LUXE ARABIAN NIGHTS: CAMELS, PALMS, SAND AND A $20M MEGAMALL

Byline: Miles Socha

KUWAIT CITY — “You’d never imagine a place like this was out here, would you?”
Stella McCartney summed up the astonishment of the international fashion crowd who descended on this Middle Eastern country for the opening celebrations of Villa Moda, a modern and enormous luxury boutique perched on the waterfront amidst container ships and warehouses. The brainchild of retailer and Kuwaiti prince Majed Al-Sabah, the 75,000-square-foot emporium — featuring soaring glass-walled boutiques within a hulking, yet elegant glass cube — dazzled his invitees.
“I am very impressed by the concept,” said Gucci Group chairman and chief executive Domenico De Sole, craning his neck in the central atrium to take in the vast space, which boasts 130-foot ceilings and two-level franchised shops by — among others — Gucci, Prada, Ferragamo and Fendi. The shops range in size from 1,400 square feet for Etro and Miu Miu to Prada’s 4,300 square feet.
“This is well beyond my expectations,” De Sole added. “I don’t think anybody expected it to be so grand. The execution is unbelievable.”
“This project is going to send a lightning bolt through the Middle East, from Beirut to Dubai,” declared Mark Lee, president of Gucci subsidiary Yves Saint Laurent. “It’s a pretty big statement. It’ll make everyone stand up and take notice.”
Al-Sabah flew in about 150 of his key suppliers, designers, journalists and friends from Paris, New York and Milan to witness first-hand his bold retail vision — and to introduce them to a country still foreign to most. Besides hosting a lavish party at his store Sunday night, complete with fireworks and a private dance party at a converted warehouse, Al-Sabah incorporated cultural elements in the tour, even busing his guests out to the desert for tea, demonstrations of buttermilk-making and camel rides.
The clash of the two worlds was often amusing: Bedouin shepherds must not often see New York fashion editors in high-heeled boots riding camels with their sparkling new Fendi Ostrik bags tucked under their arms.
Waiting for his turn, Kal Ruttenstein, Bloomingdale’s senior vice president for fashion direction, was brought a choice of two camels. The second kneeling before him sported a shaggy sheepskin saddle. “Kal, that’s the Bottega camel,” Al Sabah quipped, referring to the Italian leather goods firm Bottega Veneta, which has an outlet at Villa Moda. In the end, Ruttenstein opted for a photo op instead of a ride. “Where’s CNN?” he joked.
Visitors also got a chance to mingle with customers and understand how affluent, fashion-conscious and up-to-the-minute Kuwaiti women are. At a luncheon at the house of Mubarak Al-Sabah, the cousin of Majed and the Emir, guests marveled at all the women wearing the latest outfits from Dolce & Gabbana, Emanuel Ungaro, Jean Paul Gaultier and Yves Saint Laurent and carrying the up-to-the-second bags from Dior, Gucci, Etro and Prada — that is, when they weren’t gawking at their host’s 32-carat canary yellow diamond ring by Repossi. “Are you Marni?” asked one excited woman as she approached Consuela Castiglioni, the designer for the Italian brand, which has a large shop in Villa Moda and a rabid following in Kuwait.
A country of just over 2 million people roughly the size of New Jersey, oil-rich Kuwait boasts one of the highest per capita incomes in the world. Kuwaiti women have more freedom than their counterparts in other Islamic states in the Persian Gulf and are no longer required to cover their faces, but they still don’t have the right to vote. It also is illegal to drink alcohol or dance in public.
But shopping is practically an obsession and malls are as ubiquitous as sand. “They have nothing else to do but shop. It’s a source of entertainment,” said Al-Sabah as he took WWD on a tour of his store, which replaces a smaller Villa Moda unit he has operated since 1992. “My customers come in two or three times a week and every time they say, ‘What’s new?’
Al Sabah said the store, including merchandise, cost about $20 million to build and he expects to pull in about $35 million to $40 million in the first year. Given that women typically buy more than half a dozen new handbags per season, it’s his top product category, followed by small leather goods and then ready-to-wear. The average sale in the store is more than $500. “It’s like an insult to have last season’s handbag,” he said. “They’re not like the French who live with their Hermes handbag for 30 years.”
Kuwaiti-born Robert Tateossian, managing director of the London-based accessories firm Tateossian that supplies cufflinks and accessories to Villa Moda, said Kuwaiti women insist on wearing the latest designs, even to informal, private gatherings known as diwaniyas.
“Whenever they go to visit each other, they’re decked out,” said Tateossian. “Trends are in and out because it’s such a small society. If you wear something once to an event, probably 70 percent of the people you know have seen it and you probably won’t wear it again.”
