Time and distance have not diminished the friendship between Samantha Harris and the men behind fashion label Tome.
When designer Ryan Lobo saw Samantha Harris make her runway debut in 2006, he was utterly transfixed.
“I was mesmerised by this tiny, rosebud-lipped creature and it was the first time in my recollection that I had seen an Aboriginal girl on the runway, or at least one that was obviously Aboriginal,” says Lobo of the then 16-year-old. Working as a buyer for multi-brand boutique Belinda, Lobo was seated front row as Harris completed her first exit in the Willow show as the sun streamed in through the arched windows of the historic sandstone Argyle building in The Rocks, Sydney.
“It was this incredible lofty space ... and here was Sam, this baby, and I thought: this is really exciting to see this beautiful creature,” says Lobo. “[It was] even more exciting because, for a long time, fashion weeks around the globe had been a whitewash in terms of ethnic diversity.”
Ten years later, Lobo is at the helm of one of the world’s most talked about fashion brands, Tome, which he runs from New York with his business partner Ramon Martin. The brand has devoted fans in the fashion set including Caroline de Maigret, Leandra Medine, Caroline Issa and Yasmin Sewell, and is carried by such prestigious stores as Saks Fifth Avenue in New York and David Jones in Australia.
Harris, meanwhile, is no longer lacking confidence. As the first Aboriginal model to grace the cover of Vogue Australia, she has become one of the nation’s top models, working with iconic brands like David Jones, Country Road and Seafolly.
“I was so very young and so very shy,” Harris recalls of her runway debut. “I felt very intimidated and couldn’t speak to anyone.”
“She was so shy and would only speak when spoken to,” confirms Lobo. “She was genuinely like a little Bambi, this beautiful doe-eyed creature that was almost afraid of any interaction.”
But when Lobo sees the model today, he sees a woman who has come into her own.
“She is still a little shy and incredibly polite, but now after knowing her for more than half her life, she has warmed to me and [has] really opened up. When we see each other there is a real camaraderie because we have known each other so long: she is a part of the Tome family.”
For Harris, the feeling is completely mutual.
“I’ve known Ryan and Ramon for so long and working with them is like working with friends. Their brand is growing and growing but they are both still incredibly humble… They are so relaxed and easy going, which is a really nice thing in the fashion industry.”
Harris was just 13 years old when she entered Girlfriend Model Search and made it to the national finals. At the time her aspirations didn’t extend much further than shopping centre pageants –
“My dream was to be in Kmart and Target catalogues” – but Harris proved herself a fast-rising star, being booked for campaigns and shoots in glossy magazines and for runway shows with designers like Dion Lee, Ellery and, of course, Tome.
“Sam was thrust into the media spotlight at a very young age and that puts a lot of pressure on even the most gregarious personalities,” says Lobo.
Harris credits Lobo and Martin with giving her security and confidence during her formative years. They booked her no matter what and offered her advice on how to negotiate the industry. She is proud to be an indigenous model on her own path in an otherwise notoriously competitive world.
“The modelling industry can be tough,” she says. “I’ve learned not to compare myself to anyone else, because everyone is different and beautiful in their own way.”
It is this resolution that explains her connection with a label like Tome, a label that stands for a multi-dimensional definition of beauty.
“What we thought the brand was going to be five years ago and what it is today is something completely unexpected, but really exciting,” says Martin.
“But we have stayed true to our original vision, which was to be a brand for every woman encompassing different versions of beauty, different ages and different body shapes. We’re proud of not falling into a conventional way of doing things in the fashion industry and really carving out our own path.”
Words by Georgina Safe