As Villa Moda's long-awaited multibrand boutiques open in DIFC, Gemma Champ looks at the pieces that make the shops unique.
One of a kind
Nice sunglasses, no? Very vintage - literally. They are one-off antique frames that have been refurbished, polished and given new Zeiss lenses, so your eyes are properly protected from sun damage. You won't see anyone else wearing these. They're from a tiny Italian company called Very Vintage, which is the fruit of its founder's obsession with collecting old sunglasses. The company has only one stockist in the UAE: the spectacular new Villa Moda multibrand womenswear store in DIFC, which will have its grand opening tomorrow.
Very Vintage shades aren't the only exclusive piece in the spectacular new Villa Moda stores (there are two in DIFC, a glistening fairy tale space on two storeys for women and, for men, a cooler, grey-tinged shop packed with modernist 1950s furniture). While there are plenty of big-but-left field names - from Proenza Schouler to Anne Valérie Hash - there is nothing predictable about the choices made from even these well-established brands, with only about three examples of each item available. In fact, Villa Moda's raison d'être is to avoid the obvious, with the buyers seeking out young designers, small high-quality companies and new talent.
The sunglasses are emblematic of this approach, says Natalie Van Rooyen, the head buyer for Villa Moda. "We've just introduced them for this season, and no one else is selling them. We always try to use these fresh young brands. When you buy them, there will only be one piece, and that's what we strive for with our buying." The opening of the DIFC stores, preceded by the small boutique that opened in the Atlantis hotel last year, mark Villa Moda's long-awaited full-steam-ahead return to the UAE after an absence of three years. In those years, Dubai's fashion scene changed almost beyond recognition in a way that has forced the store's buyers to approach their job in a very different way. The company that started bringing high-fashion brands to Kuwait 18 years ago as its owner Sheikh Majed Al Sabah tried to return some glamour to his country after the first Gulf War, is now all about the quirky, the one-off, the intellectual, the designed. In fact, it's almost anti-fashion, full of pieces that are beautifully crafted and constructed but could in no way be described as "trendy". They are items for people who love clothes rather than fashion followers.
"When we decided to relaunch in Dubai we knew that we'd been away from the market for three years, but all the big players had come along in that time, so we didn't want to follow what they were doing," says Van Rooyen. "We wanted to bring more of an avant-garde feeling, and with the store being outside rather than in a mall we were inspired to introduce a new way of shopping. Instead of the same brands, we have been sourcing new and up-and-coming designers to bring more of that individual feeling to the customers. We're saying to them don't just follow: have a different identity to everyone else. Be individual, be yourself, feel something different."
The result of all this is one of Dubai's most beautiful shops. Sheikh Majed's passion for design means that each of Villa Moda's branches - from Kuwait to Bahrain - is unique, but Dubai's womenswear store is surely one of the loveliest, with its pale colour scheme and wide open two-storey structure. Mirrorwork is combined with exquisite, intricate plasterwork by artisans from Iran, and a similar effect is achieved in the menswear branch using grey concrete for a grittier look.
In both boutiques, every piece of furniture, every display cabinet and every light fitting is for sale, from mother-of-pearl inlaid Syrian antiques in the womenswear store to modishly streamlined 1950s and 1960s coffee tables and easy chairs in the menswear branch. It is chosen and collected by Sheikh Majed himself on his travels, and as the furniture is sold, new pieces will replace it, from a huge stockroom somewhere in Dubai.
The ever-changing environment is an important part of the Villa Moda approach, and it's not just the furniture. The store is also being used as an exhibition space for artists invited to create site-specific works for the windows and the interior. The first to be commissioned is the Irish artist Patricia Millns, whose work is focused on the social meaning of clothing. Having lived and worked in Kuwait and Dubai for 25 years, she is an obvious choice, and has created three installations in time for the grand opening - all of which are, of course, for sale. Giant steel-mesh thobes hang in the windows of the womenswear store and will be filled with white and red rose petals for a piece called Emra'a (Woman). Downstairs, one of the Syrian cabinets houses 100 jars of tiny rolled-up messages from women to themselves. In the menswear store, hundreds of ghaffiyas (the crocheted caps worn by Gulf men beneath their ghutras) sit in Perspex boxes in her piece Rajul (Man).
"They're objects that are basic to a man's everyday wear but are also covered - only slightly revealed. And things that are slightly revealed are always more intriguing. What you can't see is what you want to see," says Millns. "It's about seeing the intellectual idea behind clothing, seeing it as more identity than decoration. Because to me the clothing at Villa Moda is not purely decoration - they've gone to another level with clothing. It really is high fashion, which to me is an art."
