Elsa Klensh on CNN in the eighties; I'd tape it and watch it over and over again. Vintage clothing is what I knew most, so vintage clothing is what we worked with when I first began Libertine.
What were those early days like? As a designer, what was the biggest challenge you’ve had to face in starting Libertine?
They were really fun! We basically made whatever we wanted to wear, and whatever took our fancy. Incredibly, we had a strong appeal with stores and clients which was pretty immediate. Within six months, Cindy and I had to quit our regular jobs to focus exclusively on Libertine. Then, we started selling to Maxfield, Fred Siegal, Joyce in Hong Kong, and Colette in Paris, and it kept us really busy. The biggest challenge was and continues to be — other brands knocking us off. They have done so from the get go, but what I've learned from working in this business for fifteen years now, is that there are very few true creatives. Those of us who are, are a great source of inspiration for those that are less so. I guess it must be that way in every other business as well. It never stops being a great frustration, especially when the most major brands in the world are doing it.
Libertine has been described as revolutionary, avant-garde, deconstructed - I could go on. How you would describe Libertine in your own words?
Exceedingly chic, socially conscientious, and very smart.
A deep love for vintage has always been present throughout your collections; in fact 50% of your collections comprise of one-of-a-kind embellished and printed vintage pieces. Could you tell us more about your love for vintage, and how this influence’s Libertine’s aesthetic?
My grandmother and great-aunt Birdie loved to hunt for great second hand treasures. I remember even as a toddler, being taken on the rounds to the best thrift stores in the area. As I mentioned earlier, I have worn vintage ever since I was a teenager. Growing up in southern California, there was a vibrant punk scene that crossed over into new wave, SKA, and Goth at times. We were all running around in these costumes, trying to out-do one another for the most outrageous look — it was a great time to be young, alive, and free.
Anna Wintour and Karl Lagerfeld have been strong supporters of yourself, and of Libertine since the brand’s inception. What is it like getting the admiration and support of some of the fashion industry’s greats?
You know what they say about youth being wasted on the young? It was definitely a case of not appreciating it enough at the time. Outrageous things were happening all the time with Libertine, so it didn’t seem that unusual to have Anna Wintour walk up three floors to my Korean Apartment/studio; or for Karl Lagerfeld to come to our SoHo studio and buy every piece of Libertine available. It was just part of the genesis — then things move on, and other tamer but equally great things happen. I never bought into it all that much, I was just happy to be doing something I loved, and being able to support myself nicely while doing so.
You’ve been an advocate for both animal rescue and ecologically sustainable fashion since the very beginning. Could you tell us how these causes contribute to the ethos of your brand?
Listen, the most important thing we can do in this life is take care of the voiceless, and the planet we live on. Who would have thought that in 2017 we'd be looking at the bleak political situation we’re in, with a new administration, so totally blinded by capitalism that we totally disregard the planet. It boggles the mind.
You’ve had some truly fantastic collaborations throughout the years; from Target to Damien Hirst. How do you go about finding the right brands and people to collaborate with?
They've all appeared magically in front of us, along with a lot more that we've turned down. It’s got to make sense, and somehow elevate our brand. It must be someone I love, or something that will generate a ton of money that I can then donate to animal rescue services.
Tell us about your book with Rizzoli Publishers - Libertine: The Creative Beauty, Humour, and inspiration behind the Cult Label. In what ways do you think Libertine is a cult label?
I always say that if I had known how much work a book was when I agreed to make one, I don't know that I would have agreed. Now a year away from it and I'm thrilled I did. It’s a fantastic book which looks like how my mind thinks. Most of the pictures were taken by me, and the pages are paginated with a person, place, or thing that has informed my vision. This adds yet another layer of information. I'm really proud of that book, and glad it so closely resembles the vision I had for it from the get go.
What do you think is the greatest moment you’ve experienced, throughout your whirlwind of a career?
I’ve had a lot of great moments, but I think the most gratifying thing is that rush I get when I design something. It sends chills down my spine and tingles in my arms, and I know I'm connected with the higher source, and the synchronicity is happening. Everything is all right. That’s a very powerful emotion to feel.
What is next for you and Libertine in 2017?
More incredible collaborations, a shop in the new magnificent Fred Segal store, opening in September on Sunset Avenue in Los Angeles. As well as continuing to fight off the evil knock offs that plague us. Onwards and upwards, fighting the good fight.
Words by Hannah Tan