Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 June 2019

Where imagination comes to life: Inside the weird and wonderful world of the UAE's biggest prop shop

Meet Jacqui Allan, a British visual merchandising expert whose prop shop in Dubai brings children’s fantasies into the real world

It’s safe to say that Jacqui Allan lives in a fantasy world – a brilliant, magical land that’s filled to the brim with creativity and imagination. The British visual merchandising expert started a prop shop (perhaps less imaginatively called The Prop Shop) about two years ago in Dubai, and it’s the culmination of all the daydreaming she’s done over the past few decades. But before we tell you more about that, let’s start from the beginning …

Meet Jacqui Allan

Once upon a time, Allan, who was born and bred in London, fell in love with the world of fantasy when she and her family visited Trafalgar Square for Christmas. Every year, they’d go to feed the pigeons and watch as the tree lights were switched on. “I was mesmerised,” she says. “We could walk for miles and I kept peering in the shop windows of Oxford Street, Knightsbridge, Regent Street – the window displays were all bespoke. There was motion and depth, they were alive. A switch went on in me.”

She was utterly inspired. After seeing one particular shop window, which was designed to resemble Narnia, from The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Allan spent hours sitting inside her own wardrobe,waiting for the door to that magical land to open. “Now I think I was waiting for the door of the prop shop to open,” she says with a smile. “It’s my land of fantasy and I’m taking that to other people.”

Jacqui Allan, the creative director and founder of The Prop Shop. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Jacqui Allan, the creative director and founder of The Prop Shop. Chris Whiteoak / The National

How The Prop Shop came to be

It was a few decades before that dream became a reality, though. First, she worked for 20 years for major retailers in the Middle East, designing her own window displays, doing visual merchandising and conceiving store concepts. Yet, through all those years working for internationally renowned brands in the Gulf, including Debenhams, Topshop and Harvey Nichols, Allan’s flair for drama was being stifled due to a lack of access to good-quality props. When she had them custom-made it would take too long, or when she found someone who could produce them to the sufficient quality they would leave the country. “I was always trying to find the props, the right prop-maker, and do it on budget to the quality I wanted,” she says.

The more she struggled, the less creative she became. “I started looking for things that were already in the market. If I found a palm tree or a telephone box, I’d design the window around that because I knew I could find those things,” she says.

Allan couldn’t suppress her imagination any longer. She soon realised it was time for her to branch out on her own. “It was time to do The Prop Shop. It was always coming. It was always in my head,” she says.

Flick through the gallery below to see inside The Prop Shop:

By that point, the Allan family household was overflowing with creative knick-knacks that had been made for her projects. “My husband still says there came a time when I had the table and chairs in the house stuck to the ceiling … he said, ‘Do you want to get a warehouse to put all this stuff in, Jacqui? I don’t really need a gorilla in the bedroom and a nutcracker in the doorway!’ The love for it all was over-spilling in the house,” she says with a laugh.

That’s exactly what she did – she got a warehouse in Dubai Investment Park 1 and started her own business, which about three years later continues to go from strength to strength. Today, The Prop Shop has the biggest inventory of ready-made props in the UAE. These are categorised into themes, from Alice in Wonderland to Arabian Nights and Halloween to Hollywood. It includes 15 carousel horses, 10 Santa Clauses and 15 bejewelled, 3.5-metre nutcrackers, which are by far the largest props in the collection. These can be seen out and about around Christmas, in many of the UAE’s elaborately decorated hotel lobbies. It’s a pretty niche business, but it’s also one the market was screaming out for.

A total fantasy land

“They’re beautiful props,” says Allan proudly. “They’re well made. The idea is that customers can see what they’re getting. It saves on production time. Before, they’d store it in a warehouse, then throw it out and never use it again. It’d cost a fortune. We’re not doing that. These are the same items that are going out, and they look brand new. It saves time and money.” It’s also more environmentally friendly, she adds.

If we’ve got 30 flamingoes, there’s always someone who wants 10 elephants

But where do those props go, you ask? Anywhere, says Allan. “I’ve been trying to monitor who our customers are, so we can target them a bit more, but it’s really, really varied,” she says.The team works on private parties in gardens and palaces, at hotels, for VIPs, and with party organisers across the country. Agencies will come to her for one-off hires or sometimes to conceive the entire theme for an event. She’s worked on everything from a Peter Pan-themed birthday party at Emirates Palace, for which she had an entire pirate ship locally made, to the Winter Carnival at Yas Island. “We’re growing constantly, and getting more and more requests all the time. But it’s like anything, if we’ve got 30 flamingoes, there’s always someone who wants 10 elephants,” she says. That’s why her and her team have gotten a head start on creating the winter catalogue for this year, which includes a few 1.8-metre penguins and giant polar bears, one of which is called Peter, after her late father-in-law, “because he gave great big bear hugs,” she says.

