Dubai City, nestled on the Persian Gulf shore of the United Arab Emirates, is an oasis in a troubled part of the world.
While tanks and guns explode in other parts of the region, the only thing exploding in the U.A.E. is the economy. As such, it would seem the perfect spot for the first Middle East location of Harvey Nichols, the quintessential upmarket British fashion department store.
Though it is a flat, barren coastal plain merging into vast desert wasteland (which covers over 90 percent of the country), the Arab Emirates also sits on a great shelf of crude oil. And its strategic location along the Strait of Hormuz makes it a vital transit point for all the oil going out of the region. So wealth is, to say the least, plentiful.
The emirates (comprised of Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Fujairah, Sharjah, Dubai, Ras al-Khaimah and Umm al-Qaiwain) are steeped in traditional Islam. But his highness Khalifa bin Zayed, the U.A.E. president who replaced his father Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahayan in 2004, is an admirer of Western culture. So the wealthy Arabs travel frequently to Europe, especially to London, and bring back not tales of spice routes but tales of Armani, Gucci and Louis Vuitton.
Construction booms in Dubai. And Mall of the Emirates is an illustrative combination of the New York/Las Vegas influence. It is the world's largest mall outside of North America, with more than 400 stores and all the fashion brands. It also has an indoor ski slope – in the desert.
So yes, on one hand, it's the ideal location for Harvey Nichols. But on the other hand, notes Dawn Clark, principal of Callison (Seattle), it's a risk. "Dubaians have access to all the brands they want in boutique formats," she says. "So building a department store, even one with Harvey Nichols' brand equity, was a challenge. And we had to get it just right."
Dubai's Al Tayer Group (headed by entrepreneur Obaid Al Tayer) owns the Harvey Nichols franchise throughout the U.A.E. – along with interests in the Maserati, Ferrari, Jaguar, Armani, Bottega Veneta, Boucheron, Bulgari, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Jimmy Choo and Michael Kors brands and all the other usual suspects. That produced the peculiar tripling of American designers interpreting a British brand for Dubaian ownership and customers.
"The U.A.E. does not allow foreign ownership of businesses," says Clark. "Licensing deals and franchising guarantee that business will always be in local hands. But using a U.S. designer ensured an American open-mindedness about incorporating a multitude of cultures." Also, Callison had worked in Dubai for 15 years, on shopping centers and retail development, and had also worked in the U.K. with Harrods, the more traditional counterpart to Harvey Nichols' fashion-forward image.
Because of the wealth of the local market and the awareness of Harvey Nichols, everyone was convinced the brand would resonate. Now how to guarantee that the department store model would work?
"We felt the market would respond to the collectivity of the department store atmosphere," Clark says, "to the idea of collections – a window to the world."
The design intent was to create an oasis, of cool and clean, in the middle of this desert society. So there are no outside windows or skylights but lighting that is quite bright compared to European standards. A variety of light sources reinforce the differentiation of merchandise zones within the store. A backlit stretch matrix ceiling system on the first floor provides glowing, colored light to wash the space.
Sensory effects, like color-shifting lighting, music and dramatic visual displays allow for updating of presentations to the newest designers. "These shoppers expect this retailer to always be current," Clark says. "It's part of the brand personality."
Rooms, or halls, group merchandise attitudes. In women's fashion on the first floor are five distinct areas: designer ready to wear, bridge RTW, contemporary designers, intimate apparel and casual/denim.
The flooring throughout the store is nearly all hard surfaces. Carpet is specified in only a few areas. One of those is the intimate apparel area, which also has frosted glass privacy screening in deference to the Middle Eastern woman's emphasis on modesty. Otherwise, highly polished wood, stone and other hard surfaces reinforce the sparkling, edgy atmosphere.
"The most important thing," says Clark, "is the store's special customer service. This culture prizes service and expects it. Plus, it's what they've come to expect from Harvey Nichols after trips to London." So there's a VIP lounge, with lots of personal consultation. And there's very little open sell. The store is set up for interaction.
It's also set up for women. "Dubaian women are the shopping decision-makers here just as they are all over the world," Clark says. "Dubai has clearly divided roles. The woman takes care of the household. And in that role, she shops."
Martin Anderson, who heads Callison's retail and retail-driven mixed-use interiors, will offer a perspective on retail in Dubai at VM+SD's International Retail Design Conference, September 6-8 in San Francisco. For more information on the conference, go to www.irdconline.com .
Client: Al Tayer Group LLC, Dubai, U.A.E.
Obaid Humaid Al Tayer, chairman and ceo
Shireen El Khatib, general manager, fashion retail
James MacQueen, projects manager
Design/Architect: Callison, Seattle
Dawn Clark, principal in charge
Martin R. Anderson, design principal
Dave Scurlock, project manager
Bryan Gailey, project design lead
Benny Kim, project architect
General Contractor: Al Tayer Stocks, Dubai, U.A.E.
Joinery & Furniture Subcontractor: Aati Contracts, Dubai, U.A.E.
Mechanical & Electrical Contractor: Zener Steward, Dubai, U.A.E.
Outside Design Consultants: Marvin Traub Associates, New York (client retail programming
Lighting Design Alliance, Signal Hill, Calif. (lighting)
Evolution Design, LLC, Dubai, U.A.E. (local architect)
WSP Middle East, London (mechanical and electrical engineering)
EC Harris Middle East, London (surveying)
Audio/Visual: ZIO Technologies LLC, Dubai, U.A.E.
Ceilings: Barrisol Stretch Ceiling (U.K.) Ltd., Surrey, U.K.
Fixtures: Visplay Intl., Weil Am Rhein, Germany
Aati Contracts, Dubai, U.A.E.
Flooring: Architectural Systems Inc., New York
Lighting: Microlights LLC, Dubai, U.A.E.
Mannequins/Forms: Schlappi/Bonaveri, Cento, Italy
Adel Rootstein USA Inc., London
Props and decoratives: Arabian Apex, Dubai
Reprotronics, Dubai, U.A.E.
MX2, Dubai, U.A.E.
Signage/Graphics: PJ Signs, Taunton, U.K.
Al Thanbilli Dubai, U.A.E.
Wallcoverings and Materials: Muraspec, Dubai, U.A.E.
Emtex Carpets, Dubai, U.A.E.
Christy Carpets, Milton Keynes, U.K.
Joseph Graphics, Dubai, U.A.E.
Other Suppliers: Chelsea Artisans, Surrey, U.K.
Dubai Metal, Dubai, U.A.E.
Photography: Chris Eden, Seattle