Judging Panel - Sheikh Majed Al Sabah

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Sheikh Majed Al Sabah defies categorisation. He’s a visionary retailer, a fashion aficionado, a collector of contemporary art and design and a nephew of the Emir of Kuwait. His family might have preferred a more traditional calling for a Kuwaiti royal; ambassador, for example. However it could be argued that his many audacious projects and his tireless enthusiasm for new ideas have made him a more effective virtual ambassador of his country’s culture than any more official role.

In the worlds of fashion, design, art and luxury retail, the standard view is that innovation and creativity come from four key cities in the West; Paris, London, New York or Milan. Al-Sabah is proving that cultural innovation is no longer geographically defined. When he launched his luxury fashion emporium, Villa Moda, in Kuwait in 2002, fashion opinion-formers were taken aback to discover a concept that rivalled anything that could be found in the ‘fashion capitals’ and which had been created for a wealthy, cosmopolitan and opinionated audience demanding the highest standards in the retail experience.

If the architectural concept for the first Villa Moda was a talking point - a giant ‘glass box’ designed by Italian architect Pierfrancesco Cravel - so was its surreal location, amongst shipping containers in the middle of the industrial port district of Shuwaikh. Inside, customers discovered brands such as Prada, Gucci, Fendi, Ferragamo, Bottega Veneta, Marni, Miu Miu and YSL offering the season’s most sought-after creations, frequently wait-list-only in Europe. The service, meanwhile, offered late opening hours, valet parking, a restaurant with Caprice-trained chefs and ‘depack’ parties for a well-travelled and fashion-savvy clientele, keen to be the first to get their hands on the seasons’ most desired items before they even reached the shop floor.

The store created headlines in the world’s fashion press; within less than a year of opening, Time Magazine had dubbed Al-Sabah ‘The Sheikh of Chic’.

In the intervening years Al-Sabah has opened further stores, each distinct in terms of its location, interiors and retail offering. In 2006 he opened a store in the heart of the old souk in Damascus. The location, a former 17th century inn, is almost obscured behind the chaotic life of the souk which seems unchanged since medieval times. In 2007, Al-Sabah launched the first ever Manolo Blahnik concession in the Middle East. Al-Sabah hired craftsmen whose families had worked on the royal palaces of Iran to create a jewel box setting for Blahnik’s designs, and which the shoe legend described as his “most beautiful store”.

Innovation and daring are constant themes which are an extension of Al-Sabah’s personality, “I am constantly challenging myself,” he declares, which might also explain why he can be found not only in the front row at the couture shows in Paris but at the Salone del Mobile in Milan or Art Basel Miami Beach. While Al-Sabah is known for his commitment to fashion, in recent years he has become increasingly involved in the worlds of design and contemporary art. “I believe we are entering a new cycle where genres are starting to cross over where previously there was very little exchange. This is already evident in fashion with brands such as Louis Vuitton and Prada becoming closely involved in the art world. At the same time the contemporary art scene is becoming more accessible and open, as can be witnessed at Art Basel Miami with its crossover events featuring design, music and film.”

Al-Sabah’s commitment to design and contemporary art will be manifest in 2008 when two new stores, the first designed by Marcel Wanders in Bahrain and the second by Jaime Hayon in Dubai, are set to open. An ambitious new real-estate development in collaboration with the Dubai International Financial Centre will also witness Al-Sabah’s first contemporary art project involving a gallery space and an ongoing series of major commissions from some of the world’s leading contemporary artists.

Al-Sabah’s interest in design and art also reflects trends in the Gulf. “70% of the population in the region is under 30,” Al-Sabah comments. “Whereas in the past the fashion was to live in houses with traditional Islamic interiors, now there is a young audience emerging with an appreciation for modern design and a genuine interest in contemporary art.” Given that the region is home to some of the highest incomes per capita in the world and a well-travelled and sophisticated clientele with high expectations from a retail experience, any retail and culture concept that flourishes here has the potential to become a blueprint for other luxury markets.

“People are tired of experiencing the same, sterile, over polished fashion stores wherever they go,” Al-Sabah adds. “It may be that they leave the house intending to buy a pair of shoes, but shopping is also an experience, a source of entertainment and a social activity. A retail environment needs an element of theatre, of the unexpected. This is why each of our Villa Moda stores is different – whether we occupy a seventeenth century building in the heart of the old Souk in Damascus, build a minimal, ultra modern box in the port district of Kuwait or develop a ‘luxury boulevard’ in Dubai where customers discover a world where fashion and art interact and overlap.”

“A Villa Moda store is a bit like a woman who wears a different coloured lipstick every day; while there are certain recognisable values which are always at the core of what we do, we also like to celebrate the unexpected.”

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