PARIS — Damascus may not be known as an international shopping destination, but Kuwaiti retailer Majed Al-Sabah is doing his part to change that with the inauguration today of one of his Villa Moda stores in the Syrian capital.

Smack in the heart of the historical spice market, flanked by vendors hawking roasted peanuts and pistachios, Al-Sabah’s 4,000-square-foot emporium is the first of its kind in the country, which has had a thorny political climate recently.

In fact, it is among the first stores ever in Damascus to legally sell imported ready-to-wear, shoes and accessories, which had been banned until last September, when the door was opened for the distribution of international brands. And Al-Sabah says Damascus is hardly a fashion no-man’s land. He said rich locals traditionally have gone on shopping binges in neighboring Lebanon to stock up on international labels. In the last five years, a closet industry of women selling top European fashion out of their apartments even has sprung up.

But with relations tenuous between Lebanon and Syria since last year’s assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, Syrian women have been deprived of their shopping jaunts to Beirut.

“It became difficult for Syrians to cross into Lebanon,” said Al-Sabah, adding that he accelerated the project of transforming a dilapidated 17th-century riding stable in Damascus into the store after the political tensions arose. “They needed a place to shop.”

A typical retail experience is not what Al-Sabah, known for his massive Villa Moda in Kuwait, aimed to create. For starters, while the wealthy live in Damascus’ suburbs, Al-Sabah opted for the grittier city center, despite research that showed 80 percent of his target customers wouldn’t shop there.

“The suburbs are all of these really ugly-looking buildings,” he explained. “I couldn’t open in a place like that. The spice market is so charming.”

It was attractive for other reasons, too.

Al-Sabah said he purchased his space for $350,000. “Already the value has tripled,” he bragged. “We’re just opening, and already other people are bidding up the neighboring property. I think the area is really going to change. It’s going to become like [Paris’] Avenue Montaigne. You’ll see.”

This story first appeared in the March 24, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Another gambit sure to challenge local tastes will be Al-Sabah’s merchandise mix. Instead of relying solely on marquee brands — they are there in the likes of Dior, Prada, Fendi and others — he’s spicing things up with vintage finds and antique jewelry.

“You will see, for example, a Marni jacket displayed with an Ottoman belt and an old Bedouin jacket. My idea is that retail is so boring, everywhere. We have the blessing of this being in an underdeveloped country [with low overhead], so we have the liberty of being extreme. I want to have fun.”

What’s next for Al-Sabah, who also is developing a store in London?

“Tehran. I’ve started to research opening a store in Tehran. People are interested in fashion there.”

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