Case study Liberty of London

THE LIBERTY OF LONDON FLAGSHIP SPACE HAS MORE IN COMMON WITH A BOUTIQUE ART GALLERY THAN THE OPULENT MAXIMALISM OF ITS PARENT DEPARTMENT STORE

When you think of Liberty – London’s loveliest emporium housed in its mock-Tudor building filled with carved polished wood, stucco and fancy prints – a white box is the last thing that comes to mind. But that is exactly where the first standalone store for its luxury brand Liberty of London has ended up, in a 200m2 slot of a space on London’s Sloane Street. ‘The white box is difficult but not impossible,’ says Pierre Beucler of Architecture et Associés, the Paris-based architect in charge of its design. ‘Perhaps the size was more strange. When you think about Liberty, you think of a big space, of its famous atrium, and this new project is about thinking small.’

Happily, there is a logic to this. Liberty of London is, after all, a distillation of the wider Liberty brand. Launched in September 2005 under the creative direction of Tamara Salman, the marque aimed to capture Liberty’s core qualities. At the time, Salman described these as ‘opulence without vulgarity, modernity, decoration and pattern’. She has followed this through in a range of leather goods, homewares, swimwear, lingerie, stationery and scarves which pay homage to Liberty’s love of artisanal values, while creating a brand that’s appropriately 21st century.

Just as Salman has been involved with every detail of each new Liberty of London product, she absorbed herself equally in the creation of the store. ‘Although we were in Paris and she was in London, she came to every meeting for seven months,’ says Beucler. While some architects could find that oppressive, it is the stock-in-trade of Architecture et Associés. Its track record includes working on the Dior Homme stores with DH’s then creative head Hedi Slimane and more recently with Albar Elvaz, who was appointed artistic director of Lanvin in 2001. ‘We don’t bring our design to a project but our philosophy, and that is to listen. Inspiration comes directly from the client,’ says Beucler. ‘We go to the source, which in this case was the history of the house of Liberty, where we reinterpreted the old formula,’ continues Jean-Christophe Poggioli, partner at Architecture et Associés. At times, this has been done literally – casts were taken of mouldings that decorate the Regent Street store and then recreated in plaster at Sloane Street.

The resulting interior is a decorative delight, packed with materials, finishes and patterns that go back to the Regent Street store, passed through a contemporary filter. The floor is a pale grey concrete aggregate, inlaid with an abstraction of the Ianthe pattern in brass. Freestanding furniture has been designed along Arts and Crafts lines, made in reclaimed oak and finished in high-gloss black and with shiny brass feet. ‘I love those touches, the little hoofs on the furniture. It’s all in the details,’ says Salman. Chandeliers are recreations of a clean 1960s original.

On the ground floor, a series of display arches in satin-finished brass, which play on the idea of the Orient meeting Arts and Crafts, came directly from the architect, though they could easily have been the idea of Salman herself. ‘They are instinctively more Minimalist in their design,’ she says, ‘but we talked through ideas of luxe and this is where we ended up. The Liberty of London product is so decadent that it was important for the interior architecture not to fight it and they worried about it all being too much. Then they suddenly let go and went wilder than I thought they could or would.’ Poggioli describes the design process as a journey via India and Baghdad (where Salman was born) to London. ‘In the end I played more English than the English,’ says Poggioli. ‘England is chaotic – you can mix squares and flowers. In France we can’t do that.’

As with all two-level stores, the problem of how to lure customers upstairs – in this case to the menswear department – had to be resolved. Beucler and Poggioli’s solution is a black-and-white bead curtain (made in England by theatre-set builder Replica), which is again an abstraction of the Ianthe print. While undoubtedly a stunning set piece (it reminds me of the 10m-long string of pearls created by Othoniel for Chanel’s Hong Kong store – a new retail trope?), it provides more of a backdrop than an indication of what’s to come. But once up the sweeping staircase, you will find a different space, more reminiscent of a gentlemen’s club, with changing booths like carriages from the Orient Express. Here, there are shirts covered with insect prints and mouldings of animals. Indeed, you could say the whole is held together with stucco.

Salman aims to re-prop the store monthly – she brought in skulls especially for the opening – and dress the windows every three to four weeks. Sloane Street is a competitive environment where retailers have to perform hard to stand out. The system will also have to survive and shine as Liberty of London takes itself around the world. ‘It will translate to a shop within a shop,’ asserts Poggioli. ‘We can keep the freestanding furniture, the mouldings and the arches, and even the bead curtain can be made on a miniature scale.’ Which is all a long way from the architect’s first contact with Salman. She says, ‘They were a bit sniffy at first.’ Which shows how much things can change in a mere seven months. •

Address: Liberty of London, 197 Sloane Street, London SW1 Architect: Architecture et Associés Client: Liberty of London Lighting supplier: Building Service Design, with chandeliers provided by Liberty of London Furniture supplier: Clements Retail (fitted), Oval (freestanding)

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