By  on September 22, 2008

Strands of giant “pearls” lining the entrance of the new Villa Moda store in Bahrain are the first clue this is no standard luxury boutique.

Credit goes to Marcel Wanders, the Dutch industrial designer famous for his knot chairs and cocoon-wrapped chandeliers. He tackled his first major retail assignment by injecting some chaos and surprise into what he calls an “international souk” concept.

“It’s a concept store, driven by high design,” said Sheikh Majed Al-Sabah, president of Kuwait-based Villa Moda Lifestyle, which operates six other fashion emporiums in the Middle East: three locations in Kuwait and one each in Dubai, Damascus in Syria and Doha in Qatar. “It’s sort of building a theater for every single city we do business in.”

The 11,300-square-foot Bahrain unit, which opened last month and is one of the anchor tenants in the Moda Mall, will get its official inauguration in November. Other tenants in the complex, which boasts sea views, include Gucci, Hermès, Louis Vuitton and Fendi.

In an interview, Wanders confessed he’s not a big shopper and his assessment of most fashion boutiques is damning: “I think it’s a bit boring,” he said.

Not so his research tour of souks and bazaars at Al-Sabah’s side, where he couldn’t resist buying candies, toys, dates and sundry food items simply because of the arresting and exotic packaging.

“What’s so beautiful about the souk is it’s always surprising. It’s not organized,” said Wanders. “It’s good to upgrade it and give a new feel to it.”

Bahrain, the center of the pearl trade in the Gulf, inspired Wanders’ entrance tunnel, which funnels visitors into a dramatic central atrium with 26-foot ceilings and a giant domed chandelier. Murals, mosaic tiles, mirrors and boldly printed carpets and wallpaper are among the eye-popping elements.

One of Wanders’ favorite details is a giant plaster floral design that bursts out of the wall behind the cash desk. “Functional things, with all due respect, are predictable,” he said. “If you can surprise people with something beautiful, it makes sense.”

Al-Sabah noted shopping is a key pastime in the Middle East, and customers, who may frequent a favorite shop two to three times a week, expect to be dazzled and to encounter something fresh and new every time they enter. To wit: In addition to shops-in-shops for Marni, Dries Van Noten, Manolo Blahnik and Anya Hindmarch, Al-Sabah tilted the merchandise mix toward “cutting-edge” brands from Japan, Belgium and England. These include Martin Margiela, Christopher Kane, Nina Ricci and Junya Watanabe — interspersed with design objects, Assouline books, jeans, perfume and all manner of accessories. Prices range from about $40 for a T-shirt up to $40,000 for evening dresses.

An island nation, Bahrain draws most of it shoppers via a causeway linking it to Saudi Arabia, but the local clientele is growing quickly, Al-Sabah said, citing strong sales of long evening dresses, men’s wear and accessories.

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