When shopaholics of the world plan a splurging spree, Kuwait is seldom the first country that comes to mind. It’s not the sort of place that registers on the world consciousness, fashion-wise, the way France or Japan does, but this Gulf country, with its population of roughly 4 million, has been home to the hottest names long before Bangkok has –despite its religious limitations and seemingly sleepy landscape with an even sandier backdrop. While hardly being tourism-amped as a shopping mecca, it does just as well as such much-more-buzzed-about Middle Eastern counterparts as Dubai. So much is the demand for fashion there that two Thai designer brands, Tawn C. and S’uvimol, have set their sights on this lucrative market and celebrate official launches in Kuwait City this season.
Obvious high-end titans like Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Giorgio Armani (there’s even an Emporio Armani Caffè) are present, but what’s startling is the number of niche luxury houses those without corporate backing — that have long planted their flags there. Fancy footwear appreciated by the aficionados — like Charlotte Olympia or less common names that cater to a distinctive style such as Peter Pilotto, Alice & Olivia or Acne Studios — are ever-present the way H&M and Zara are available around the world. And we haven’t even gotten started on the haute couture list either, which is exhaustive but includes all the big guns, like Giambattista Valli (way before Chompoo Araya got her wedding dress made), as well as Ralph & Russo. “I’ve long been interested in this market,” says Tawn Chatchavalvong, eponymous designer and founder of socialite’s staple Tawn C.,which capitalises on the usage of gold. “While buyers from the West have slowed down due to the bad economy, the Middle East has never stopped or [slowed down].”
Having signed an exclusive deal with the Al Fatina Group through a trade show in Paris, Tawn C.’s spring-summer 2017 collection is available at the multi-labelled boutique housing other prestigious labels from around the world.
Like Chai Gold Label, another Thai gown house, available in Kuwait for the past 10 years, only those who can produce fast enough to meet the world’s fashion calendar and can pass the systematic quality control of a nation used to the highest craftsmanship can make it abroad. S’uvimol will celebrate its grand opening on March 15 at Bloomingdale’s in Kuwait, after already entering Dubai via Harvey Nichols and Bloomingdale’s, while planting its own flagship store in Bahrain in 2015.
Comically dubbed the Bao Bao of the Middle East by Bangkok Fashion Society president Polpat Asavaprapha, Bangkok’s fashion connoisseurs are well aware that S’uvimol exotic leather bags are snatched up in every colour when Middle Eastern customers descend at our department stores — in a similar fashion to Thais depleting Issey Miyake flagships when in Japan. The owner has never envisioned that Arabs would make up 80% of her sales, with most of the brand’s Instagram followers coming from UAE, followed by Thailand and Qatar.
“I think we managed to catch on quickly because word of mouth spread fast and because they have more spending power than Thai customers,” says Javamond Pavarodom, founder and designer of S’uvimol. “Customers would tell their friends and family about our bags. Before [we went to sell there], they would Whatsapp us to buy our products and we would ship them over. I think we could blend well, because they have this culture of shopping through social media, like Thais.”
Starting at 30,000 baht each, Javamond speculates that it is the exotic factor and reasonable pricing that has made her crocodile handbags appeal to the Middle East. “These are customers that like and are used to high-end things. They don’t want normal stuff, so the fact that it is made from exotic skins makes it more exclusive, because no two bags are exactly the same. They don’t want to carry something like someone else.”
Clothing however, poses a more particular and less universal terrain to work on. Chai Jiamkittikul of Chai Gold Label sells a lot of gowns and evening dresses, commenting that this target market has a big demand for special dresses with beautiful details. “I’ve heard that there are a lot of women-only parties, weddings and Eid celebrations where woman like to dress up. They’re actually quite open and only sometimes ask me to tweak my designs.”
“There is an interest in buying and dressing up a lot, and there are a lot of social events, so girls want to look good,” confirms 26-year-old Kuwaiti doctor Hala Hamadah. “I think [the fashion style of Kuwaitis] involves a lot of accessories, hair always done. Some looks seem effortless, with jeans and sneakers, but some are pretty done-up with vibrant colours, and very fashion-forward.”
Enjoying a freer press and more democratic government than its neighbours, Kuwait’s fashion scene is vibrant thanks to its less-conservative disposition. “The fact that it’s a Muslim country influences fashion in that girls who do not wear hijab would dress in a very fashion forward way,” says fellow doctor Fay Al Yaqout. “However, they’d maintain a factor of conservation in that skirts would be knee-length, not midriff-bearing, and no tank tops in public. It is not mandatory to wear an abaya or head scarf in Kuwait, which is not part of the national costume as in Dubai.
On average, a higher majority of girls in Kuwait would wear head scarves, but a large portion of girls do not wear headscarves.” Yet Tawn’s see-through lace blouses are not ignored by buyers, as he explains that his pieces are simply styled differently in the Middle East. European customers may wear it alone, but Arabic customers may layer it with something else so it is not too revealing. Like Chai Gold Label, his main items that get picked up don’t stray far from high-quality maxi dresses and elegant day-to-night pieces. Black and gold are the main colours from his collection that sell in Kuwait, but to dismiss the Middle East’s inclination towards all things bling, flashy and Versace-y would be too dismissive. “They like things that look expensive,” explains Tawn. “This would mean expensive lace, embroidery with pearl and crystals, or pleats. It’s about sophisticated fabrics that must be treated before they can even be tailored. My casual pieces don’t sell so much.”
Thai designers are now cashing in bigger when selling abroad. On the shopper’s side, Hamadah explains that while there are no taxes in Kuwait, imported merchandise is roughly 10% more expensive than abroad, due to import fees. Still, she heads down to multi-label AlOthman to get her “good key pieces” or to the Avenues, the country’s largest mall, for her H&M, Zara and Bershka fix, when she isn’t shopping for Stella McCartney or JW Anderson.
With sweltering heat that limits outdoor activities, it should be no surprise that past times like shopping have a solid footing in a country packed with wealthy people with not much to do in a climate that could heat up to 50C. If you ever make it to Kuwait, plan a whole day to visit the Avenues — something of a palatial cave divided into seven districts, with more than 800 stores. Jaw-droppingly grand, the visually-stunning Prestige district is worth a trek even if you are anything but a shopper or label junkie.The country may be tiny, but this mall that already feels like three connected Megabangnas is expanding in its fourth phase over an area of 117,000m², which in other words means lots and lots more shops.
The wife of the ex-ambassador of Thailand to Kuwait, Ruchira Chuasukonthip, aptly summarises it best when she says: “If you have the money, Kuwait has everything.”