Sheikh Majed Al-Sabah : Redefining retail, luxury and the arts for the Middle Eastern consumer

05 : 11 : 2008 Villa Moda : Luxury Retail : Bahrain

Pioneering cultural enterprise

Being a member of the Kuwaiti royal family is hardly the usual background of a cultural revolutionary, but Sheikh Majed Al-Sabah is just that.

The Sheikh has almost single-handedly changed the face of luxury in this region, shifting it from the gilded brand palaces of Dubai to sleek multi-brand stores designed by cutting-edge architects and designers. The flagship Villa Moda store in Shuwaikh, Kuwait City, is a 100,000-square-foot space featuring stores from the world’s greatest designers and luxury labels, including Fendi, Prada, Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent and Manolo Blahnik, who incidentally says his shimmering space here is his favourite global store.

Building on his luxury retail empire, which now stretches across the Middle East, the Sheikh’s new cultural enterprises look set to change the way Westerners see Middle Eastern culture. While some luxury names have used collaborations with artists and designers simply to garner column inches, Sheikh Majed believes that art, design, fashion and culture are intrinsically linked.

Luxe-evolution

The recently opened Al-Manshar store in Kuwait represents the evolution of the Sheikh’s idea of luxury retail. ‘How I want to represent luxury keeps changing with every store, but it keeps getting closer and closer to the reality of retail,’ he says.

Designed by UK architects Sybarite, creators of Marni’s international retail ident, the two floors of the store are a curvaceous re-interpretation of a souk, Sheikh Majed’s retail inspiration. ‘Retail started from bazaars and souks, and that’s where I take all my inspiration from now, to make products approachable,’ he says. ‘That’s the idea with having products in the stores that are priced so anyone can find something, whether they have ten pounds or ten thousand to spend.’

While the brands here may be more accessible (or more ‘rebellious’, as the Sheikh calls them) than the über-luxe names at the original Shuwaikh store, the new space represents a 360-degree luxury lifestyle. The purple- and blue-toned circular ‘pods’ offer luxe-casual brands such as Tory Burch, Isabel Marant and Yohji Yamamoto’s Y-3 alongside florist, perfumery and gadget pods.

Holistic view

But for a man who has redefined levels of luxury through his stores – not just in the Middle East, but around the world – Sheikh Majed has a surprisingly holistic view of the concept. ‘To me, luxury is grabbing a bag of freshly roasted pistachios next door to my store in Damascus. Luxury is when you have something made to measure for you. Luxury also is to be able to put a Topshop shirt with Dolce & Gabbana trousers,’ he says. ‘It’s a personal thing.’

This attitude is echoed by the younger generation of consumers who frequent his stores. The old idea of luxury is changing, the Sheikh says, ‘because people are getting smarter in the way they spend. They are looking for something unique. There is a lot of attention on the home, rather than something which is necessarily visible.’ Because of the strict standards of dress in many UAE countries, luxury purchases tended to focus on the things you could show when you were out and about: the car, the pen, the shoes, the bag. Now wealthy consumers are branching out into designer china and furniture, and art and design objects.

Shifting perceptions

Sheikh Majed thrives on shaking things up and shifting perceptions. ‘One of the things I have done with the fashion business is challenge the ignorance of the West about who we are,’ he says. ‘I used my fashion platform and my retail platform to be a sort of ambassador.’ Now he hopes to repeat this success in the arts, with the opening of a new design/art gallery in “Dubai International Financial Centre”:http://www.difc.ae/’s Gate Village, slated to open in Spring 2009.

The Sheikh maintains that rather then simply importing big names into the region, whether it’s galleries such as the Louvre or artists such as Tracey Emin and Jeff Koons, new cultural projects need to be more culturally relevant. ‘Nobody’s going to fly all the way to Kuwait just to see another Jeff Koons sculpture,’ he says. ‘It needs to be something unique from the region, or new cross-cultural projects with star designers, architects and artists from the West.’

And that’s exactly what he’s planning for the new gallery. Building on his experience of getting Western names to think like Middle Easterners (Sheikh Majed persuaded fashion stars including Miuccia Prada and Tom Ford to redesign the traditional kaftan and dishdasha for his well-heeled customers), he is now working with leading international designers to create design/art pieces inspired by the handicrafts and culture of the region.

The take out

1: Villa Moda Bahrain opens this month and signals a less traditional and more progressive direction for retail in the region.
2: The Middle Eastern consumer will continue to impact on the production of global lifestyle and cultural brands. Already Prada and Tom Ford have altered their collections, if culture wants to be financially savvy, it should do the same.
3: The younger Middle Eastern consumer is ready to be challenged a little more, being more open to the avant-garde in art, design fashion and culture.
4: Middle Eastern consumers are opening up to new retail propositions that go beyond the car, the watch and the bag and into more intimate spaces such as the home.
5: The Middle Eastern countries can be placed on a continuum of progressiveness with Kuwait at the more conservative end and Dubai, Bahrain and Abu Dhabi at the more open end of the scale.

For more information on upcoming projects by Villa Moda and Sheikh Majed Al-Sabah, go to villa-moda.com

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