"It never starts with a color and it never starts with a graphic," Johnson Hartig explained of his design process. "It always starts with an idea and an emotion."
I met Johnson, designer of the California-based label Libertine, over breakfast at the Regency Hotel—his crash pad of choice when visiting New York—a few weeks before the NYFW Fall 2012 shows to get the lowdown on his creative process and the evolution of the brand. (Johnson, who studied fine art and painting at Long Beach State, originally founded Libertine—famous for its graphic print, reworked vintage aesthetic—back in 2001 with Cindy Greene, who left to do her own thing in 2009.)
"It usually begins by thinking things through that I had started the season before, and if something seems particularly strong that I’m already feeling good about, then I come up with more ideas," he said between bites of bacon and eggs while waiters swirled around us in the plush dining room, taking orders and refilling coffee cups. "I’ll kind of store those away thinking maybe it won’t come as easily next season and I’ll have these to rely on. That happens pretty much every season. So I’ll take those out of the closet and expand on them and just one thing leads to another…"
For fall 2011, his first show after a two-year hiatus from the runway, the high-spirited designer was inspired by the colorful Islamic tiles he'd seen while visiting mosques in Turkey. "For spring 2012, I thought that I would continue the emotion from fall in that the simplicity of the plaid and the colors appeal to me," he said. "But I knew that I couldn’t do anything very colorful for spring 'cause there had been such saturated color for fall. The idea of a black and white collection really appealed but I kept thinking I can’t do just black and white and then someone came to the studio [who really liked it] and it’s almost like they gave me permission to do a black and white collection. Then it just all came together."
This resulted in a winning array of pieces printed with circular, xo and barcode-like graphics, along with a skirt and t-shirt bearing the timely, tongue-in-chic slogan, "Tax the Rich More." Johnson clarified that the barcode print was not meant as a comment on our consumerist society, as I had assumed, but were "just graphic-y stripes."
As for the x's and o's, he added, "Sometimes when I’m at home and bored I'll put on music and paint. And I was flipping through this tablet that I’d done a few years before—I had painted all those x’s and o’s and stripes—and I thought these seem kind of interesting and fresh to me, and I took them to the studio and experimented with the Xerox machine and proportions. So it was something that I had done years before that I re-explored."
I told him the spring collection felt incredibly strong and cohesive.
"Well, that’s what I’m really good at—making something out of nothing," replied the multi-talented Johnson, who was an interior designer before turning to fashion. "I’m really good at taking these disparate objects and putting them together in a way that works. It’s the same with rooms—it’s just all a bunch of junk but [it's about] putting it together interestingly."
For fall 2012, the designer found inspiration in the pile-it-on aesthetic of Eastern European gypsies, though the collection—full of heavily beaded dresses and skull and crossbone bedecked suits—was anything but literal. "I have 10,000 ideas a day that I could run with, so it really is more a process of editing and elimination and slowing my mind down," said Johnson with a laugh.
Between 90 and 95 percent of all Libertine pieces are one-of-a-kind, which means buyers scramble to be first to place an order post-show so their store has the pick of the litter (so to speak). In addition to Johnson, Libertine employs his assistant, Stephanie, and four or five interns. All of the label's signature silkscreening is done in-house "on a 10-year-old ironing board," as is the reconstruction and sewing of every single garment baring the Libertine label.
"We’re really a tiny, tiny company, but we have a big impact for being such a small organization," the much-copied Twitter aficionado said, adding that he likes things to happen "really fast" and has no problem moving on if an idea's not working, which explains how his tightly-knit team creates 5,000 to 8,000 garments per year.
In a recent follow-up call, Johnson confided that for fall 2013, he found his muse in a "life changing" trip he took, alone, to India this past January. He also mentioned that Libertine's recurring tree branch motif was inspired by the switches his grandmother used to beat him with when he was a little boy (and he may have been laughing when he said it, but he was dead serious).
"I know exactly what I want it to look like in my head," Johnson said of his collection as our breakfast wound down. "It’s much more complicated doing it the way I do it than with traditional designers because traditional designers can make something that they see, whereas I have to rely on the ability to find it, or something close to what I’m imagining. So it’s a bit more complicated."