Forget roving packs of teenagers and red-tag sales. In oil-rich Kuwait, malls cater to princes and princesses, and everyone buys Prada and YSL at full price. Paula Szuchman explores retail as a way of life
To reach the Port of Shuwaikh from downtown Kuwait City, you drive east on Arabian Gulf Street, a six-lane thoroughfare that follows the curve of Kuwait Bay. You pass Kuwait Towers, erected by the emir in 1979 as a symbol of the country's incomparably good luck with oil, as well as a series of immaculate, sand-colored buildings—the Ministry of Planning, the Central Bank—all new or rebuilt since the Gulf War. And after 15 minutes, you arrive at the imposing industrial port that is the unlikely setting for one of the world's most unusual shopping malls, Villa Moda. Here, between the warehouses and container ships, the mall's four towering walls of glass shimmer in the desert sun. Careful—the light can be blinding.
No ordinary shopping center, the new Villa Moda is a 23,000-square-foot see-through society playground. Women clad in floor-length black abayas and veils revealing nothing but eyes wander in and out of Prada and YSL Rive Gauche. Others are less modest, covering their heads with silk scarves, or nothing at all. Unlike their Saudi sisters across the border, Kuwaiti women can dress as they please in private and in public. They largely save their Islamically correct clothes for funerals and pilgrimages, so at any given moment most women here look no different from those on Madison Avenue. Miniskirted mothers and daughters stock up on Alexander McQueen denim skirts and Stella McCartney layered chiffon dresses in the glass-enclosed shops, where every bit of merchandise is always visible. They relax on white leather couches beneath the atrium's 65-foot-high ceiling. They make calls on their platinum-and-sapphire Vertu cell phones (cost: $21,240). Welcome to shopping in Kuwait.
The Middle East might seem an odd place to find the apotheosis of Western-style consumerism. If you believe what you see on the news, people in this part of the world are more inclined to burn America's flag than to sell its products, more likely to hide women behind locked doors than to appreciate the sex appeal of a low-cut blouse. Money, however, tends to extinguish the flames of fanaticism—and Kuwait has more money than it knows what to do with.
The country has been riding a wave of prosperity since the 1940's, when oil replaced pearls as the country's principal export. Even now, 11 years after the end of the Gulf War, when Iraqi soldiers torched nearly all of its oil wells, Kuwait still controls 10 percent of the world's oil reserves. Kuwaitis make up only about half of the country's 2 million residents—the rest are either professional expatriates or "guest workers," manual laborers and domestic staffers from countries like the Philippines, Iran, and India—but they control its riches. And although not all Kuwaitis share in the wealth, an astonishing one-quarter of them have enough to shop at the exclusive clothing boutiques of Villa Moda. That's 250,000 people—as if the entire population of Lincoln, Nebraska, were super-rich.
Unlike some of its neighbors, Kuwait has maintained close ties to the United States and the developed world, and largely embraces globalization. America is the country's second-largest trading partner, after Japan. Nearly 70 percent of Kuwait's population is under 24 years old, and many have been, or will be, schooled in the United States. Aside from the Arabic-language street signs, the calls to prayer, and the non-alcoholic Budweiser, this could be Florida. For one thing, every building is heavily air-conditioned, and the drastic temperature shifts between inside and out can cause a mean case of the sniffles. The Persian Gulf, like the Atlantic, is a clear, warm blue. People spend their weekends sunbathing, sailing, and waterskiing. Starbucks sells Frappuccinos by the dozens. Malls are everywhere.
"Alcohol and pork insult Islam. Adultery insults Islam. Ferragamo shoes are harmless," explains Prince Majed Al-Sabah, a nephew of the Kuwaiti emir, Sheikh Jabir al-Ahmad al-Jabir Al-Sabah, whose family has ruled the country since 1756. The man behind Villa Moda, Majed is 33 years old, tall, thin, and blessed with a wide smile. He is known by fashion insiders as a man with impeccable taste and a bottomless bank account. At catwalks in Paris and Milan, dressed in Dior and YSL suits, he looks every bit the Western buyer. At home, Majed goes Gulf, wearing the traditional, long white dishdasha and a white ghutra on his head. Majed knows his customers. But even more than that, he knows a thing or two about image.
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."
The Facts: Kuwait
WHERE TO STAY
Hilton Kuwait Resort This 147-room resort on the beach opened in July. Doubles from $255. Al Mangaf, Safat; 800/445-8667 or 011-965/372-5500; www.hilton.com
Le Méridien Kuwait More centrally located than the Hilton. Doubles from $250.Al-Hilali St., Safat; 800/543-4300 or 011-965/245-5550; www.lemeridien-kuwait.com
WHERE TO SHOP
Villa Moda Shuwaikh; 011-965/246-7777
Nooran Traditional veils and scarves. Souk Sharq; 011-965/240-9252
Nafisa This local designer makes clothes inspired by the asymmetrical look of Comme des Garçons. By appointment. Nahla Bldg., Sixth Floor, Salmiya; 011-965/574-3405
Arcadia A dizzying array of home furnishings—including tiles, windows, and carved stone gates salvaged from derelict buildings in Beirut—in a showroom near Villa Moda. Sun City Center, Shuwaikh; 011-965/224-1644 or 011-965/224-1645
WHAT TO DO
Dar al Funoon Local and international art displayed in a Kuwaiti home. House No. 28, Behbehani Compound Al Watiah; 011-965/243-3138
Tareq Rajab Museum The Rajab family's vast personal collection, encompassing everything from pottery to musical instruments. Hawelli; 011-965/531-7358
Scientific Center An Imax theater, an aquarium, and a climate-controlled zoo. Arabian Gulf St., Salmiya; 011-965/848-8888