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 said customers respond well to styles that are sensitive to local needs. To wit: He's asked Tom Ford to create local robe-like dishdasha outfits for men, while Van Noten is creating special head coverings, and Jil Sander, a version of the abaya.

In fact, the desire for exclusive, unusual styles is so intense that Villa Moda does not display expensive eveningwear so that women can surprise and make an impact at weddings and other special parties, Al-Sabah said.

Brands in France, which have served Middle Eastern couture clients for years, have a longer history in the region, whereas Italian firms have arrived more recently.

Dior's Toledano said the house first started by selling couture to Middle Eastern clients, while today they are interested in fine jewelry, luxury leather goods and rtw, also. "They travel to London, Paris, Spain, the South of France, and they know exactly what the luxury offer is outside the Middle East," he noted.

Still, most brands have only ramped up expansion in recent years. Lanvin, for example, which just opened a boutique in Kuwait, plans to add four more freestanding locations and six shop-in-shops in the Middle East this year. "We will more than double our store presence," said president Paul Deneve.

Lanvin has sold its men's wear in the region since the Seventies, but is now experiencing explosive growth with its hot women's line by Alber Elbaz and a new fashion-driven men's label Elbaz oversees. "Over the last year we've more than doubled, and over the last three years we've tripled, so it's explosive growth," Deneve said. "We believe we will double again in the next three years in that market."

Executives agreed that having local partners in the Middle East is essential, not only to navigate authorities and regulations, but to find the most suitable locations and store environments that match local needs and customs.

Gaultier's Caillaud pointed out that a shopping excursion in a single boutique can last an entire day as most women shop in groups and make it a social outing. "Retail stores have to offer all the comforts, from lounges and chairs, bars and coffee corners to changing rooms big enough to welcome four or five people together," he explained.
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