“Everyone has something to do with textiles every single day”

Emily May

If you’re a fan of floral patterned fabric, you’ll love Dovecot Studios’ major retrospective on Liberty Art Fabrics and their impact on British fashion since 1875! We chatted to curator Kate Grenyer ahead of the exhibition, about Liberty’s constant process of reinvention, and how they fuse the worlds of art, fashion and textiles.

Culture Calling: What was the inspiration behind creating the exhibition Liberty Art Fabrics and Fashion?
Kate Grenyer: The exhibition was initially created by Dennis Nothdruft at the Fashion and Textiles Museum in London, and I’ve been working with him on bringing it to Edinburgh. The reason we wanted to bring it to our gallery is because we are interested in exploring the relationship between Liberty, the arts and crafts movement, and the era it evolved, with Dovecot and its history as a tapestry studio. They are connected because they both have had a quirky approach to textiles, and also because they have a strong focus on how art can influence textile production. There is something very unique about items that are perfectly designed, when the fabric and image on it work together so well.

Image Credit: Libery Art Fabrics & Fashion at Dovecot Studios.
CC: You say the exhibition explores how textiles brings art into everyday life. Can you speak a bit more about this?
KG: The thing about textiles is that we all wear it. Everyone has something to do with textiles every single day. That’s just purely practical, but they are also something that you can use to express something internal. People go around shops all the time, and the first thing you want to do is run your hand along a clothes rail and touch it, which of course, sometimes in galleries makes us a bit nervous! But it just shows how textiles are something people relate to very directly. Fabric is arguably more relatable than mediums like painting and sculpture, so therefore it’s interesting to look at Liberty, who people for 140 years have revered as somewhere that creates beautifully made textiles, that people feel they can relate and respond to, whether that be through joining a quilting society or hand-making something using the fabric at home.
In the late 1800s, Liberty were very big on this idea of “art fabrics”, fabrics that were about expressing creativity. It came from that turn of the century era, where there was a large interest in Chinese and Japanese fabrics, and in fabrics being a thing of beauty in themselves. The nature of the clothes they were making then became much softer, they draped and they looked beautiful in and of themselves, rather than the very stiff and starched Victorian crinoline people had been wearing up till that point. In contrast, Liberty fabrics were designed to be loose, expressive and elegant. People picked up on that, and so Liberty became very much a part of the “artistic dressing” movement that was popular at the turn of the century.

Image Credit: Libery Art Fabrics & Fashion at Dovecot Studios.
CC: It’s quite amazing that these textiles run parallel to and are influenced by a range of art movements such as Aestheticism, Bauhaus and Psychedelia. It’s almost as if the fabrics act as an archive of cultural history…
KG: Definitely! There are some really interesting things that come through. I mentioned the artistic dressing movement, but there are also periods, such as in the late 50s and early 60s, when some of the earlier art nouveau fabrics from the 10s and 20s were rediscovered by designers, and people started using big, bold, print furnishing fabrics and turning them into clothing. Liberty started to pick up on this and reinvent those nouveau designs, for which they were incredibly famous, in softer dress making fabrics, and in much bolder colours, sparking a period of nouveau revival dressing. So each era is not always a completely new invention. All those classic Liberty fabrics get reinterpreted for each generation.

Image Credit: Libery Art Fabrics & Fashion at Dovecot Studios.
CC: Talking about reinvention, the artist Lucy Wayman is presenting her contemporary sculptural responses to the fabrics in the exhibition. How was she inspired by the fabric collection, and how do you think her work gives new meaning to the fabrics on display?
KG: Lucy makes sculptural pieces out of tied thread, string or rope. So they are sculptural but still relate back to fabric. She particularly picked up on the 1970s section, which is quite a large part of the exhibition. There are some really interesting revival fabrics in the 70s which reimagine Romanticism and the celebration of hand crafting. People would make these macramé hangings, so she’s drawn upon that idea of knotting and tying, to make a large hanging in our foyer. She’s also created a piece based on the idea of “glinting luxury”, which has been made up of loads of golden coloured glass beads, which have also been knotted and tied together. So she’s drawn on themes rather than looking at specific fabrics.
CC: What’s the flow through of the exhibition? Do you follow art movements chronologically?
KG: It’s in sections. Each section relates to an era but also a particular theme. The section looking at the 1910s and 20s is called “artistic dressing” and it’s about the fabric and how it falls, and the cut of the clothing. In the 1930s and 40s section which is called “fabric and fashion” it’s about the small scale prints with these little flowers on, that I think people find quite classic as a Liberty print. There are lots of beautiful tea dresses in that part!

Image Credit: Libery Art Fabrics & Fashion at Dovecot Studios.
CC: We’ve talked a lot about the interaction with the art world, but Liberty has collaborated with designers such as Yves Saint Laurent, Mary Quant, Manolo Blahnik and Vivienne Westwood.
KG: Liberty have always had a relationship with fabric designers, people like Bernard Neville who we’ve got some interesting samples of. But much more recently, from the 1970s onwards, Liberty’s fabric was available wholesale, so fashion designers like Marion Donaldson – who’s Scottish so we’ve expanded that part of the exhibition especially for bringing it up to Edinburgh – would use Liberty fabric as their standard fabric to go to.
Recently they’ve collaborated with a designer called Richard Quinn. We’ve got one of the pieces from his Masters degree which was only in 2016, and he’s already doing things like dressing Amal Clooney for the Met Gala. His career trajectory has been quite radical! He is really interested in digital print, and he had his own print studio in London, where he would, in a fairly anarchic way, zoom into designs, and alter the colours till they became more acidic and unexpected. He did this with some Liberty prints, as a student without really asking permission, but rather than get cross, Liberty took him in and gave him entire access to their back catalogue! So he’s had a wonderful opportunity and had some pieces displayed at the Liberty store in London earlier this year. And he’s shown at London Fashion Week and been presented the Elizabeth II British Design Award…
CC: It’s so nice to hear Liberty welcomed the innovation and had the foresight to see the collaborative potential with Quinn was worth more than enforcing copyright law…
KG: That’s part of the historic ethos of Liberty. When Arthur Liberty started he was pals with the likes of Oscar Wilde, William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites, and was part of that avant-garde of the late 1800s. He used their love of the fabrics he could design and get hold of to add to the appeal of the Liberty store. He wanted to “buy into” what was cool at the time. So that same ethos of working with creative people continues.

Image Credit: Libery Art Fabrics & Fashion at Dovecot Studios.
CC: Do you have any particular favourite pieces?
KG: It’s really hard. When I read about it abstractly I found the artistic dressing movement really interesting, but then when the costumes are actually in the room, some things speak to you more directly. The Marion Donaldson pieces and the pieces from the 1970s are really interesting, because there’s this whole theme of revival, and you see Liberty prints from the 1910s that have been reworked in 1978. It’s an ongoing process of reimagining that I find amazing.
Liberty Art Fabrics and Fashion runs until 12 January 2019 at Dovecot Studios, 10 Infirmary Street, Edinburgh, EH1 1LT.

Your inbox deserves a little culture! Get our monthly newsletter