Fani Hollis, founder of the Dubai antiques and home decor shop, has spent more than 20 years searching the world for handcrafted pieces.
Find Asia's remote village treasures at Dubai's Exotica Furniture
"This is an amazing shop, run by an amazing lady," says the young Frenchman picking his way up the stairs to the first floor of the Exotica Furniture showroom.
The two-storey villa on Dubai's Jumeirah Beach Road is a bona fide Ali Babba-esque treasure trove, brimming with Far Eastern antiques and handcrafted decorative items. There are age-old wedding carriages from southern China, oversized seats made out of gnarled tree trunks, rare rosewood beds found in Vietnam and ancient Buddhist scripture boxes. In fact, every nook and cranny of the not-inconsiderably sized villa is brimming with unique items that Exotica's founders, the Greek-born Fani Hollis and her British husband, Brian, have tracked down during their countless trips to the Far East.
Fani has just been telling me that while the products that she so lovingly sources may not be "everybody's cup of tea", they do have a loyal following. "We are not a furniture shop. We cater to a very niche market. People are often overwhelmed when they walk in. They don't really know what to do with it. But there are people who like this style."
The affable Frenchman is a case in point. He is a regular visitor to the showroom and is quick to sing its praises. Once today's foraging session is over, he invites Fani to visit his home - to help him and his wife decide where to put their new finds. Fani agrees immediately. It's that kind of shop.
Exotica came into existence some 20 years ago, while Fani and Brian were living in Kuwait. The couple were ardent travellers who regularly visited India and the Far East - not to mention destinations as far flung as Alaska and the Amazon - so they decided to turn their passion into a business venture. "I always travelled extensively and I always liked old pieces, so I thought I should incorporate the two," says Fani.
She initially ran the business from their villa in Kuwait, and remembers her first-ever sale: three old dowry chests from India which were bought by a friend. "I went straight back to India and started searching for more," she recalls.
Fani spent the next 10 years scouring India for beautiful old pieces, until around 10 years ago, when they started becoming increasingly scarce. Strong demand from Europe and America meant that it was becoming almost impossible to find such items in India, and the ones Fani did come across were prohibitively expensive.
"At the time, China opened up. So I started concentrating on China because I knew that they would eventually run out as well. At the time, nobody spoke English so my husband learnt a little Chinese. You had to have some Chinese to work out which buses or trains to hop on to. We also looked at Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and Burma, and we still go to all those places."
In 2000, the Hollises moved to Dubai and Exotica Furniture found a home in Al Quoz at a time when it was "completely industrial", says Fani. One and a half years ago, after nine years in Al Quoz and at the behest of the municipality, Exotica moved to its current location in Umm Suqeim.
As well as your average antiques aficionados, Fani also works with interior designers and has supplied a number of hotels and restaurants, including the Buddha Bar in Dubai and the St Regis in Abu Dhabi, over the past few years. She has noticed that customers are increasingly buying one or two statement pieces from Exotica and then placing them in contemporary interiors for striking contrast. "People will buy one or two pieces - and that's really the aim of the business," she says. "We are not aiming for everybody to fill their homes with our pieces."
Twenty years on from the launch of Exotica, Fani and Brian continue to travel four or five times a year for up to six weeks at a time, visiting remote villages, searching for one-of-a-kind treasures. "I look for pieces that are unique, original and not reproduced around the world. I want people to come into the shop and say, 'I've never seen that anywhere else.'"
I ask Fani whether, after all this time, she still enjoys it. "Yes," she says, without hesitation. "It's never a chore. If I stay in Dubai for more than two months at a time, I start to get the itch.
"But you have to have that passion for old, handcrafted pieces. And you have to be prepared to really search for those pieces, by train, by bus or by truck. My forte is not marketing or advertising. It is hopping on a bus and travelling to a small village somewhere; it is seeing things that others don't see and salvaging beautiful objects from extinction; it is seeing a little corner of a chest and knowing that, if restored, it could be a beautiful piece."
Otherwise, she says, many of these objects would be end up being destroyed. Fani is fully aware of the criticism levelled by some at the antiques industry. "People say that you shouldn't take away China's heritage. But the truth is, if someone didn't pay even a nominal fee for it, that heritage would end up as firewood. So much of this beautiful furniture would just be destroyed."
Nonetheless, Fani does draw the line at selling certain types of Buddhas. "I never buy old Buddhas because they are religious relics. If for thousands of years a Buddha has been venerated, I don't think it should be reduced to a commercial entity. Instead, we prefer to buy new Buddhas, which are made more as arts and crafts."
With western demand growing and a new breed of affluent Chinese also looking to invest in China's antiques, Fani is conscious that it will soon become almost impossible to find new pieces to bring back to Dubai. In this regard, the country's fate will invariably mirror that of India.
As a result, Fani has started stocking up; hence the overflowing showroom. "I have gathered a lot of stuff in the last three or four years because I saw that it was disappearing fast. If I find anything beautiful these days, I just buy it and store it."
She has also started selling newer handcrafted furniture and decorative items, such as the hand-painted Tibetan furniture line and a collection of delicately decorated leather furniture. "These are still one-off pieces," she clarifies. "I don't just go to a market and find 10 of the same."
All the while, she is quietly plotting her next move. "Once China has run out, maybe I'll head to South America. Guatemala has beautiful embroideries and Peru also has lovely things. I'll find somewhere to go next. As long as I am well, I will continue to do this."