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Al-Sabah Plans Kuwait City Department Store

Slated to open in early 2014, the Exhibition Hall will mingle international fashion brands with Middle Eastern culture, heritage and design.

A rendering of The Exhibition Hall in Kuwait.

PARIS — Sheikh Majed Al-Sabah, who helped put the Persian Gulf on the international fashion radar a decade ago with his Villa Moda emporium in Kuwait, is teaming up with architect Rem Koolhaas and former Gucci honcho Giacomo Santucci to shake up luxury retailing once again.

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The Exhibition Hall, an 86,000-square-foot department store concept slated to open in early 2014, is to mingle international fashion brands with Middle Eastern culture, heritage and design.

“It will be a retail journey influenced a lot by regional elements,” Al-Sabah told WWD, describing a layout reflecting the “geometry of the Middle East” with corridor-shaped shops allowing multiple access points and exposures.

The three-level unit is to be located within the 360º Mall in Kuwait City, which is operated by Tamdeen Real Estate Co. Construction work is to start later this year, and Al-Sabah and Santucci plan to initiate a “road show” in tandem with European fashion weeks later this month.

Al-Sabah noted some of the tenants present at 360 have already expressed interest in double exposure at The Exhibition Hall. Luxury banners in the mall include Bottega Veneta, Cartier, Givenchy, Marni, Versace and Yves Saint Laurent.

He asserted that a homegrown concept would have stronger appeal than importing a foreign banner such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s or Harvey Nichols, which are present in the Middle East.

The Arab Spring uprisings shaped the project in several ways. Al-Sabah cited a surge in regional tourism as wealthy clients shun destinations such as Beirut, Damascus and Cairo for security reasons and spend more at home, or visit nearby Gulf cities.

The uprisings have also heightened appreciation for Arab culture and art, something Al-Sabah is eager to showcase alongside cutting-edge fashions — including local talents. “We want to introduce the future Elie Saabs and Zuhair Murads,” he said.

Santucci, who operates his own creative consultancy, said culture, storytelling and community offer strong added value to the retail experience, engaging shoppers and encouraging them to return frequently.

He noted old department stores are typically constrained by architecture, are not “customer-centered” and lack social involvement and “real interaction.”

Roughly 20 to 30 percent of the department store will be dedicated to cultural programs, exhibitions, screenings, installations and special product launches, Al-Sabah said.

Architectural features of The Exhibition Hall are to include a transparent facade and circular cutouts to let in natural light, and creative, unusual sight lines. Antique galleries, cafés, food shops, spa services and artisans in residence are among the attractions Koolhaas’ Office for Metropolitan Architecture could incorporate amid fashions, accessories and beauty products.

Al-Sabah stepped down as chairman and creative director of Villa Moda Lifestyle in 2009, after disagreements with its then majority shareholder, Dubai International Financial Centre. However, he continued to be involved in retail, fashion and design-related projects in the region, partnering with Tamdeen on its luxury retail partnerships and also sitting on its board.

He also started a scent venture, The Fragrance Kitchen, which he plans to showcase during Milan Fashion Week at La Rinascente.