Liberty of London creative director Tamara Salman considers the connection between her childhood in Iraq and her present role moulding the future of Liberty’s luxury accessories brand.
Born to an English mother and an Iraqi father, she grew up in Baghdad, going on picnics to Babylon and family outings among the antiquities of Nineveh.
Salman says: “I suppose one of the reasons that I was so fascinated with Liberty was the fact that it did have a history and that Arthur Liberty himself was a real and interesting character and he did all this travelling. So I guess there is an element of looking at the richness of the past, but modernising it.”
This is reflected in Liberty of London’s new standalone store, which debuted on London’s Sloane Street last month. The store’s architecture harks back to a timeless era of the opulence of travel and an exoticism that resonates with Salman.
After a brief flirtation with archaeology, she moved to high-end luxury brands including Prada and Romeo Gigli and was then headhunted by Liberty to launch the luxury brand. “It seemed a perfect fit,” she says. “I didn’t know what I had let myself in for,” she smiles. “I saw this huge potential for a brand that was a sleeping giant.”
When Salman joined the business in 2005, she inherited a “private-label mountain of washbags” and “quite dodgy-looking canvas bags”. “There was an interest from the board that there should be a brand launch, but there was no clarity as to what exactly that should be,” she says. “The chairman was very clear he wanted luxury, but what they had was going nowhere, growing in no direction in particular.”
With her background, Salman was able to bring on board factories that she knew and had worked with in Italy to support her. And so, under the guidance of then-chief executive Iain Renwick, Liberty of London launched, taking the rich heritage of Liberty’s fabrics as its roots.
However, it has not been plain sailing for Liberty, which has faced full-year losses of£6.4 million, largely as a result of£3.5 million start-up costs from the venture. However, the standalone London store will act as a “blueprint for global expansion”, which is where its potential lies, says Salman.
Liberty has also been plagued by suggestions that parent company Marylebone Warwick Balfour (MWB) is keen to sell or break up the retailer, something strongly denied by both Salman, Liberty chief executive Geoffroy de la Bourdonnaye and chairman Richard Balfour Lynn.
“I know for a fact that it’s not true, so it doesn’t affect the team,” she says bluntly, adding that there is so much potential for Liberty of London to become profitable.
Since its conception, Liberty of London has had a presence in the main Liberty store in the atrium and latterly in the men’s and home departments. “It could be so much,” she says. “I would love it to be a much bigger part of the store than it is and I think it would be great if it was really the heart of the store, but the bigger picture is really much more separate from the store.”
She is quick to add her gratitude and emphasise the support received by MWB. “That has been shown by their investment in the new store. We really have not cut corners,” she says. “I was clear it had to have a feeling of Liberty, but it was not a mock mini-Tudor building; it has just got an essence of Liberty’s history. It is a complete modern reinterpretation and the future of how I see the Liberty brand.”
It remains to be seen whether they will have as much success as their high-end luxury peers. Salman wants Liberty of London to have a presence through wholesale or shop-in-shops in all “key directional department stores” globally. At present, it has 100 doors worldwide.
“We are in the early stages of a luxury brand,” she says, although she adds that she has struggled to convince buyers that Liberty of London was not a private label.
But that will not stop the determined Salman, whose passion cannot help but show. She says: “Still today, there are articles where it says you can’t make a brand out of a retail store and it makes me so mad because, just because it hasn’t been done before, doesn’t mean it can’t be done at all.”
Fabric of life
Studied: Textiles at Winchester School of Art
Born: Baghdad, Iraq. Moved to the UK aged 14
2008: oversaw launch of Liberty of London’s standalone store
2005: joined Liberty of London as creative director
Pre-2005: worked in high-end fashion houses in Paris and Milan including Prada and Romeo Gigli