Within the framework of the third-year interior design studio at the American University of Sharjah, students undertook an investigation of retail space and fashion consumption. They looked at both the general global condition and the specific UAE context. Unsurprisingly, retail has become, after real
estate, the second major business activity in Dubai. The city brands itself as a center for luxury fashion retail with ever flourishing mega malls that break world records in scale and extravagance. The Fashion Avenue section in the soon-to-open Dubai Mall will be dedicated to haute couture, with over 70 signature stores highlighting the latest trends in global fashion (1). Ingie Chalhoub is the President and Managing Director of Etoile Group, which manages “the city’s first multi-brand boutiques, Etoile, selling Dior, John Galliano, Ralph Lauren, Valentino and Dolce & Gabbana.” She states that the local luxury fashion market will at least double in size in the next three to five years and triple in the next decade. This retail revolution is seen by some as the latest step in Dubai’s effort to transform itself into a culture-free pleasure zone for wealthy Middle Easterners and international tourists (2).
In his book System of Objects, Jean Baudrillard states that since the 1960s there has been a global shift from a producer society to a consumer society that designs a proliferation of objects. Fashion and advertisement constitute revealing objects in Baudrillard’s system of objects, as they carry important social and psychological values. In general, luxury fashion consumption is generated by an individual’s desire to satisfy his own social image and remedy his existential anxiety (3). For example, despite wearing the traditional outfits of abayas and sheilas, Emirati women consume luxury fashion with a particular interest in a wide array of sophisticated accessories that are not hidden by the traditional outfit: head scarves, bags, sandals, sunglasses and jewelry (4). Yet also “many local women enjoy designer labels as much as Western holiday makers but they wear them underneath their abayas, obscuring the all-important logo. In response, leading brands, notably Burberry, are working on producing a ‘Gulf chic’ range of branded abayas, head scarves and sandals,” (5). Indeed, today’s market is quick to adapt itself to the emerging needs of Emirati women. Drawing from Baudrillard, “needs” are defined here as social values and ideological constructions rather than use value.
Studio Methodology and Objectives
Within the theoretical and cultural context described above, the studio project focused on a retail space entitled “Made in the Emirates” that would be able to promote reflection on fashion retail and the shopping experience. The specific project site occupied an area of about 800m2 located off the central circulation node of the Boulevard Mall at the Emirates Towers. It was split into two levels with direct access to both the mall on the ground floor and the hotel passageway on the first floor.
The studio encouraged students to weave into their conceptual beginnings their informed critical reading induced from literary research, fieldwork and site observation.
1. The students researched the work of contemporary architects such as Rem Koolhhaas, who designed the Prada flagship store in New York, and Massimiliano Fuksas, who designed the Emporio Armani flagship store in Hong Kong, as they attempted to transform a commercial experience into a cultural or at least a rich phenomenological experience.
2. Students interviewed and conducted questionnaires among female Emirati students who freely discussed their views on fashion, culture and shopping patterns. They also studied a selection of UAE retail spaces.
3. Students assessed the smooth, inclusive and dynamic ambience of the UAE’s traditional souks and contrasted it with the slick, exclusive and rarefied ambience of the current malls.
After understanding the exigencies and models of the global retail environment, students began to question and deconstruct them to introduce culturally oriented conditions. Generating alternative retail experiences could rely on programmatic innovation, objective product information and re-conceptualized architectural space, which could in turn transform, or in some cases, reveal a user’s perception as he interacts with other users, displayed objects and space. Different concept ideas and design strategies can offer different readings of a retail space, changing today’s shopping experience from one that is modeled after the ambience of an exclusive hotel space for the global jet set elite. Can the thinking about the retail experience generate a different relationship to exchange and product, and a richer and deeper dialogue with users’ needs of socialization, information, memory and space?
