MILAN — Tony Salamé is a true Phoenician, melding the skills of an explorer, a tradesman and a merchant through his passion for luxury design.
Salamé sits atop a $50 million business, Tony Salamé Finance, and pretty much controls Lebanon’s luxury market, with more than 640,000 square feet of selling space that includes three designer boutiques, which will grow to six next year; three high-end specialty stores, called Aishti (which means “love me” in Japanese), and two stores aimed at a younger customer called Aizone. Salamé is credited for introducing luxury fashion to Lebanese women. In particular, in the early Eighties, he was the first to bring Italian designers — Armani, Byblos and Fendi, among others — to his country.
“Historically, Lebanon was always more connected to France, so it was a challenge for us to bet on the Italians,” said Salamé in an exclusive interview during a recent trip to Milan. Today, Aishti carries such top luxury brands as Gucci, Prada, Yves Saint Laurent, Dolce & Gabbana, Armani Collezioni, Ermenegildo Zegna, Dior, Fendi and Missoni. Salamé is also a franchisee for Celine, Gucci and Zegna boutiques. Salamé’s wife, Ilham, helps him with the buying for the boutiques.
“I’m very satisfied with the growth of our business in Beirut,” said Vittorio Missoni, marketing director and sales manager at the family company. “Salamé loves beauty and was brave to create and invest in such luxurious specialty stores. He knows how to present the product and offers great customer assistance and top service.”
Missoni was introduced to Salamé by Sheikh Majed Al-Sabah, owner of Villa Moda in Kuwait. Salamé said he introduced Gucci to Al-Sabah and implied that the two have a mutually beneficial relationship.
According to Salamé, Lebanese women, who account for 70 percent of his customers, expect to see the latest trends from the runways in his stores, they are sophisticated and very much au courant, and they love designer brands. “They travel and read, are receptive and curious,” he said. “Also, they have time to shop — in Lebanon, traditional women don’t work.”
Not only do they have the time, they have the spending power. Salamé said the average customer in his stores spends $1,000 a year, with top clients shelling out between $50,000 and $200,000. Beirut also attracts tourists from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the rest of the Gulf area, plus Egypt, who flock to the city, which is considered a relatively safe haven today.
Salamé said that, although the civil war ended in 1991, there is still a lot of prejudice and wariness in Europe and the U.S. surrounding his country. “Lebanon and Beirut are now perfectly safe, but those who have never been there are still afraid,” he said.
For the past 12 years, international investors have helped rebuild Beirut, destroyed by 16 years of war. In particular, there’s been intense restoration of the area close to the port and the sea, where the latest Salamé store, Aishti Seaside, opened Thursday.
“Architecturally, the Aishti Seaside building is innovative and daring compared to Middle Eastern standards,” said Salamé. Designed by Italian architects Marco Costanzi and Parisotto Formenton, the building is surrounded by a weathered structure made with the steel generally used to build boats and highly resistant to the effects of seawater.
The building is closely linked to the Phoenician tradition of the country, as it is designed to resemble the antique castle in Byblos, the capital of the former Phoenician empire, located north of Beirut. Salamé said he wanted the final effect to be that of an old boat, another strong connection to Lebanon’s commercial past.
Located on the beachfront, it houses a café restaurant by the sea. “After all, the climate is so temperate you can sit outside for nine months straight in Beirut, why not enjoy it?” he said. Salamé invested $15 million in this project, which includes the property of the land and building, and he expects sales of $20 million in the first year. Aishti Seaside will also carry homewear, furniture and tableware and cosmetics and fragrances and will house the first Aizone concept store, which targets a younger customer by such carrying lines such as Juicy Couture, Joy, Theory, Diesel and Armani Jeans. A second Aizone store will open in the city next month.
Tony Salamé Finance has reported a 30 percent annual growth rate, and Salamé expects to reach sales of $63 million next year, a 25 percent increase compared with 2003.
Salamé, who opened his first Aishti store in 1989, has no current plans to extend his business outside Lebanon, and is working on opening other boutiques in his country: he is finishing an agreement with a high-end, fine jewelry firm to open a store in Beirut, but declined to disclose details.
“We see him as the most progressive and experienced retailer in the luxury goods business in Lebanon,” said a Giorgio Armani spokesman.