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The rise and rise of a sovereign style mogul

Have you heard of Ingie Chalhoub? If not then you'd be surprised to know that as President of Etoile Group, she's spearheading the billion-dollar luxury-goods industry boom in Dubai.

Early on she and her husband Patrick realized that although the Middle East had got a raw deal in the press; they could convince top luxury brands to swap the edgy cool of the West for the shopping paradise of the GCC. Given the retail stagnation that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, many were willing to take up their offer. Cynthia Vongai sat with Chaloub and discovered how her unique and stellar business concept was born and realized.

When you meet Ingie Chalhoub, what strikes you first about her is her effortless style and secondly, the fact that she's actually quite normal. You may argue that most people are ‘normal', but when you have amassed a billion-dollar empire, one would expect this phenomenal business success and its perks to bring on certain airs.

It's only natural if Hollywood is any indicator of the behavior of the privileged few, but Chalhoub has no such conceit. Rather, she's refreshingly genuine in a UAE market accused of having an accute scarcity of reality. Grounded and as many would say, the salt of the earth, she shows up fashionistas types who with no merit, flaunt massive egos. There's no question that her Etoile Group luxury brand line-up has made her stores a hot spot for wealthy

Middle-Easterners and tourists, however the company's overall success can be attributed to “Ingie magic”. A delicate equation of knowing which brands to represent in the Middle East, strong business acumen and her accessible easygoing nature have been the secret combination to her astonishing personal achievement. Chalhoub's strength is her ability to combine her creative and detailed knowledge of fashion brands with hard-nosed commercial sense and that has supercharged the Etoile Group's GCC growth.

As president and managing director of Etoile Group, which licensed Tod's, Hogan, Dior, Valentino, John Galliano, Ralph Lauren, Valentino, Dolce & Gabbana, Chanel, Christian Lacroix and many other brands in Dubai, Chalhoub is in her element. Fashion has been a passion for her since she was a child devouring glossy magazines and although she could have become a designer given her creative edge, she opted for a life of business.

Always a pioneer, in 2005 she became the first retailer to open a multi-brand boutique in the Mall of the Emirates, when she launched Etoile la Boutique, a sub-brand within the Etoile Group. Wanting to ensure the right brand image, with obvious aspiration for geographical expansion later on, she took her time establishing the brand's identity. Taking inspiration from places like Colette in Paris and Dover Street Market in London, Chalhoub worked on every detail of her concept brand store, and unlike her franchised stores, Etoile la Boutique is so closely linked to her own personal identity and ripe for a possible future ready-to-wear line. She knows that she has a priced nest egg, not linked or answerable to any overseas principal, as with her other licensed brands. With Etoile La Boutique, she can aspire to be a regional and global powerhouse by building its image and identity with precision.

An example of this is using famous French artist and designer Jacques Garcia, to work on the French boudoir interiors so that an Etiole store could be compete with any European developed luxury multi-branded store on Avenue Montaine in Paris. Etoile la Boutique would fit right in among Dior and Fendi and it's worth noting that although Dubai may not be Avenue Montaine, at Mall of the Emirates Chalhoub owns at least six of the same mono-brand stores from the brand line-up mentioned, which whether in Europe or the Middle East is considerable real estate clout.

Last month she extended her Etoile la boutique to Wafi city's new section and she's got big plans for future launches for all her brands at the Dubai Mall when it opens upon completion of the Business Bay. Central to her business extension is the fact that she solidly believes that the local luxury market will double in size in the next five years and triple in the next decade and she's determined to be at the forefront of this retail revolution. “I can really see Dubai Mall for example becoming what Fifth Avenue is to Manhattan, to the visitors and residents of the Middle East.

The retail boom here is so phenomenal that we have to keep focusing on improving our products and brands, offering to compete on a global front,” she says. Etoile La Boutique is already a unique retail concept of the Etoile Group and is has earned the accolade as one of the premier fashion names in the region. It's a stunning visual fusion of art and fashion design; a combination that has seen Etoile stores become a reference for trendsetting in the Middle East. Fashionistas and art lovers alike are thrilled with the ocular awakening that Etoile La boutique sends out to all those who enter its doors.

Its exclusive collections from a range of top designers are set off to perfection by the stunning boutiques themselves, which are synonymous with effortless style, contemporary high fashion and exclusive labels that keep the customers streaming in steadily.

