Discover a unique shopping experience at The Avenue at Etihad Towers, Abu Dhabi, with customer service to savour and pieces to treasure for life.
Luxury VIP rooms: Behind closed doors
Recently I took delivery of a new wristwatch. It met two essential criteria: it tells the time and it looks quite elegant. It cost quite a lot but it's fair to say I would not be the average client for the stores that make up The Avenue in Abu Dhabi's Etihad Towers.
Opened earlier this year, this is one of the world's most expensive and exclusive collection of shops. To call it a mall would be somehow wrong, so it's The Avenue. And, situated on two levels (ground and lower first), adjacent to the hotel entrance at Etihad Towers, it's quite possibly the most relaxing, unhurried way to spend lots and lots of money on extremely elegant extravagances.
I'm here to visit four of the beautiful stores that are currently open for business, to experience for myself just how a VIP client can expect to be treated.
It will involve rooms that are private, away from prying eyes. Rather than land outside in my own helicopter - as no doubt some spenders will do - I roll up in a humble taxi. There's no mistaking the entrance for The Avenue, marked as it is with huge letters spelling out the names of brands that I haven't a hope of wearing unless it's one of their fragrances. Suddenly my watch seems a bit naff so I tug my shirt cuffs over it.
It's Sunday morning and The Avenue is quiet. That's to be expected, as the place has been subject to a 'soft' opening, with some stores (including Tom Ford and Porsche Design) still being finished. Nevertheless, there are a number of shoppers wandering around. It's lovely to be away from the screaming kids, inappropriately loud music and other bothersome aspects to shopping in many malls - within seconds I can see the appeal.
The store frontages read like a who's who of ultra luxury brands: Burberry, Canali, Cartier, Hermès, Herve Leger, Manolo Blahnik, Piaget, Salvatore Ferragamo, Van Cleef & Arpels and Versace - they're all here and, when the place is finished, there will be 35 world-famous names in one, manageable location.
Tatiana Stratila is an assistant at my first port of call: Bulgari. Like many of today's luxury brands, Bulgari was established in the late 19th century as a jewellers and has since diversified into watches, leather goods and accessories. The airy store is quite lovely and I'm awestruck at the beautiful pieces on display. If only the prices didn't read like telephone numbers, I might have taken something home for Mrs Hackett. "We opened here on August 1," Stratila says, "so this is very new." And then she shows me to the "private room".
"Private rooms are very important, especially in this country," she adds, "because Muslim ladies cannot remove the hijab in front of others. And they need to do this to try on our products while deciding what they like. The complete privacy this kind of room gives enables them to do this comfortably."
The room isn't just here to cater for cultural sensitivities, as she explains. "We often have very famous people visiting us, who understandably are uncomfortable being seen by the public while they are shopping with us. This privacy is perfect for them, too."
Decorated in subtle hues that will appeal to both sexes, this private area is furnished with luxurious seating and low tables. When the doors are closed off from the main store, the atmosphere is hushed and relaxed and the pressure is off. There's no need for the sales patter you might get in lesser stores. If you're here to spend money, you will, and the experts on hand are able to assess your needs and meet your requirements with the absolute minimum of fuss.
And, with that, it's off to Cartier, where I am greeted by the manager, Amer Haddad. He is wearing a watch that fairly mesmerises me and this is what Cartier, apart from its incredible jewellery - worn by the world's heads of state for many decades - is famous for. To say a Cartier watch tells the time is like saying a Bugatti Veyron will get you from A to B. Yes, they both do that, but the engineering and craftsmanship that go into these machines is quite stunning.
I am sat with Haddad in a very masculine-looking room, at the rear of the store, which is where clients peruse Cartier's Fine Watchmaking timepieces. It isn't entirely closed off from the rest of the boutique, but it's more than private enough. Dark materials line the walls and glass cases contain some of the finest wristwatches known to mankind. I like it here.
A watch is removed from its case with a white cotton glove and offered to me. It's a Calibre de Cartier Astrotourbillon, no less, one of 100 made, with a titanium case and an alligator skin strap. It costs just less than I make in a year and I do not want to give it back. It's utterly fascinating, with its tourbillon complication moving around the watch face, like a moon orbiting a sun. As a design and as a technical showpiece, it's exceptional. No bling, this is the polar opposite of mass production, although Cartier does cater for that part of the market, too.
Reluctantly I remove it from my wrist, slightly depressed that I'm not likely to ever possess such a beautiful watch, and replace it with my own. I want to smash it with a hammer. Everywhere I look I'm hit between the eyes by wonderful design and the finest imaginable materials, but is this room private enough for people needing to mix and match their jewellery?
The boutique (nobody refers to it as a store or shop) is huge and, away from the so macho watch room, there are two further rooms, where the jewellery is on display, with a special area for bridal jewels. Here, as in Bulgari, complete privacy is on offer, the only eyes upon clients being those of the famous people wearing Cartier, photographed and framed for posterity, hanging on the walls. I could spend forever here.
I cannot, however, and I'm ushered across The Avenue, just a few stores away, to Van Cleef & Arpels. Much smaller than Cartier, it is no less gorgeous but definitely more feminine. The company gained fame and fortune as a result of many famous commissions from royals, industrialists and financiers the world over and the staff here are already known for the subtle way in which they deal with their exclusive clientele. I know someone who has been ushered into the private room here, on the basis of her friend wearing the right jewellery and accessories. My watch wouldn't pass muster here, that's for sure. Piaget, too, is a brand that has appealed to the great and the good for many decades and its boutique is quite possibly the most relaxing I have been inside so far today. All of them have been lovely but here, especially in the VIP room, I feel quite at home. The main boutique is nice enough, with minimal display space, making one aware that this is absolute exclusivity.
Boutique manager Wesam El Geresy is evidently proud of it. "This is one of the first boutiques in the world to be fitted out with Piaget's new design concept. Everything is geared towards making our clients feel relaxed." He's right, and the ambience of the sizeable room is more akin to a luxurious hotel lounge rather than a boutique. "We have clients ask if they can buy the furniture from us," smiles Geresy.
He demonstrates what VIPs can expect when they're ensconced in the deep, plush sofas, when his assistant comes in to present a beautiful, extremely elegant watch to me. She sits next to me, rather than opposite me, turns to me and, without invading my personal space, lets me view the timepiece. It's a very human experience and totally relaxing. Decorated to be a perfect blend of masculine and feminine, it's a masterful piece of design, and I've changed my mind. I'd like to live here instead, please.
Geresy is so friendly I'm sure he'd let me if he could, but he can't, and I need to get out before I start writing cheques. This is shopping on a unique level, where nothing is too much trouble and seemingly nothing unattainable. As a showcase for what Abu Dhabi can now offer the discerning customer, The Avenue, with its private rooms and attentive staff, is difficult to contemplate being beat. If you have the means, you owe it to yourself to head here. Enjoy.