In general, Kuwaiti women gravitate toward colorful and feminine designs, preferring mostly Italian, and some French, labels. “Minimalism doesn’t work here,” Al-Sabah said. “It’s all about feminine, colorful and different.”
Carla Fendi, president of Fendi, praised Al-Sabah as one of the most talented buyers she has ever worked with. “Usually, the best buyers in the world are American, but he’s at least as good as them if not better,” she said. “Majed has a great capacity to understand design, quality and style. He always picks the best from each brand. We were the first to say yes to his proposal.”
By their presence in Kuwait, many European firms demonstrated their confidence and growing interest in the region. While many firms are still more focused on the American and Far East markets, some view enormous potential in the Middle East.
“It’s a growing market,” said Davide Cerutti, commercial director for Dolce & Gabbana, estimating its sales in the region are advancing at a rate of about 25 percent. “After Sept. 11, people are traveling less so the customer is buying more in their own country. And people want to find the same merchandise in the Middle East that they have in Europe. They don’t care about price and they want the very special pieces.”
Iacopo Etro of the Italian fabric and fashion firm Etro, said his firm plans to open two in-store boutiques this year, in Riyadh and Jeddah, in addition to its major presence at Villa Moda in Kuwait and an existing outlet in Lebanon. Citing sales growth in excess of 30 percent in the region, he attributed it not only to the oil wealth, but to the strong interest in fashion and status symbols. “They’re opening up a lot to tourism and the Western world somehow,” he said. “Dubai, for example, is beginning to be an international tourist destination. I know a lot of Italians who go there. It’s a market which hopefully will be stable.”
Gucci opened its first franchised outlet in Kuwait in 1997 and now boasts massive outlets at Villa Moda for Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent and Bottega Veneta, in addition to selling Stella McCartney ready-to-wear in Al-Sabah’s vast multi-brand area. De Sole said the Middle East has been “quite a good market for quite a while.” And a fast-moving one.
“You’d think you would sell more classic products, but the more fashion-forward products are the ones that sell the fastest,” De Sole said. “And there’s no price resistance. There’s a lot of fashion show pieces in the Gucci shop here.”
Prada already has freestanding stores in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Turkey, but the Villa Moda shops represent the brand’s debut in Kuwait. “The choice of Kuwait is part of our group’s general interest toward the new markets, evident by our recent opening in Moscow,” said a spokeswoman for the group. “These markets show a strong awareness of our brands, especially at certain social levels.”
At present, local clients represent more than 95 percent of Villa Moda’s business and Al-Sabah is courting them aggressively. With services ranging from restaurants and lounges to botox injections and cooking lessons, customers are encouraged to linger. The store, which also features an art gallery, will remain open from 10:00 a.m. to midnight daily. Since there are no discos in Kuwait, “why can’t a night out be to come for some fittings at Prada?” Al-Sabah asked with a big smile. “It’s a crime against the luxury shopper that you can’t get out of work at 7:00 or 8:00 and go buy a present for a friend or something for yourself.”
Special events are also planned. Al-Sabah expects to reprise what he calls “de-pack” parties — when major shipments of key designers arrive, customers are invited to unpack and buy clothes fresh out of the box. “It’s like Christmas,” he said. “That normally does 10 times normal business.”
Al-Sabah said he ultimately hopes to attract tourist dollars as well. “We want to make sure that this attracts more international clients as well by promoting it with good public relations, good advertising and good word of mouth,” he said.
Al-Sabah said he’s been approached by parties in London and Paris wishing to open similar versions in their cities, but he expects he will transport the concept closer to home. For example, he has his eye on Egypt, which he said boasts more than half a million millionaires. At the moment, steep duties on foreign apparel makes opening a Villa Moda there impossible now, but Al-Sabah expects that will ultimately change.
McCartney, who inaugurated Villa Moda’s art gallery by exhibiting and selling for charity her T-shirts with original artwork by Gary Hume, said she was thrilled with the opportunity to meet her customers in an area she had not yet visited.
“They dress to impress and they’re very feminine, which is lovely,” she said. “I’m really glad I came. Many people feel like Western cities are all that there is and it really isn’t the case. It’s dangerous to get trapped in that small-mindedness. The world is a pretty big place.”

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