The retail concept has also claimed unprecedented success with its Mall of the Emirates store, the design of which is similar to the new Wafi Etoile La Boutique. The boutiques seek to further the role of the Etoile Group in refining women's elegance in the region, explains Chalhoub.

“I am truly honoured by the faith and support that the international designers have placed in me and in the company. This definitely shows that we have delivered on all the promises we made and we will continue to do so. Our mission is never ending and is continuously growing and adapting to the demands and needs of the region,” she says.

Chalhoub, like her husband, Patrick, who runs his family's GCC lifestyle conglomerate Charloub Group (which owns, among other brands, Louis Vuitton, Celine, Seproha, Prada, Fendi, Carolina Herrera and Saks Fifth Avenue), understands that the Middle East and Asia are key to the future of Western luxury brands. In order to ensure future growth with the advent of globalization, new markets such as the GCC are imperative to these luxury brands bottom lines.

The Chalhoubs realized early on, that if they could somehow take the European brand cache and introduce that goodwill to the Middle Eastern consumer and upscale holidaymakers, they could very well have a winning business formula. The rest is history as they say. In the booming economies of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, finding the perfect luxury apparel is the key for a woman wanting to put her best image forward and in most cases she's wearing something from the Chalhoub's companies.

The heart of the Chalhoub success is not only being able to be great franchisors of premium brands, but they are also experts at adapting their brands to the region. Take the Louis Vuitton brand which has even adapted its accessories line for the Middle East to include scarves that are cut a bit bigger than those found in the Western market in recognition of the trend of Middle Eastern women to wear designer scarves over their hair.

Over the years, the Chalhoub Company brands have grown fuelled by a population which shops as a national pastime. For many of these people, money is no object. The bulk of luxury brand shoppers move from store to store, comparing products and styles, but what they are unaware of is that most likely they are shopping at one of Ingie's stores whether it is Dior or Tod's. If they are not interested in the mono-brand options they then head to Etoile la Bouitque for a multiple offering and again, they are one in of her stores.

“Unlike the emerging markets, where the nouveau riche is to a certain extent fashion novices, Middle Eastern women are educated. They read the latest glossy magazines, they are online and are on the cutting edge of fashion, but this wasn't always the case,” she says. The one thing, which Etoile has got right, is its edited collections, which offer their clients first dibs on limited edition merchandise. Etoile will cater to a client's every whim and specially order especially any desired product from their extensive featured brand list.

That is what makes the brands so special and why the Chalhoubs remain effortlessly in control of over 60 percent of the luxury market. They are successful at identifying the DNA codes for the brands, translating that brand's representation here to the pleasure of their European principals who are always amazed by their sales performance and brand management skills. “Part of me is very entrepreneurial,” she says. “I love to do what is deemed impossible by some, but the challenge always drives me to deliver.”

Chalhoub adds that although she works very hard she tries to balance her work and family life and has always been a working mother. “This weekend I had to go to a Chalhoub Group weekend workshop in Abu Dhabi with my husband, but I opted to drive back to Dubai every evening to be with my boys. Even though we lead very busy lives, our children always come first and because of that belief they are the most amazing children. The fact that they have developed into the most supportive young men I know has been very satisfying.

With children you can only plant the seeds and hope it turns out okay, we've been very lucky with our boys,” she says cheerfully. Her advice for women who have been told it's not possible to have it all, is simple: “If you love your vocation and have the love of you family then there's nothing to stand in your way except maybe fear of the unknown.

Fear can be crippling, but it shouldn't be as we know that most of our growth comes in those moments and it's a matter of having priorities and knowing that anything is possible with focus and hard work.” This can-do life philosophy, luxury brand knowledge and her collaborative management style have been her key strengths, all adding up at the till register.

One-on-one with Lady Luxe

ARABIAN WOMAN (AW): You were one of the first people to secure a lucrative luxury franchise in the Middle East in 1983, how did you conceive the idea to bring luxe brands to Kuwait and what about your proposal convinced LVMH to invest in your vision?
Ingie Chalhoub (IC):
Actually, I did not approach them, they came to me. The wonderful thing is that the executives let me know their proposal on my wedding day.
They were of course incisive enough to understand that the Middle Eastern woman, during the summer, shopped in their boutiques once a year when on holiday in Paris. Chanel knew that this woman would be loyal to their brand whether a shop was in Paris or the Gulf because they cared about getting access to the latest collections.

