Luxury's Latest Frontier: Brands Rush to Expand In Surging Middle East

Building fashion fortunes on sand? You bet.

with contributions from Alessandra Ilari
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Al-Sabah, who in 2006 opened a Villa Moda smack in the middle of a spice market in Damascus, Syria, said he's logging double-digit growth there and was due to open his third location in the city last month. He said he's also mulling expansion into Muscat, Oman and Cairo. Unlike other emerging markets, where consumers often need to be educated about brands and fashion trends, Middle East consumers are described as highly fashion aware, demanding the latest styles and accessories.

"They read all the European magazines. They know the hierarchy of brands. They know runway, and they like runway — not pre-collections," said Burke at Fendi. "It's similar to Europe in terms of the breakdown between product categories."

Chloé's Toledano noted it's not unusual for clients to come to the company's boutiques clutching an advertisement or editorial spread and buying the featured item on the spot.

"Our Arab female clients...are fashion-conscious and very receptive and wish to be constantly informed of new arrivals," said Gianni Castiglioni, ceo of Marni, which is opening five boutiques in the region this year. "The whole area has enormous potential."

Given that most women wear black abayas, expressive handbags, shoes, jewelry and sunglasses are sought-after product categories, executives noted. As for the men, El Khatib of Al Tayer said they tend to show off their wealth by sporting expensive watches, sunglasses, shoes and mobile phones.

"Leather goods represent the largest category for sales, in line with the rest of the world," said Gucci's Lee. "The precious skin handbags and the most expensive and exclusive products of our range are the most appreciated and sought after. We also have a very strong demand for shoes and ready-to-wear."

Toledano at Chloé cited lusty demand for its special edition Héloïse bag, which comes in gold lambskin or black or silver python.

Middle Eastern women are also big consumers of fragrances, executives noted.

As for rtw, Gaultier's Caillaud said designers must offer some body-covering, longer styles in order to reach more conservative areas and build a local clientele.

Climate is a factor, too, given that daytime temperatures in Dubai can soar to 115 degrees. "In all our collections, we feature items made with lightweight fabrics such as muslins," Marni's Castiglioni said.
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