1. AME INFO, August 20, 2008.
2. ITP Business, January 22, 2006.
3. Jean Baudrillard, Le Systeme des Objets (Paris: Gallimard, 1968), 230–236.
4. Questionnaire on Fashion Consumption Patterns conducted at the American University of Sharjah in Fall 2006.
5. ITP Business, January 22, 2006.
Architect Mona El-Mousfy has professional experience in France, Italy and the USA. During her professional practice in Paris, she focused on residential renovation, and more recently on exhibition design. Mona has entered several exhibition and museum design competitions, and participated in the design of the winning entry for the French Pavilion at the 1989 Seville Universal Exhibition. As the architect of the Sharjah Art Biennial in April 2005, she designed a changing interior urban landscape to support exploration, exchange and personal introspection around contemporary art installations and the biennial theme of “belonging.” She has also been involved in the design development of the Al-Buhais 18 Archaeological Exhibition at the Sharjah Archaeological Museum. This project was conceived with archaeologists from Tubingen University to explore innovative strategies in archaeological exhibitions and to bridge the gap between teaching and practice. Her academic career has included teaching at the School of Architecture at Georgia Institute of Technology (Atlanta, USA) from 1991 to 1992, and for the school’s Paris program from 1993 to 2001. In Paris, she developed site-specific courses ranging from urban to interior spaces, allowing her to explore space continuum across scales. Since 2002, she has held a full-time position at the School of Architecture and Design at the American University of Sharjah (UAE). Her present teaching and research interests focus on the discourse around 20th century post-modern space with an engagement in exhibition design, lighting and phenomenological perception.
Blurring the Boundary between Private and Public Realms
Dalal Al-Moussa, AUS Interior Design Student
Located in the UAE, and mainly catering to local women, the high-end fashion retail project plays with the idea of the private and the public. Privacy is programmatically intensified through the concept of personal service, allowing customers to be received in individual oversized booths or mini retail spaces that form the shop’s garment area. Based on the idea of a walk-in closet/fitting room, each space displays a sample of the clothing collection on hanging rails marking its edge and can receive between one to three people along with a personal assistant. Once a customer and her family member or friend occupy a booth no one else is allowed in, giving a sense of privacy, ownership and luxury. This is also denoted by the use of red carpet on the floor. In reference to the abaya and sheila worn by both traditionalist and fashion-oriented Emirati women, the theme of revealing and exposing is perceptually explored in the booth experience by playing with the placement of mirrors, glass surfaces and curtains that can be manipulated to provide glimpses across or complete privacy not only between booths but within the same booth. Through spatial strategies and customers’ experiences, the project plays with blurring the demarcation between private and public realms.
Dalal Al-Sane, AUS Interior Design Student
The intention for this shop is to create a non-intimidating and calm space where customers do not feel “watched” but relaxed and happy to take their time to look at different items in a leisurely manner. The design is simple, with rich materiality—such as wooden parquet, tinted glass, carpets, silky fabrics and leathers—in a single color palette of earthy tone. A close look at the shoe display reveals the design strategy creating intimate yet generous spaces that are sensitive to the user’s comfort and interaction with the displayed product. This intimate space features one wall with displayed shoes, and the opposite wall has welcoming upholstered seating. Both walls are visually extended by an end mirror. The space configuration and its specific elements—movable shoe shelves for added flexibility and seating covered with silk fabric in earth tones—set the ground for a welcoming, tension-free shopping experience.
Subtle Reflection of Customers’ Culture
Reem Al-Sane, AUS Interior Design Student
The fashion retail project intends to reflect the visitor in the subtlest way, with both a sense of mystery and glorification of the user. The inspiration came from Emirati women and their approach to fashion. On the ground floor, a body of water invites customers into the shop space and captures their movement on the glittery surface; mannequins on the water allow only glimpses of the interior. In reference to the abaya, the shop’s spacious ground floor inner shell has a black glossy finish with a very minimalist black display unit; clothes seem to be floating in the air, and colors stand out against the neutrality of the background. In the center of the space, a shoe display area is dropped down by 0.5m, marking the relationship to the ground and creating a majlis-like area where people can relax and interact with their fellow shoppers. More formal clothing or party dresses are displayed as unique pieces, one dress per display, yet in a homey atmosphere with large changing rooms. On the upper level, the background is also neutral, but here it is white. The beauty area is treated in a bar-like fashion, displaying cosmetics and accessories with always available someone to assist the customer. The white color on the upper floor expresses a contrast with the dark lower floor, like a mysterious dark abaya on a woman’s soft skin.
Published in 2A Magazine Issue 9