“It’s also about gauging trends,” she adds. “Unicorns are a big trend, so we’ve got plenty of those. Oscars statues do really well and are a bestseller, because there are always awards nights and gala dinners.” For Ramadan, she had plenty of stars, moons and life-sized camels in stock.

'Like choosing a favourite child'

Naturally, we also want to know about some of the oddest requests she’s had, but she won’t share those details, preferring instead to respect the privacy of her clients. She admits that she gets called at all hours of the day and night, and tells us about one occasion when someone asked her to provide real-life hippopotamuses. “When people ring up for animals, I think they’re talking about our elephants and hippos and that sort of thing,” she says. “But one lady wanted real hippos for her swimming pool! She gave me the telephone number for Al Ain Zoo!”

When we ask her which of her props is her favourite, Allan really struggles. She umms and ahhs, and then admits: “it’s a bit like choosing a favourite child”. “They’re all different, and some of it’s really personal. I’m happy with all of them,” she says.

A bit like with Peter the Polar Bear, several of her creations are named after family members, or are inspired by in-jokes with good friends. “We have a couple of snails called Beatrice and Freddie, after my nan and grandad,” she explains. “Freddie and Beatrice used to spend all of their time in the garden, and that’s why they’re snails. My grandad used to be quite nasty and pour salt on all the snails.”

Peter the Polar Bear is named after Jacqui Allan's late father-in-law, because he "gave great big bear hugs". Chris Whiteoak / The National
Peter the Polar Bear is named after Jacqui Allan's late father-in-law, because he "gave great big bear hugs". Chris Whiteoak / The National

Her love for the props is so strong that she worries about them when they’re out. “People say I should be pleased, but I’m simply waiting for them to come back to the warehouse where they’re safe!” Not that she needs to worry, she says, as they’re built to withstand any weather conditions, as well as hundreds of children climbing all over them. Depending on the job, the props have been produced anywhere from England to China, while many are made right here in the UAE (this includes the aforementioned pirate ship, a few apes and some giant ants).

Often, she’ll get a mould made so that the props can be reproduced later on. “Resin gets poured into the mould, taken out of the cast by hand, then we hand-paint and hand-spray it. If we do a mould then we have to do it for quantity, because it costs more. If we want a few pieces, we use the carving technique,” she explains.

A bit of 'old-school' magic

Having a tangible product at the end of it all is also incredibly important to Allan. “I know the direction everyone is going in with technology, but I’m a great believer in people coming together, visual impact and celebrating in person, and the delight you see on people’s faces – not virtual, but real,” she says. “Maybe I’m old-school, but when we go to these birthday parties and see the delight on these children’s faces, it’s a bit of magic.”

For the moment at least, she’s leaving state-of-the-art digital technologies to the experts and focusing on good old-fashioned interaction in real life. And she’s got plenty of plans for the future. “It’s absolutely endless,” she says. “Daily, weekly, I’m working out new items, itineraries, themes, props that are bigger, better and more wow. I want Hollywood-style letters, giant popcorn, giant hot dogs, giant peanuts. I love miniature and giant,” she says. “I want a warehouse that eventually becomes so big and packed with props that it’s an event on its own going there.” She’s also got ideas for more sustainable products, and to fashion props out of recycled and reused materials.

Many of the models are individually hand-cast and hand-painted at the warehouse. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Many of the models are individually hand-cast and hand-painted at the warehouse. Chris Whiteoak / The National

It was almost time for us to leave Allan’s fantasy world, but there was one more anecdote she wanted to share with us before we went. It’s about a time when she was setting up a Christmas-themed display at Jebel Ali School and a little girl was running late. “She was about seven years old and she saw me – she didn’t know me – and no one else was around, but she came running up to me, wrapped herself around my ankles, gave me a hug, looked up and said with delight, ‘Can you let Santa know I want a kitten for Christmas?’ I don’t know if she thought I was friends with him, but I had a moment and remembered why I do this,” Allan says. “There was this little bit of magic going on with her. It was precious.”

It’s a story that perfectly sums up what Allan is all about.

For more information about The Prop Shop, visit www.propshopdubai.com

Updated: June 6, 2019 12:16 PM

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