By  on July 9, 2008

Iraq isn't the first place that comes to mind for retail expansion, butat least one fashion company is venturing where none has gone.

Mango plans to bridge a cultural and psychological divide and open a store inAbril, a city of one million people in Iraq's northern Kurdistan region.

"We're going to open a shop in Iraq very soon," said Isak Halfon,Mango's president of expansion. "The people are starving for somethinglike this."

But don't expect the usual array of flirty dresses, tight jeans and sexybikinis found in most Mango stores.

In an acknowledgement of the cultural realities, the clothing will be designed byZuhair Murad, a Lebanese designer who has collaborated with the retailer since2006. About 30 percent of the Mango merchandise sold in the Middle East is designedspecifically for the region and Murad's collections are available only inArab countries.

The Barcelona-based fast-fashion chain has a thriving business in the Middle East.The region accounted for 13 percent of 2007 revenues of 1.33 billion euros, or$2.08 billion at current exchange.

The retailer, which operates 1,144 stores in 90 countries, entered the MiddleEast in 1997, opening units in Kuwait and Dubai. It now has 84 stores in the region,in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Dubai, Bahrain, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar and Israel.The company plans to open 22 stores there this year. "We're numberone in these countries," Halfon said. "Sales are booming."

Abril has experienced sporadic violence since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.In May 2007, a suicide truck bomb killed 14 people and wounded 87. But in thelast year, the city has seen some development. A new airport terminal is underconstruction and hotels are being built.

Nonetheless, Mango executives did not travel to Iraq because of safety concerns."We didn't go there to see the location, but we have a good partnerthere," Halfon said. "This is the only store we accepted without seeingit."

Mango's vulnerability to Middle East violence isn't limited to Iraq.The company in July 2006 temporarily closed five stores, four in Beirut and onein Tripoli, Lebanon, after Israel bombed Lebanon during its war with Hezbollah.

Asked why Mango was opening a store in Iraq, Halfon said, "We like to havea challenge."

And a challenge it will be. Traditional Islamic attire for women covers most oftheir bodies and often consists of a jilbab, or overgarment; hijab, or headscarf,and aniqab, or face veil.

"The Koran says that both men and women must dress modestly," saidKatherine Lang, associate professor and chairman of the history department atthe University of Wisconsin Eau Claire. "That's been interpreted ina lot of different ways in a lot of different places. Women have to cover themselvesin Iran and Saudi Arabia, but not in Iraq. The biggest issue would be the economicsof this. The challenge is who can afford the clothes right now. Still, there aregoing to be women interested in high fashion."

Lang said some Mango garments may be worn underneath a jilbab, hidden until thewearer arrives at a private function.

"In Iraq, we have a much more conservative society," said Rend Al-Rahim,director of the Iraq Foundation, a nonprofit focused on women's issues andhuman rights. "Amman and Cairo [where Mango operates stores] are much moreopen environments and more modern societies. A lot of designs that may sell wellin Lebanon couldn't be sold in Iraq, things that are sleeveless, that showthe midriff, short skirts, tight pants and tops that show a lot of bosom. Somewomen may buy them to wear at women's-only parties, but they don'thave many parties right now because of security concerns."

Mango will still have to be careful "not to show anything provocative intheir windows," he said. "Abril is not Lebanon or London or Madrid."

In addition to his collection for the Middle East, Murad designs a signature collectionthat's as sexy and glitzy as anything a Hollywood starlet might wear. Hiscouture spring-summer 2008 line, themed Diamonds Are Forever, features modelswith blonde Marilyn Monroe curls and silver halter gowns slit high up the thigh.Nor is prêt-à-porter any more demure. A long black gown has sheerinserts on the bodice and a pink and turquoise gown exposes the midriff.

But Zuhair Murad Limited Edition for Mango is in line with Middle Eastern norms.Long silhouettes — tunics worn with ruffle-hemmed skirts and billowy dresses— come in floaty fabrics and silks. The issue of coverage is dealt withthrough layers. Soft pastel colors such as teal, beige, cream, lavender and peachabound.

"They like to have long-sleeve blouses," Halfon said of consumersin the region. "Being Lebanese, [Murad] does long dresses and is very goodon this kind of issue."

Mango is active on fronts around the world.

The retailer is launching a men's wear concept called Mango He after testingthe concept in its stores.

"The test was quite positive," Halfon said. "We opened the firstMango He in Ankara [Turkey]."

The men's collection will also launch in some existing Mango units. Halfonsaid it takes up 5 to 8 percent of a store's space and will be introducedinto larger stores.

Mango is building its retail presence. There's an emphasis on Russia andEastern Europe. The company opened its third Romanian store in Bucharest in April.Three additional stores will open in Cluj-Napoca and Constanta, former capitalsof the Transylvania and Dobruja regions in Romania, respectively.

In Russia, where Mango operates 48 stores, business is robust, Halfon said. Mangothis year opened 13 stores there. Russia represents 4 or 5 percent of Mango'stotal sales volume, Halfon said, adding that the retailer will continue to open10 to 20 stores a year in the area. "People there love to spend money,"he said. "They're coming out of 70 years of oppression. They loveto consume and wear sexy garments."

Halfon characterized China, which Mango entered in 2002, as "a good market,but not as good as the Russian market." The company has 45 units in Chinaand will open 28 stores by the beginning of next year.

In emerging markets, Mango will add five stores to the nine it already has inIndia. Several challenges exist in India: Sixty percent of the population weartraditional saris and the Indian standard of living is below that of China. "Indiais a difficult market so far," Halfon said. "It's not easy toimport to India."

Mango has touched down on the African continent, as well, opening stores in Johannesburgand Cape Town. Halfon views Senegal and the Ivory Coast as emerging markets that"will be good in a couple of years."

The U.S. is one market that still seems to be in development in terms of storecount. Mango has unveiled only 20 units, while competitor Hennes & Mauritzhas launched more than 100. Mango will open five to six stores a year in the U.S.,Halfon said.

"I'd love to open 10 to 15 stores a year," he said. "Thedifficult thing in the U.S. is the location. We want to make a cluster of storesin the New York area. We're trying to make some deals and [have] criticalmass like we have in Los Angeles....We'd like to have more stores inNew York City."

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