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Shopper's Mecca in Kuwait

To celebrate Villa Moda's 10th anniversary, Majed hired Italian architect Pierfrancesco Cravel to design the stunning glass box that is the mall's new home. He then brought in London-based Wink, the branding and advertising agency, to help thrust the mall into the fashion spotlight. Wink organized the opening party in April, with music courtesy of DJ Claude Challe from Buddha Bar in Paris. Wink also created Villa Moda's new arabesque logo.

The Mall of America it's not. Although Minnesota's landmark also turns 10 years old this year and likewise promises an all-in-one fast track to retail nirvana, there the similarities end. Visitors to the Mall of America hunt for sale items at Ann Taylor and J. Crew. At Villa Moda, people spend an average of $600 per visit and stop by three times a week to get first crack at the Fendi fur bags and Gucci slingbacks; seasonal "de-packing" parties let VIP shoppers open just-arrived boxes before the contents ever make it to the racks. Mall of America has an on-site amusement park. Villa Moda has a Botox clinic.

In a country with limited public social spaces—there isn't a bar between here and Bahrain—Villa Moda gives upper-crust Kuwaitis somewhere to go for fun. In addition to its 10 stand-alone boutiques, among them Gucci, Fendi, Ferragamo, Bottega Veneta, and Miu Miu, it has two "multibrand" shops, one each for women and men, stocked with big and small names—from Dolce & Gabbana and Missoni to Australian designer Easton Pearson and Japan's Junya Watanabe. A café serves halal snacks and fresh fruit juices. No one stands in tedious lines: shoppers use an electronic card to scan the price tags of items they want to buy, and their purchases are folded, wrapped, and delivered to their chauffeured BMW's. Saturday nights, Arab techno music pumps through invisible speakers. Next month, a men's lounge will open its doors; it will close only during the month of Ramadan. Otherwise, Villa Moda's hours are easy to remember: 10 a.m. to midnight, 365 days a year.

The men's club aside, Villa Moda remains mostly a gathering place for Kuwait's women. Many return day after day. If the only sizes left of a skirt are too small, they buy two, and a tailor takes care of the rest. Still, some women say reports of the excesses of Kuwaiti shopping habits are overblown. "After the invasion, a lot of us became more careful about how we spend," says Sundus Al-Hussein, a female IBM executive based in Kuwait City. "You will see people wearing the same outfit to more than one event." Pointing to her sequined skirt at Villa Moda's opening party, corporate financier Fatima Al-Bader told me, "This is last season Etro. I'm a working woman, just like you."

Villa Moda's sales are nonetheless unusually impressive. This past spring, Dolce & Gabbana's entire fall denim line sold out in one day. Marni's $800 fringed belt had a waiting list 25 women long. Among last season's top sellers: Fendi Ostrik bags ($1,000 to $3,500) and YSL caftans ($4,500).

"The women here go for true runway fashions," says Villa Moda's merchandising manager, Scott Tepper, formerly a buyer for Henri Bendel in New York. "While we live for a simple black cashmere sweater, they prefer embellishment and embroidery. Minimalism is meaningless." To hear Tepper tell it, Kuwaiti women are a retailer's dream. "Even if they were here just two days ago, they say, 'Show me what's new,' and then they buy it."

It's hard to imagine that if Mall of America shoppers had the same resources, they wouldn't do the same. And so it is that Majed Al-Sabah dreams of more Villa Modas in similarly wealthy places. He is already in talks with the royal family of Qatar to launch Villa Moda in Doha by 2004, and hopes to hit Dubai, Riyadh, and Jidda soon after. And then it's Paris, London, Palm Beach, or bust. He is unfazed by the buildup of troops in the Gulf, and these days concerns himself instead with more redemptive issues—such as tourism. Whereas oil is a finite resource, retail is a business without end. And shopping malls are beacons for consumers worldwide: the Mall of America is the most visited destination in the United States, attracting more than 40 million people a year.

For the time being, Kuwait's tourism industry subsists on business travelers, who rarely stay through the weekend. And Villa Moda's customers are 95 percent Kuwaiti. But Majed hopes to change that, using his mall to rebrand his country as a destination. He envisions women from cities like Karachi, Muscat, and Tehran popping over for quick luxury-goods pick-me-ups, eventually followed by dedicated shoppers from every corner of the globe. Art exhibitions, spa treatments, camel rides, and beach time would all be part of the fun. No need to worry about accommodations: in 2004, Majed plans to open a small boutique hotel adjacent to Villa Moda, each room decorated by a different international fashion designer. "It will be like Disneyland," he says of his fantasy Kuwait. "Only chic."


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