Kuwaiti Boutique Bucks a Culture That Likes Foreign Brands
New York Times, May 15, 2013
KUWAIT — The Octium jewelry boutique in the 360 Mall, a luxury shopping center in the Zahra District of Kuwait, presents to the outside world an imposing facade of San Laurent black marble punctuated by a two-ton brass door that conveys an unapologetic sense of masculinity.
Inside, the boutique’s curved walls, cream and violet colors and cushioned seating are feminine to the core.
Yet the contrast in styles is not why shoppers tend to be confused by Octium.
“People come here and think it’s a franchise,” said its creative director, Sheika Alanood al-Sabah. “They’ll ask, ‘Where is it from, London?’ We say Kuwait and they say, ‘Really?”’
Ms. Sabah and her husband, Fahad al-Hajiri, co-founders of Octium, opened the boutique in October 2009 to showcase 18-karat gold and diamond jewels of their own design as well as pieces by a handful of jewelers whose work they admire, including Shaun Leane of Britain and Selim Mouzannar, based in Beirut.
The shop broke new ground, the first homegrown jewelry brand to compete against established luxury houses like Cartier and Piaget for the hearts and minds of Kuwait’s affluent consumers.
“It’s so much easier to franchise here,” Ms. Sabah said. “But that’s not me. I love a challenge.”
Ms. Sabah, 35, a member of the family that has ruled Kuwait since 1756, may be well placed to take up that challenge, but it remains formidable in a society where a passion for luxury goods bearing the imprimatur of foreign makers is part of the cultural identity.
“Kuwaitis have been traveling to Europe and, especially, the States since the ’60s,” said Lusia Zakarian, a client manager at Fitch, a multinational branding and retailing consulting firm that opened an office in Kuwait in 2007. “The locals are very brand-driven. The women are highly fashionable. Most of the more prominent families don’t shop here. They take trips to London or Milan.”
Mr. Hajiri and Ms. Sabah are no strangers to the nuances of Kuwaiti consumerism. They enjoy a privileged position in the country’s tight-knit social scene and spend considerable amounts of time in Europe and the United States.
Indeed, they met in 2000 while she was studying architecture in Washington and he was studying cultural anthropology and history in New York.
Ms. Sabah put a penchant for sketching jewelry pieces to practical use when she designed an Art Nouveau-inspired brooch-hairpin, encrusted with diamond baguettes, for her wedding in 2003. But the idea of marketing her creations took form only after the couple hosted an exhibition in 2007 on behalf of the Bangkok jewelry house Lotus Arts de Vivre, which they had discovered while traveling in Southeast Asia.
Emboldened by the positive feedback, Mr. Hajiri and Ms. Sabah began to research designers who could help bring their vision of a jewelry-boutique-cum-art-gallery to life. They gravitated to the Spanish artist-designer Jaime Hayon.
In 2008, they met Mr. Hayon in New York and asked his help to solve a problem. “Fahad loves Art Deco and I love Art Nouveau,” Ms. Sabah said. “How do you mix masculine and feminine?”
Mr. Hayon devised an innovative solution: He gave rounded corners to the boutique, which occupies 200 square meters, or 2,200 square feet. He also divided it into several functional spaces, including a gallery, bar area and V.I.P. lounge, and bathed the minimalist surroundings — featuring glossy lacquered woods, natural oak, ceramic and plush fabrics — in a rich palette of creams, blacks and violets.
“I didn’t want to visualize this as a normal jewelry store,” Mr. Hayon said. “You enter and you’re in a dream.”
When the space was ready, one branding challenge remained: “The shop was nameless a month after it opened,” Mr. Hajiri said.
They wanted something that evoked the number eight, not only because Ms. Sabah was born on the eighth of August but also because the number boasts a universal symbolism. The non-Arabic-sounding Octium came to mind.
“Octium is what they name a new discovery in the lab; it’s a compound that’s ever changing,” Ms. Sabah said.
To symbolize the brand, they devised a slanted octagon that replaces the O in Octium and is the central motif in Series I, a line of 18-karat rose gold and diamond pieces that became the first of the brand’s four collections.
Series II extended the same aesthetic in faceted yellow-gold three-dimensional styles.
Breaking away from the Art Deco look of the first two series, the third and fourth series have a softer, more Art Nouveau sensibility, with gem-set crescent forms that refer, Ms. Sabah said, to the blended Moorish and Western culture of Andalusia in Spain.
The collections, which sell for $1,500 to $40,000, are mostly made in Hong Kong, but high-end pieces are manufactured in New York, Italy and Kuwait.
Ms. Sabah also designs one-of-a-kind pieces — notably, a pair of oversize earrings and an architectural cuff set with ethically mined Zambian emeralds.
Creating the jewels is one thing; selling them quite another. In addition to the brand’s flagship boutique, Octium’s first shop-in-a-shop opened in November at Harvey Nichols in The Avenues, Kuwait’s newest luxury mall. Still, it may take time for the region’s brand-obsessed customers to open their hearts and wallets to one of their own, said Mohammed al-Fahim, group chief executive of Paris Gallery, a Dubai-based retailer of fashion, cosmetic and fragrance brands.
“If I can buy Cartier for $3,000,” he said, “why should I pay that money for something that’s not known?”