PARIS — He brought Fendi fur coats and Gucci handbags to the docklands of sweltering Kuwait. Now retailer Sheikh Majed Al-Sabah of Villa Moda is bringing Dolce & Gabbana stilettos and headache tablets to a five-star hotel in Qatar.
“The store concept will be like Duane Reade meets Bergdorf Goodman,” Al-Sabah quipped about the 4,300-square-foot Villa Moda he plans to open at the Ritz Carlton in Doha next January. “[It] will be like a beautiful living room with two glass cubes for Gucci, Prada and Fendi and the rest of the store will be multibrand, with all sorts of fashion, gadgets, magazines, books, postcards, food and other things. Think of a beautiful Valentino handbag displayed next to today’s newspaper.”
Al-Sabah said that very little — neither bathing costumes nor film — is for sale at the beachside resort location, thus the quirky merchandise mix.
Spying retail opportunities across the Middle East and beyond, Al-Sabah is rapidly expanding his Villa Moda concept at a time when independent retailers are dwindling. A 32,400-square-foot Villa Moda is slated to bow early next monthat the Emirates Towers in Dubai and Al-Sabah is plotting a 12,900-square-foot Villa Moda for Pedder Road in Mumbai, India, for March. He also disclosed that Sheikha Mouza Al-Misnad, wife of the Emir of Qatar, has approached him to mastermind a massive 2.1-million-square-foot shopping and lifestyle concept adjacent to its vast “Education City” campus.
Detailing his expansion plans in an exclusive interview, Al-Sabah said all the new Villa Modas outside of Kuwait will be franchises, which means he can expand with “zero investment” while reaping royalty fees and gaining better terms with key vendors because he will be buying larger volumes.
In Dubai, his partner is Sifico Fashion, which operates Bruno Magli and Furla stores; in Qatar, it’s the royal Al-Thani family, and in India, it’s the Chordia and Talera Group, whose activities span car dealerships, logistics and jewelry retailing.
Under each of the deals, the partners finance and run the business side, while Villa Moda does the buying, store design, brand mix, recruitment and visual merchandising. Al-Sabah projects first-year sales of $7.5 million in Dubai, $3.8 million in Qatar and $7.1 million in India.In business for more than a decade, Villa Moda burst on to the international fashion radar last year when it opened a $20 million, 75,000-square-foot luxury emporium in Kuwait. Stella McCartney, Gucci Group chairman and chief executive Domenico De Sole and scores of glitterati jetted in for the festivities.
Al-Sabah said the flagship, which replaced a smaller unit in the city, is already operating at a profit and generated sales of $28 million last year, more than triple what he pulled in at the previous Villa Moda location. For 2003, he’s projecting a modest 5 percent increase, since sales from January though May were affected by the war in Iraq.
But he’s bullish about the prospects for fashion and luxury across the region.
“In terms of fashion, there is opportunity, but there’s diversity and flexibility in our approach,” he said. “We see what each city lacks and develop our concepts accordingly.”
Dubai, which is aggressively targeting foreign business investment and recently welcomed soccer deity David Beckham as a condo owner, says tourism has increased 54 percent over the past four years, with gross domestic product up 24 percent.
Likening the booming city to Las Vegas, Al-Sabah said he opted for an “Austin Powers meets 007” theme for the Dubai store. Reprising the signature glass-cube format of the Kuwaiti flagship, it will boast shops by Prada, Miu Miu, Marni and Chloé, surrounded by other “pop art” boxes carrying such brands as Stella McCartney, Junya Watanabe, Blumarine and Yohji Yamamoto.
Amenities include a coffee bar, newsstand, beauty counter and private elevators to shuttle shoppers from the basement valet parking directly to the store. Al-Sabah said he plans to invite celebrities, designers, clients and industry executives for opening festivities scheduled for Oct. 24 and 25.
As for India, Al-Sabah said he hopes to attract Bollywood stars and capitalizeon the huge wedding business, with a selection weighted to accessories and “forward” fashions for women and men. Anchored by shops for Gucci, Prada, Fendi and Ferragamo, the store will also offer a multibrand area, rounded out by a Colonial tearoom and displays of antique and modern furniture.Al-Sabah acknowledged competition for European luxury brands is fierce in the emerging Middle East market, with his principal foes being a rival Kuwait group Chaloub, which handles French brands, and Saks Fifth Avenue, which is plotting more sites in the region.
Al-Sabah’s calling card is a hybrid that is neither department store nor shopping mall, with services ranging from valet parking and free makeovers to handpicked evening gowns, to parties where customers unpack fresh deliveries from Europe themselves.
“We need diversity and innovation in everything we touch, otherwise we go to square one, which is being another boring store,” he said.
Looking ahead, Al-Sabah envisions Villa Moda becoming a “lifestyle company” encompassing not only fashion and beauty, but food, art, entertainment, travel and consulting. For example, for the Qatar education project, he plans to assemble teams of architects, creative directors, industrial and graphic designers to develop the shopping complex and create the tenant mix.
That complex isn’t expected to open until 2007 or 2008. In the meantime, Al-Sabah is also plotting new Villa Moda locations for Bahrain and the Indian cities New Delhi and Bangalore.
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