And, art and design aside, it's the fashion that is at the heart of Villa Moda. With such limited stock, once a piece is gone, it's gone for good. There will be a constant influx of new treasures, including handmade artisanal pieces from dressmakers and jewellers in the Middle East and Far East, and limited editions and exclusives such as the Seven For All Mankind collaboration, which sees the Seven logo translated into Arabic.
"We have worked with Seven For All Mankind for 12 years and we do something new with them every season," says Van Rooyen, emphasising the company's history of getting on to a good thing early. Another example of this foresight is their patronage of the Dubai-raised, London-based shoe designer Camilla Skovgaard: for this season only, her collection is exclusive to Villa Moda. By autumn/winter she will have been picked up by Harvey Nichols as well.
"Every season Cindy Ho, the fashion director, and I spend a lot of time visiting different showrooms," says Van Rooyen, "and we saw Camilla's shoes and loved them. They're not your average shoes. They look really different, they're comfortable and the price point is very good. They're going in a really new direction. They're fresh and funky, and she's a lovely girl, too." It's not just about emerging designers: one re-emerging brand being championed by Villa Moda is the bag collection of Roberta Di Camerino, the iconic accessories designer whose pieces were sported in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s by movie stars such as Grace Kelly. Recently bought by the Sixty Group, the label is being revived under the auspices of the former Prada and Dior designer Giorgia Scarpa, and Van Rooyen is certain that the exclusivity of each piece will balance out the big price tags. "The craftsmanship is at the same level as someone like Bottega Veneta, and we wanted to be the first to introduce them to the region. We have maybe two pieces in each design, and for the very special ones there will be only one."
Another label on the up and in Villa Moda is Moncler, the skiwear company whose down-filled quilted jackets have inspired the Gamme Rouge collaboration by Giambattista Valli, which turns the voluminous outdoor wear into extraordinary gossamer-light silk evening jackets fit for an ice queen. "There's just one piece of each here. It's very exclusive, and the pieces are not heavy; they're embellished and would complement any evening wear. For women who travel, they need a little chic cover-up for galas or occasions," says Van Rooyen.
Moncler's menswear line, Gamme Bleu, is available too, created by the American designer Thom Browne, whose retro preppy tailoring is a little more subtle than the Valli version. The menswear store also stocks some key exclusives, ranging from the directional Japanese label Miharayasuhiro to pyjamas by the Savile Row label Derek Rose, whose offering also includes suits, cufflinks, socks, underwear: the whole shebang, in fact.
"With our menswear store, the idea was to create a men's club (think of guys sitting around in their suits with a cigar, or going to the golf club) and with Derek Rose you have suits, men's pyjamas, underwear, socks, cufflinks, ties," says Van Rooyen. "But for Miharayasuhiro, which is kind of crazy, we wanted to offer something to those guys who are more in touch with their fashionable side - those individuals living in Dubai who don't always find interesting enough fashion to satisfy them. The shoes are a collaboration with Puma and they're fantastic. We want those artsy, creative men to know that there is something available for them here."
Arguably the most impressive exclusive in the men's boutique is Raf Simons, one of menswear's biggest names. "He's breathed new life into Jil Sander," says Van Rooyen, "and his menswear is a bit minimalistic, but it's also fun. You have all those people working in DIFC pinned up in suits and sometimes they need a break, so there are great T-shirts and shirts. We try to represent a little tailoring with light cotton blazers. It's very easy to wear. People hear a Belgian name and think it's unapproachable, and Belgian menswear is a lot more minimalistic, but he uses great materials and techniques."
Still, for all the interesting names to drop, Villa Moda is not really about labels: the clothes in the shop are merchandised by story or theme rather than by designer as in most other multibrand stores (and in Villa Moda's other stores). One or two rails feature just one brand (such as Victoria Beckham's line of simple pencil dresses, another exclusive, or the Moncler Gamme Rouge collection), but for the most part the products are mixed up, with Martine Sitbon's edgy but popular Rue de Mail sitting next to Roksanda Ilincic, Jonathan Saunders or Easton Pearson in a rail of harmonious colours or styles. "We buy as a story so when the consumer comes in and loves a brand, she can find other things that work," says Van Rooyen.
Perhaps the people creating this new Villa Moda have seen a change in the UAE's shopping future that the rest of us are only just catching onto. Sheikh Majed's description of the store as "cosy" may be disingenuous, and the prices may remain designer high, but here the designers are not the stars; the clothes are. In one of the world's flashiest cities, it takes a certain confidence to use "no logo" as the predominant aesthetic, but that's what Villa Moda has done. The customer is trusted to pick pieces because they love them, not because they are made by a famous luxury-goods conglomerate. And given Sheikh Majed's legendary prescience, you're probably looking at the future of fashion right here in DIFC.