Big Ben Chimes, it’s London Calling.
London came to me first in September 1982, when United Kingdom Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher traveled to China. The Iron Lady visited the city of Hangzhou, where I was born and where, at age 15, I was attending a boarding school for diplomacy. As a representative of my school, I was asked to meet Mrs. Thatcher in a ceremony with other representatives of the city.
I remember going up to her and introducing myself. She greeted me then turned to her aide and unexpectedly produced the biggest book my young life had ever seen: The Book of the Royal Wedding of Princess Diana and Prince Charles in 1981.
The rest of the event was a blur. I remember someone immediately whisking the book away, worried such a heavy volume would be dropped and damaged in front of the media. Once we were back in our school, all the children were so excited that during our break we all jammed into the library to marvel at the book’s pages.
A Magical First Impression
I’m certain you can almost picture how we girls—all 15 years and younger—stared at those mesmerizing photos, and how we felt realizing that somewhere in the world such spectacle existed. Among the most talked about photos showed the 25-foot train of Diana’s fairytale wedding gown, the colorful Royal Carriage, and the grand staircase of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
In 1982, China had just started to open up to the world and most people had never traveled overseas. The photos of the Royal Wedding were as distant as the paintings we studied in art history books. Perhaps that was when my first impression of London was formed and my fascination with the Royal Family took hold. I saw London as a city somewhat representing a crossroad of the past and the present, a place where you can preserve grand and ceremonial splendor while leaping into a modern world that is completely contemporary in attitude, all at once.
London, At Last
Four years later, while studying for an undergraduate degree in Beijing and interning for the World Bank in China, I had a chance to attend an environmental conference in Britain. The meeting was held in the northern city of York, so my dream to visit London was within reach. Paying my own way, I met up with a friend who was studying drama there.
I boarded the train and was on my way to London! As we approached the city, the buildings appeared closer and closer to each other. I stepped off the train at King’s Cross Station and there was my friend, eager to show me the sights of what was, for me at the time, the ultimate destination. My tour of London began immediately.
Of course, London was nothing like it was in books! After all, it was an amazing July day! My friend and I rushed off to see the changing of guards at Buckingham Palace so we could dive right into our curiosity of the Royal Family. After that, we went to all the famous tourist attractions, taking pictures at Westminster Abby, waving to other tourists at Big Ben, and trying in vain to fit all of London Bridge into our little camera.
The Splendor of Fabrics and Finery
As if there was an invisible thread leading us by the nose, we stumbled upon Liberty Department Store.
Even today, my friend still jokes about how I, not she, “discovered” Liberty. Most often, it was Harrod’s that always captured the hearts and purses of thousands of visitors; you practically couldn’t miss their green and gold logo bags everywhere in London. But Liberty can be an acquired taste, especially for a first-time visitor, a kind of secret that Londoners keep to themselves. Legendary Liberty fabrics are their pride and joy, and they love having such unique style to call their own.
For me, Liberty was love at first sight. As a student on my first trip out of China, stumbling into Liberty felt like Alice falling into Wonderland. I have always loved stuff, partly due to having been deprived of many pretty things from clothes to gifts while growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution. Sometimes such deprivation trains your eyes to constantly search for beautiful objects. In Liberty, my eyes went into a wild chase to focus, to center, for object after object revealed such refined elegance to delight the senses.
On the first floor, we ran our fingers across the soft leather journals in hues of robin’s egg blue, tangerine, and putty gray; our eyes traveled up and down the chic and stunning scarves; and we literally got lost in the fabric department. Growing up, I had always had a tailor, so finding fabrics and imagining what to do with it was a natural for me. But I had never seen such opulence—drapery-like silk dupionis, luscious beaded and sequined textiles from India, and bold and luxurious woven linens from Italy. We knew we wouldn’t buy anything; what kind of fabric do you buy at Liberty when you are a college student sharing a room with other college students? But that didn’t stop us from dreaming as we spent hours gazing at and touching so many beautiful and unusual fabrics.
Tea Time at Liberty of London
Hungry and tired, but in complete bliss, we looked for a place to grab a snack and arrived at the third floor restaurant just in time for tea. We were seated at a table set in crisp white linens, silver service and English bone china. The server, recognizing that this was my first experience with the ritual of English afternoon tea, “poured out” the steaming tea with considerable ceremony. I smiled at my friend as I took my first bite of hot scones with Cornish clotted cream and homemade raspberry jam. It was splendid, and from that moment on, I never believed anyone who said that the British don’t know how to cook!
London Calling—to the Shopping District
No 19-year-old girl would ever miss the shopping at Piccadilly and Oxford Street. London girls were (and are) so fashionable, and I was impressed by their clever way of mixing and matching items, how effortless it was for them to match a crisp white shirt with a pair of pencil pants and high heels (mind you, this was 1988).
I will never forget how well history and architecture are preserved in London. It impressed me that people would go out of their way to make roads curve this way and that in order to preserve a monument or a park. I was also taken by the contrast of the historical buildings and landmarks with Londoners who were so contemporary in the way they dressed and in the new art and music they seemed to constantly create. Once again, the theme of a crossroad of past and present echoed in my mind.
That first trip, my friend and I decided London was definitely one of our most favorite cities.
I have since returned to London a dozen times. As the rest of the world goes on with their modernization and globalization, London keeps pace while insisting on its own way of preserving history. I still go to Liberty for the inspiration of its prints, but I’ve also discovered the many boutiques of Chelsea, and gained an appreciation of bespoke tailored suits worn by the men and women in the financial district.
Last January, after a quick visit to Paris, I decided to stop over in London before heading back to Washington, D.C. The flight took me to London City Airport, a stone’s throw from downtown London, which put me in the mood right away.
In the cold and damp winter air, we made our pilgrimage to Liberty, and gazed at the displays in Harvey Nichols. We loved the creativity of the Conran Shop, and marveled at the assortment at Selfridges. Along the way, we discovered a “Lychee Rose” Martini in a newly opened restaurant, and couldn’t help but feel the vibe that, as always, London was vibrant, creative and inviting us to join the fun.
To me, London is simply irresistible, so it is no surprise that it has inspired this season’s destination and theme, “London Calling.” Decades ago, it was the first city that I visited outside of China. It’s still one of my MFCs, and it continues to captivate me with its innovative blend of charm and cheekiness, traditions and trends.
We couldn’t design a London collection without thinking about a color story. I chose a white and grey story for its obvious connection to London climes, its urban appeal, and the fact that it creates an all-embracing backdrop for just about any color story. And London’s iconic buildings come naturally to mind when we searched for images and graphic motifs. Our selection of a particular shade of mint green as accent color represents a crossroad of sea blue and forest green that is exactly the kind of color you would imagine in a chic London townhouse with crisp white crown molding and a white marble fireplace.
The Gift of a Royal Wedding
Of course, this year, we can’t design a London collection without including the magic of a royal wedding! As the city prepares for the marriage of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, I cannot help but remember the book given to my school by Mrs. Thatcher and wonder what spectacle awaits the world. In homage to all the fairytale weddings taking place this year, you will see many pieces that make lovely gifts for newlyweds.
As you view the entire collection, it will no doubt remind you of things you have heard about or experienced in this marvelous destination. My hope is that it will also invite you to play and create your own version of a perfect London flat. Each of us adds something that is decidedly our own, so that London will definitely remain of Blissliving Home’s MFCs here, there and everywhere.
Creator & CEO