Tamara Salman: Liberty's new belle

Using exotic prints and innovative designs, Tamara Salman is reinvigorating Britain's most venerable store - and she's done it all without leaving the 1870s
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Liberty has long been at the centre of rumours of a renaissance. In recent years, the venerable British haberdasher has undergone an impressive redesign, sponsored and been associated with a number of fashionable events, and welcomed a host of exciting young designers on to its floors.

Liberty has long been at the centre of rumours of a renaissance. In recent years, the venerable British haberdasher has undergone an impressive redesign, sponsored and been associated with a number of fashionable events, and welcomed a host of exciting young designers on to its floors.

But the real transformation story began with the appointment, seven months ago, of Tamara Salman as design director. Salman's substantial task is to revive Liberty's signature prints and to oversee the reinvention of its own-brand products. No mean feat, turning what has latterly been considered WI dowdy into desirable, but Salman is convinced of this great institution's huge potential. She has dusted down Liberty's archive, pulled out key prints, blown them up, manipulated them, and flooded them with colour. And that's just the start of her mission to turn Liberty on its head.

Salman is perfect for this role. The petite, raven-haired 35-year-old studied textiles at Winchester School of Art, and has spent the past 12 years working for some of the most prestigious fashion houses (contractually, she's not allowed to name names). And her exotic origins - she was born in Baghdad to an English mother and an Arab/Persian father, and travelled extensively in Asia as a child - marry well with the Liberty legacy. (Liberty's founder, Arthur Lasenby Liberty, was himself an enthusiastic globetrotter and collector.)

"Just walking through the shop, I was amazed not to see fabulous products, when Liberty has such a rich heritage to exploit," says Salman, explaining her reasons for taking the job. "There was no sign of the exoticism and Orientalism for which Liberty was renowned, so I knew that much could be done here."

Salman feels that a certain misconception accounts for the eclipsing of Liberty's opulent past. "For some reason, everyone thinks of the Thirties-style floral print as being emblematic of Liberty, but for me, Liberty is much older than that, and is more richly exotic and decorative."

To regain its former glory as a great British label, Salman thinks that Liberty should return to the extravagant eclecticism of Arthur Liberty's epoch. "I don't feel that there is a strong British image in the fashion industry at the moment," she says. "The brands that have reinvented themselves have done so in a very subtle, understated way, whereas in Milan, designers are proud of what they do, and are decadent and over the top. I think that Liberty can afford to be like that. It can mix Britishness with decoration, because that is truly Liberty's heritage."

And that is why Salman is bringing to the fore the more lavish of Liberty's iconic prints - "Hera", with its peacock feathers, and "Ianthe", and Art Nouveau pattern, for example - and they will remain constant features of Liberty's new range.

Salman is keen to point out, however, that she isn't trying to "do a Burberry": "It's not about creating a seasonal catwalk show and directional clothing. There's enough fabulous fashion design out there already. And it's not about competing against labels that we already have in the store. We're not creating a cheaper version of anything. This is purely Liberty-focused, and Liberty has the design history to warrant it. It's about creating beautiful sought-after items: a gorgeous bag, fantastic embroidered sheets, a great scarf or an elegant diary."

The first Salman-designed wares - beachwear (a first for Liberty) and nightwear - will be available from now until mid-March, while an avalanche of new merchandise - stationery, bags, scarves, brollies and homeware - will arrive in the autumn. Launching beachwear is Salman's opening gambit at ridding Liberty's own-brand line of its drab image. The Capri-style beach bags, swimsuits, string bikinis and towels in the blown-up "Ianthe" print are all extremely glamorous. And the silk nightwear with the "Hera" motif digitally manipulated in Hockney-esque hues is far from wallflower. It's a clever strategy: her little satin bow-tied knickers will doubtless attract that coveted younger customer, while the dressing gowns and PJs will appeal to the Liberty loyal.

Shapes throughout have been kept simple. "It's too crass to go completely berserk on the form as well as the print. It's about keeping the simplicity but embellishing to an extreme," says Salman, who sees textiles and their decoration as Liberty's key strength. "There's so much fashion around and everything is so similar, the only way to make things stand out, feel special, and to differentiate from the high street, is by manipulating textiles." And that's why Salman has called on her army of contacts to help: Dolce & Gabbana's embroiderer has worked antique silver sequins into Liberty scarves; and Prada's tie-dye guru has translated her sophisticated colour blurring on to Liberty bed linen.

Ideally, and given time, Salman will work with more British designers and craftspeople, just as Arthur Liberty did back in the 1870s. The milliner Stephen Jones is Salman's first home-grown commission. "Stephen is perfect for Liberty because of his Englishness. Plus he's quite opulent as opposed to understated," she explains. And although Jones's jaunty hats, which are already in the store, do carry his name on the label, Salman won't be flogging a host of products on the back of designer names: "Yes, I do want to work with young designers, talented designers, but I won't use their names to sell a product."

Proof of this is her use of the young London designer Camilla Staerk, who is working on a bag collection for this autumn; and a former Louis Vuitton designer who is creating a classic bag range for spring 2006, neither of whom will be credited on the actual product.

Having always worked behind the fashion-house curtains, Salman admits that she did worry initially that maybe Liberty should have a big name designing the range, but, too often, starry collaborations are fanfared when there's actually no foundation to the partnering. By appointing Tamara Salman, Liberty has chosen long-term design aptitude over short-lived publicity. And because she has always worked in-house as opposed to front-of-house, she instinctively puts the Liberty point of view across rather than her own. As she says herself: "The longer I'm here, the more it makes sense. The whole mix - my background, my work, Liberty - it all fits."

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