Art and air-conditioning put a new spin on shopping



Dubai’s very own Madison Avenue comes alive later this year, as what could have been a boring financial complex begins its metamorphosis into the region’s luxury hub.

Barely a few metres from Dubai’s big Gate, a new, air-conditioned outdoor shopping precinct is being constructed at the frenetic pace that our city is so well-known for. In what is the biggest luxury retail news since the new BurJuman extension, brands such as Vivienne Westwood and Issey Miyake are to open standalone retail outlets within the Gate Village, the second phase of the Dubai International Financial Centre, says Abdulla bin Sugat, executive director of retail, DIFC.

Housed beneath 10 office buildings, the new complex is a collaboration between the DIFC and Kuwaiti-owned international fashion brand Villa Moda. Being built at an initial cost of $150 million (Dh550m), it will serve up shopping and retail side by side on a high street aimed at bringing in both residents and out-of-towners. Bin Sugat says when everything is open this September, it will be the region’s premier shopping district for food, culture, luxury lodging and entertainment.

“It’s about taking retail to a different level. What we’re trying to do is mix art and culture with retail,” he told Emirates Business. “People want a destination, not just shopping. You can shop anywhere. So we’re offering a bit of the history behind some of these brands with dedicated museums. You won’t just be visiting a boutique, you can also step in to follow the evolution of the brand.”

And clearly, the focus is on the high end of the market, on brands befitting the high rollers cutting million-dollar deals within the complex. So you can step into a branch of the contemporary Indian art gallery from Mumbai, the Pundole, before eyeballing the furnishings at the UK’s Andrew Martin or on Belgian designer Dries Van Noten’s eclectic, poetic racks. Then you can make a shoe stop at Miu Miu and close out the evening at the local arm of the chi-chi London sushi restaurant, Zuma. Or – if you’re meeting a suitably high-up enough corporate mover and shaker – you could end the evening over cigars at the members-only Capital Club, which officially opens on Wednesday.

The Gate Village complex, which will run to normal mall timings, will be anchored by three Villa Moda stores, the high-fashion brand created by Kuwait’s “Sheikh of Chic”, Sheikh Majed Al Sabah, who has expanded his company into an international brand with outlets in Doha, Damascus and Bahrain. The Villa Moda at the Gate Village is based on the original “glass box” Villa Moda in Kuwait, which places emphasis on light, transparency and movement and divides spaces into “glass aquariums”. On a blog for the New York Times, Sheikh Majed described the new stores – one each for men and women and one that is being called a museum – as “a daring approach to luxury retail”.

“The Gate Village art and luxury retail outlets will sit under a group of 10 buildings that are presently occupied by the likes of Deutsche Bank, similar to the [central Tokyo integrated property development] Roppongi Hills of Dubai. The beautiful rosewood arches that line the retail stores will actually blow cool air generated from the return air-conditioning ducts that service the offices above. This is damn smart and definitely taking us into the next level of how to look at retail in a more advanced way, away from the hundreds of indoor malls,” writes Sheikh Majed. “The challenge does not stop at mixing art and luxury brands. It also attempts to take on the extremely hot climate of Dubai and will be the first outdoor luxury shopping environment in the region.”

In total, the Village will add some 25 new outlets across high-end fashion, furnishings, art galleries and food and beverage to the 75 retailers – from Porsche Design and DeBeers to Hediard coffee – already within the DIFC, under its Lifestyle brand. “We’ve had a very positive response so far,” says bin Sugat, when asked how successful the new campaign has been in bringing in shoppers. “A lot of people have talked about how there isn’t that much traffic in terms of shoppers, but that isn’t something that can happen overnight. But as more people get to know it, more shoppers will come in. It’s hard to satisfy everyone at all times, but in general, retailers have been happy that people from outside are now coming into the DIFC.”

The launch of the Gate Village, he adds, will be supported by a marketing campaign. “People want to know what’s behind the walls, behind these iconic buildings.” Hosting art exhibitions, such as the one featuring contemporary works from the JPMorgan Chase corporate art collection, and leasing retail space is just part of that process, he says.

Among those taking space at the new Gate Village is Maliha Al Tabari, who is opening a branch of her ArtSpace gallery at the complex. The idea is to grow its corporate art business, and to be closer to the clients, who include private collectors, art consultants, business people, government and diplomats. “We’re thrilled to open a second gallery and offer even more to our diverse clientele in this prestigious location,” she says. “ArtSpace offers the client an opportunity to acquire and taste some of the most contemporary Middle Eastern art, from paintings to sculpture.”

Meanwhile, says bin Sugat, work continues apace on the next phase of the DIFC, set to be finished by 2010, by which time some 65,000 people will living and working in the complex – including at two serviced hotel apartment projects, to be managed by the Jumeirah Group and the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, which is also building a 330-unit hotel in the DIFC. “In our third and final phase, we are working on a big project on the retail front that expands our Lifestyle component and rounds out our offering,” says bin Sugat.

But with the 1.1 million sq m Dubai Mall set to open at the Burj Dubai complex by the end of the year, there’s competition aplenty for the DIFC’s retail partners. After all, when the Mall of the Emirates opened, other malls reported a drop in footfall for the first time in Dubai’s retail history. “We’re not designing a mall, we’re not trying to be one,” he reiterates. “The DIFC does not want to compete with any other retail operators in Dubai, but we want to complement them, add value to the entire Dubai experience.

“The Dubai Mall will be a great destination for people, but we have something different to offer tourists, residents and the captive market within the DIFC. Competition is always healthy, but the positioning is different. The DIFC is conceived as a city within a city, so it’s not just about work, but just as much about fun.”



How the DIFC stacks up against Madison Avenue


For luxury brands looking for a bit of status themselves, a flagship store on Madison Avenue is almost a no-brainer. It is a status the world’s most famous shopping district has enjoyed for more than a century.

With more than 600 stores, the DIFC has some way to go before it can match up. But its executive director of retail, Abdulla bin Sugat, says it is not about the number of stores on offer, but rather about the quality of the brands. But from avant-garde Viktor & Rolf and manga-inspired Tsumori to Parisian tea salon Café Ladurée, the retail mix is both inclusive and on trend. And given that Dubai’s retail history is so very recent, it really is only a matter of time before the DIFC goes up against Madison Avenue – whether in terms of shop rents or consumer choice.