Liberty London’s Ed Burstell on British Heritage, Cool Collaborations and BFFs
Ed Burstell, managing director of Liberty London; image via the Liberty blog
When I asked Ed Burstell how he described Liberty London back in 2008, when he left the American fashion industry to work for what is perhaps the most British of all British department stores, he said he told people, “It was one of the last great emporiums of its kind left on Earth.” When I asked Burstell how he describes it now, after seven years as the shop’s managing director, his Brit-sharpened wit and American confidence cuts right through.
“I say it is one of the last great emporiums of its kind left on Earth.”
For the launch of this month’s Liberty London Pop-In, Burstell defined the historical context of Liberty’s grand marketplace status, and he outlined what he calls his “subversive” polish on this British institution.
“Well you know, it’s Liberty’s 140th birthday this year,” Burstell tells me. He’s in a cab, I’m at my desk. We’re on the phone, and no, I didn’t know that Liberty London, the brand that grew from adventurer and merchant Arthur Lasenby Liberty’s tudor-style, still-standing storefront in London’s West End shopping district is now 14 decades old.
Regent Street in London’s West End; image courtesy Liberty London
Which brings up our first order of business: everyone in the UK knows Liberty began as an import/export bazaar, and they know that as the demand for textiles grew up around the burgeoning city, the store became a universe of world-sourced fabrics for the home and wardrobe. In London, Liberty is a household name. Here in the States? Much less so. In fact, Pop-In at Nordstrom’s collection of home and garden tools, pajamas, stationery sets and linens marks the first time that many of these fine goods are available on this side of the Atlantic.
So as Burstell’s driver winds through London, he catches me up a bit.
As a U.S.-based retail pro and seasoned style watcher, Burstell long-revered Liberty’s import/export DNA from afar, but when they rang him up and asked the New Yorker to expatriate himself and take the helm in 2008, he stalled a bit in order to be sure they really wanted to make big changes. Burstell had all but grew up in stateside retail environments; he got his start as a fragrance sampler after all, and he knew that the Brits had to welcome a modern update if they wanted to evolve their heritage identity and calico prints. Suffice it to say, they did.
Since arriving, Burstell’s been all about bringing in a fashion edge. Where the store is still a destination for traditional home decor and world-sourced salt and pepper grinders, it’s now a place where wild Peter Pilotto shifts and tough Rick Owens biker jackets are helping redefine what it means to supply a city with new and exciting ideas and impeccable textiles. “It’s a little subversive, really,” he says, referring to the act of taking a national fixture and reinventing it. But it’s also the contemporary way: nod to the past, and then speed into what’s now.
Four floors of beautiful home, lifestyle and fashion goods on offer at Liberty London;
image courtesy Liberty London
But even more than bringing in the most relevant single-producer fashion, Burstell’s methodologies have been largely based on collaborating with the coolest brands in the world to develop products around Liberty’s whopping archive of 43,000 abstracts, florals, cottons, silks and more.
For example: initiatives such as Liberty Rocks, in which musicians like Florence Welch from Florence and the Machine got a seat at the design table, and Scottish rocker Edwyn Collins created a print based on bird drawings he made while recovering from a stroke.
Liberty still sells single-producer goods of all kinds—if you’re in need of a gorgeous designer dress or a Dutch-made ceramic salt and paper grinder the next time you’re in London, go straight there. But under Burstell, Liberty has been inviting the likes of Topshop, Nike, Dr. Martens, Acne Studios and Marc by Marc Jacobs into the print and pattern archive, and the results have everyone involved—including those who shop them—looking all the better for the team effort.
“Doc Martens actually applied our prints to leather,” Burstell recalls. Acne reworked and recolored them, producing a sort of subtly graphic Far East goes Art Nouveau capsule wardrobe. When Kenzo took their turn, they “did what Kenzo does,” meaning they layered print on print; theirs atop Liberty’s for the ultimate scarf collector’s fashion mash-up.
Acne x Liberty London; image courtesy Liberty London
“It takes everyone to a brand-new level,” Burstell says of these partnerships. “The application of print is just so versatile.”
Kenzo x Liberty London; image courtesy Liberty London
Nordstrom’s collaboration with Liberty goes into all-new territory; we’re bringing in a full range of OK’D by O.K. pattern-festooned new-world necessities and traditional Liberty favorites. The Pop-In at Nordstrom x Liberty tête-à-tête is set to be, in Burstell’s words, “immersive; it’ll tell a full story.” A story set amid garden tools, tea cups and pajamas in classic prints such as Wiltshire and Theodora. A story about British heritage, really. A story about visiting Regent Street and seeing it all for yourself.
After all, there’s just something about London.
“We always came to London to catch the trend,” Burstell tells me of his earlier days. You haven’t experienced people watching or street style until you’ve experienced it in the neighborhoods of Hackney, Dalston and Shoreditch.
And then there’s the legacy of Brit pop bands from the Who to the Strokes. There’s the Royals, and there’s soccer—which of course they call football. There’s pub culture and the food. “Everyone says they have the best fish and chips,” Burstell says.
Of course, Burstell has a far more subtle list of British-isms. These last eight years, during what he calls his “great British adventure,” have made him a bit of an anthropologist. As his cab ride comes to an end and we say our goodbyes, he rattles off a few more beginning with “tea towels” before getting to observations about summer Sundays spent almost entirely in city parks and the absolute reticence to drop by a friend’s house unannounced.
“On the other hand, the flip side to that reserve is that when you make a friend, you have them for life,” he says of the loyalty of Londoners.
So cheerio, mates. That means you’ve got a beautifully printed and patterned long-term relationship on the horizon.