Villa Moda's International Chic
His Villa Moda business began to build dramatically. Not one to rest on his laurels, Al-Sabah added the work of young international designers. As the store diversified, its success outgrew its 10,800-square-foot (1000-square-meter) space. His search for a site for a new Villa Moda led to the Shuwaikh area on the outskirts of Kuwait City next to the container seaport.
Even with his vision of creating another luxury shopping destination, Al-Sabah didn't want to pay premium rents. Now having established his store at bargain real estate rates, he finds others following him to Shuwaikh.
"We also wanted to create something different," he says. "Department stores or shopping malls all look the same. You always have the branded storefronts such as Prada next to Gucci next to YSL. It was a visually disturbing concept so we experimented with the idea of how to create a designer environment within a hall of this scale."
The architects were asked to create a unique luxury bazaar that challenged conventional concepts of shopping. At Villa Moda, customers are given concierge service and a personal shopping companion to help carry bags. They're also given access to a health spa, restaurant, and business center.
Cravel was selected as lead architect because of his experience with fashion retail projects. His previous work includes art and creative direction for Trussardi and Alessandro Turci fashion houses.
Cravel's process began by referencing the dockland context and, to some extent, Islamic precedents. Islamic architectural tradition sees the entrance as important as the foundation. Cravel took care to respect this, giving contemporary dignity to the entrance area and stainless steel reception desk.
A more obvious referent is the surrounding landscape, the former industrial seaport. The giant glass shell of Villa Moda mimics the shipping containers, while The 39-foot- (12-meter-) high steel poles in front represent ship masts. "Sails" are used in the parking lot to protect vehicles from the sun.
More sails hung inside the atrium are said to protect the interior from direct sunlight. But surely the vast expanses of unshaded glass in a desert climate stand as one more expression of luxury in a country that feels less compelled than the rest of the world to conserve energy.
Inside the Bazaar
Within the building, 30-foot- (9-meter-) high glass cubes, resembling huge aquariums, house the fashion areas. Each participating company has design control inside their own glass borders. Al-Sabah and his designers govern the spaces between them.
Despite the chic look in the aquariums, the US$53 million "destination" is given a raw, industrial atmosphere by its exposed concrete floors. Al-Sabah explains: "We mainly used four cheap materials — concrete, gypsum, glass, and the green India stone that you see on the facade. That's it. It was all about the innovation of design but not being flashy."
In contrast to the conservative budget for the building shell, the greatest expense went, probably, to each store's fittings — furnishings and displays — from Italy and France.
Eldridge Smerin designed the public entrance areas, restaurant, cafe, lounge, and the split-level multibrand store, notable for its 98-foot- (30-meter-) long skylight. Through a parabolic diffuser in the skylight, a multitude of cables were threaded to support the accessories and changing features. Eldridge Smerin also acted as consultants on the exterior landscaping.
The Al-Ahlia Contracting Group started construction in July 2001, very soon after the onset of design. Using a fast-track approach, under the project management of Gulf Consult, construction was completed by April 2002. The total duration of the project from conceptual design to construction completion was a remarkable nine and a half months.
Expansion of Empire
Despite having commissioned international consultants, Al-Sabah wielded considerable design control over the project. He is now strengthening his in-house design team for future projects. He has plans to franchise Villa Moda throughout the Middle East and is talking next to franchisees in Doha, Qatar and in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Al-Sabah says that what future stores will borrow from his past experience is management know-how and the idea of designing according to market needs and available space. But future franchises won't look like the Kuwait Villa Moda. "We don't want to copy," he says. "Each city will have a store that suits its environment."
As one member of the prince's management team predicted in a prewar interview: "Do not be surprised to see a Villa Moda in Baghdad in the near future."
Don Barker is a freelance writer and photographer in London, UK, who has lived and worked in Europe, Australia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, and Singapore. He is a contributing editor to ArchitectureWeek.