Getting to Know the Toast of New York Fashion Week: Johnson Hartig of Libertine

September 18, 2019

Johnson Hartig of Libertine is a genius of invention who for almost two decades has held the fashion world in his thrall. His work is an exhilarating highwire feat that balances haute and pop cultures, cheeky riffs and brainy references, without ever losing its deep sense of fun. Here, the designer gives us a glimpse into how he makes the magic happen time and time again.

On What First Sparked His Love of Decorating

I often think that if I hadn’t become a fashion designer, I’d be a decorator. I started reading The World of Interiors as a teenager, and I got W magazine, which back then was a biweekly newspaper, to study how all the fancy people lived. I still have shelves of Architectural Digest issues from the 1970s because I think that was such an exciting time in decoration. For me, decorating is so personal, because when I walk into a room that feels as if a lot of attention has been paid to it, it’s one of the most comforting sensations that I experience in life.

How Libertine Got Its Start

In the beginning, Libertine was all vintage. We’d go to Goodwill and buy 50 men’s blazers, and I would sew up the seams and then cut them off so that they were all frayed and rough, and then we’d wash the garments very vigorously and silk-screen these esoteric 18th- and 19th-century images on them. The line was immediately embraced—I think its one-of-a-kind quality was something that people hadn’t really seen before in that way.

His Top Design Crushes

David Hicks and Billy Baldwin were masterful. Sister Parish—I love her classic Americana mixed with English. Alidad does divine work. Suzanne Rheinstein and Peter Dunham are both fantastic. And I go crazy for Mark Hampton and Mario Buatta. You just don’t see that over-the-top, going-for-it Prince of Chintz look much these days.

Surprise! Schumacher Hits the Runway

The first time Schumacher creatives Dara Caponigro and Pam Marshall visited the studio, they asked me to include a few prints we had developed for Libertine in the Schumacher collection. In the back of my mind I always imagined a dual life for the patterns in both clothing and home decor, and as they evolved the two collections informed one another. That is on full display in our Libertine Spring 2020 collection. The shared patterns show up in many iterations—for example, Plates and Platters and
Modern Toile are both interpreted as hand-embroidered paillettes as well as prints for the clothes.

See the Collection in This Short Video:

Color Sense and Sensibility

My sense of color was really influenced by traveling a lot with my family from a very young age. There’s nothing more divine than the unintentional uses of color you see in the strangest places when you travel. Discovering India seven years ago, I thought, Ah, I’m home, this is where I belong. I must have had a previous life as a maharaja, who knows. I’ve never met a color I haven’t liked.

On Being a Maximalist

Hartig’s bedroom is at once 
high-spirited and thoughtfully 
layered. Paul CostelloPaul Costello

If I see another spare, Modernist room I’m going to go out of my mind. I’m a maximalist and I like to take things as far as they will go. I think it’s probably an outgrowth of never having taken myself too seriously. My mother had a wicked sense of humor, and I inherited that from her. I love someone who puts themselves out there and can really commit, whether it’s to an outfit or a room or a lifestyle or a way of thinking. It takes so much guts.

Cultivating the Creative Process

Hartig in the pool. Paul Costello

People talk about being in the zone, and I think there really is a creative zone, but it takes conscious effort to keep the ideas coming. I travel a lot, I read a lot, I look at a lot of art galleries, museums, I have my favorite flea markets in every city. I’m a naturally curious person, so if something interests me, I want to figure it out. Ideas often come to me in that time between sleeping and wakefulness. Sometimes an idea suddenly pops into my head, and other times I have to cogitate on it for a month. I’m a Libra, so I tend to overthink things until I find the right balance.

The Art of the Mashup

I love putting things together that don’t seem to naturally fit—one of our original prints for Libertine was Meissen monkeys orbiting through outer space. My luxe Dazzle Ship cut velvet for Schumacher is named for the British and American warships that were camouflaged with geometric patterns in World War I, but also for my favorite OMD album from 1981. It’s a bit of French Moderne meets American quilts.

Poetry in Motion

Robert Burns, a Schumacher design by Johnson Hartig for Libertine.Robert Burns, a Schumacher design.

There’s a print in both the Schumacher and Libertine collections called Robert Burns, after the Scottish poet. He wrote a beautiful ode to the one he loves. What’s better than living with a romantic sonnet written across one’s sofa and curtains?

The Yin...

The Libertine line keeps getting more luxurious each season. I remember my kindergarten teacher calling my parents and saying, “He has a really active imagination. In show-and-tell today he said that you guys have four Lincoln Continentals and three Cadillacs.” As a kid I was obsessed with Cadillacs. I loved luxury from a really early age.

…and the Yang

As much as I love luxury, punk rock has also been a vital influence on me—growing up, I was part of a vibrant punk scene in Los Angeles. That’s the essential part of the whole puzzle for me, the butting-of-heads of necessity and luxury. I love these disparate, fighting positions, and the energy that creates. Design is all about energy, and these energies can either feed us or repel us. I embrace the ones that feed the soul.

The Healing Power of Beauty

“My house is a laboratory,” 
Hartig says. “Experimentation is 
one of life’s great pleasures.” The 
boldly scaled ikat used here as a 
tableskirt was named for Hartig’s rescue mutt, Terence.Paul Costello

Home design and fashion design are both means of emotional connection. The one time I’ve been moved to tears by sheer beauty was at Christian Lacroix’s 2005 couture show. I was blown away. It was a revelation. To be moved by beauty is so necessary I think, otherwise we would all be folded over on the floor crying in a puddle of tears. It soothes the soul. If you’ve ignored it, embrace it, because it will pay you back in spades.