WRITER: Nour Yasmine
It could be argued that Rubaiyat brought high-end fashion to Saudi Arabia. With their latest venture, the Rubaiyat Department Store in Jeddah’s Stars Avenue Mall, they’re offering over 300 brands as well as a personal shopping service to create a whole new retail experience.
Although the Middle East has seen an explosive growth in shopping malls over the past few decades, anchor stores, which have become such an integral part of them, are still not fully comprehended in our region. Well-known in Europe and especially in the US, which is of course the professed birthplace of the shopping mall, these multi-branded stores are often the key to a mall’s success and therefore they are used as commercial drivers.
It was the godfather of the modern mall, an Austrian architect by the name of Victor Gruen, who, as far back as the 1950s, realised that signing larger department stores was a necessity in drawing retail traffic to the smaller stores as well. Yet, till now, we have been happy to import readymade anchors from abroad whether it’s Macy’s and Saks Fifth Avenue from the US, Harvey Nichols from England or even Galeries Lafayette from France. Finally however, a homegrown solution has emerged. Named the Rubaiyat Department Store, it can be found in Jeddah’s Stars Avenue Mall and essentially, it is a super-high-end anchor that’s been tailor-made for the Arab market. Its draw? The fact it’s a department store that thinks globally but acts locally.
With more than 30 years in retail as a distributor of hundreds of luxury brands and a current spread of 50 standalone boutiques in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, Rubaiyat was a uniquely strong position to wade into such ambitious waters. And after a year of planning, designing and building their three-storey 4,500 square-metre space, they held its official unveiling in June 2014.
The result is something to behold. Reflecting the vision of Rubaiyat’s chairman, Sheikh Abdullah Binzagr and his wife, the president, Wafaa Abbar Binzagr, the store’s design was inspired by the Haussmannian architecture of Paris, which can be gleaned from the expansive, harmonious spaces dedicated to the hundreds of fashion brands, as well as by Baroque and Art Deco, as can be seen in elements like the ornate mirrors and monochrome tiles.
“The main idea was to create a cozy yet luxurious environment. We replicate a living space where our customers can almost feel at home while shopping,” says the store’s director Ahmed Zitouni. And where Paris provides the foundation of the store’s design, Zitouni explains that they added many London-inspired contemporary features to break the classical feel and introduce a modern edge to the store.
In the creative displays, some of the more standout elements are the metallic printed chains on the Gucci façade, floating leather-lined lightbox shelves at Bottega Veneta, a ceiling filled with crystals that dangle like icicles for Kenzo and a quirky book installation against a wall of colourful paper butterflies for the Denim Library, which groups hip brands like J Brand, Joe’s, Paige, Hudson and True Religion.
Akin to a specialised mall within a mall, you’ll find everything at the Rubaiyat Department Store from designer labels and ready-to-wear to footwear and accessories. But one of our favourite and more unusual sections is the one dedicated to niche fragrances. As Zitouni explains, “Here we have very special products. They aren’t commercial, they’re made by artisans so their distribution is very narrow and exclusive. They’re targeted to connoisseurs who want something distinguished. You used to have to go to places like [the Salon de Parfums on the sixth floor of] Harrods in London to find brands like Diptyque, Penhaligon’s, Annick Goutal and L’Artisan Parfumeur but now they’re available right here in Jeddah.”
What can you expect to find in terms of fashion apparel? Naturally, there are the well-known designer labels that have become synonymous with Rubaiyat like Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, Saint Laurent, Lanvin, Bottega Veneta, Armani and Balenciaga but there’s also a huge array of contemporary, lesser known brands such as the Australian brand Sass & Bide, British-Turkish label Erdem, New York-based, Indian husband-and-wife team Sachin & Babi as well as Peter Pilotto headed by an Austrian-Italian and a Belgian-Peruvian.
Zitouni, who joined Rubaiyat after working as a retail professional for 14 years with Al Tayer in the UAE, explains that, rather unusually, only 20 per cent of the brands are exclusive to Rubaiyat. “We have a very wide offering but we aren’t doing high street fashion here,” he asserts. “Even if the contemporary brands do have a different price point, they are still considered luxury, just more affordable luxury. And with these sorts of brands, we are speaking to a wider segment of the population. You’d be surprised but the people who shop here are relatively young, in their 30’s for the high-end brands, and in their 20’s for the contemporary ones.”
“Since we opened last year, the frequency of visits has increased by more than 25 per cent and although many customers do come specifically to shop here, many don’t know us yet and come out of curiosity. I’d say a key element of our success has been the diversity of our brands, which is far beyond a usual department store, and then there’s our service and the knowledge of the staff, who are often sent abroad for brand-specific training, such as the one we are having in Paris soon for Lagerfeld.” When asked if he thinks one can ever have too much choice, Zitouni responds that, “It is important to always offer different choices for different people.”
The personal shopping service is another point that customers are apparently embracing. Available by appointment only, the consultation takes place in the comfort of one of two private suites. “The role of the personal shopper is to optimise your choices and also increase your awareness of the brands. Sometimes people think that if they buy Kenzo, Lanvin or Gucci, then they have to dress head-to-toe in those labels but then most people don’t know how to mix well. We assist our clients and show that sometimes, to complete a look, it’s good for example to have a top from Atos Lombardini and denim from J Brand or Joe’s. We tell them what celebrities are wearing, such as with the Talbot Runhof gowns, and we advise them on trends, whether they’re looking to add staples to their wardrobe or looking to dress for an occasion.”
Founding the Middle East’s first homegrown anchor store might be an achievement in itself but more important to the Rubaiyat management is that the department store satisfies a real need among Saudi shoppers. As Wafaa Abbar Binzagr said during the official opening, “The new Rubaiyat Department Store is a result of the appetite for designer fashion and lifestyle in Saudi Arabia.”
Auspiciously, the store is already being seen as the predicate for the future of Jeddah. “We are located on Malik Road, which is the most prominent road in the city,” concludes Zitouni. “It reminds me of Dubai ten or twenty years ago, when Sheikh Zayed Road became the go-to destination thanks to the Dubai Mall and the Mall of the Emirates. This is what we are confident will happen here.”