When Chanel approached me, the franchise business was new to me, so I began to do the necessary groundwork to realize a lifelong dream, to open a high end branded store in my home region. The Chanel brand was the most unique and best wedding gift ever and it has truly enriched my life. After Chanel I launched Dior and then a multi-brand store and we've grown to 45 brands, which are within the Etoile Group.

AW: Did you think that one idea could sprout such an incredible empire that is the Etoile Group?
Hindsight is always amazing because looking back you can link all the dots. Did I know? Not at all. But I had a strong sense of what would work here in terms of luxury fashion retail.
I studied business in Paris and living in that city exposed me to so much, which shaped my own personal style and business direction. When I came back to the Middle East after my studies abroad and prior to my marriage, I was clear about what I wanted to do with my life.

Looking back to my younger years, I know that my passion for fashion was fuelled by my incredible mother, who had a really successful children's clothing business. Seeing her work and truly enjoy her vocation meant that my future course was decided early on and I have never looked back. When Chanel initially approached me,

I agreed to the franchise and then conducted a survey in the market and the results revealed the consumer was ready for a franchise, so I went for it and launched Chanel and then Dior in Kuwait. Everything was going smoothly until the Gulf War. Our stores there were looted and we lost everything. I could have given up at that point, but my spirit told me I could re-build and recover.

That process was a long one but I learnt the true meaning of patience nd the importance of having a family who truly believe in supporting you 110 percent. My husband has been my partner in that journey and he's loved me and encouraged me so much so that I had the courage to start again. Soon after the war we relocated to Dubai and after the initial settling in period, I opened Etoile, a multi-brand store at the Intercontinental Hotel and then later at Wafi City Chanel and then all the other brands within our Etoile Group.

AW: Is it possible to have it all as a woman, especially in a Middle Eastern context?
It was imperative that I achieve all that I dreamt of and I have been lucky to have the support to live my aspiration every day. Women can do anything given the tools, drive, support and personal direction. When we moved to Dubai to start all over again, I was pregnant. Although I was mentally ready to start working on launching Etoile, I couldn't travel so I had to wait and focus on the first baby, then the business.

Those days it was difficult to really manage the motivation to keep going, but not impossible. Today I have two wonderful boys whom I am so proud of because they are my best work ever as a woman. You know when you are a mother it is not easy to balance your many roles: wife, mother, daughter, friend, employer, community member etc. I think I was also lucky to have parents who nurtured my aspirations and a mother who always taught me to accept that both good and bad things happened for the best as long as we learn the lessons for our betterment.

In the beginning I remember the biggest challenge was for me to develop Etoile Group in a market, which in the 80s had not seen anything like it. We had to really educate the customer that buying in the Middle East had all the same benefits as hopping on a plane and going to Europe. They had to be convinced that it was indeed the same product and not compromised in any way. Today you can't believe that this was ever an issue, so the education has paid off.

AW: How do you make the distinction between the two groups of companies, since Chalhoub has Dior, but there is Dior in Etoile for example?
At Etoile you will always find the limited edition product, which makes that different to the ready-to-wear product in the mono-brand store. Also, Etoile presents that product alongside other like-brands to complete the fashion story, and the unique specialty of a multi-brand store when it's done well.

An Etoile customer is very feminine and glamourous and not afraid to just be she. She knows she can wear a very “girly” dress and still broker a multi-million deal because she is sure of her ability and she's confident. She knows that when she walks into a room, everyone will turn their head to look at her because she's unique and one-of-a kind just like our limited lines.

AW: The Etoile brand was more visible in 2007. What message do you want Etoile to represent and has it been understood?
It was important to really keep the Etoile brand front and centre in the minds of our unique customer, given how sophisticated the luxury brand market in the GCC has become. We have a billboard ad on Sheik Zayed for example across from Emirates Towers. We want our communication to be clear about the fact that a brand grown indigenously in the Middle East can also achieve the same level of business delivery as one developed in the West. Simple.

Although we have a strong following among our loyal GCC customers and holidaymakers, we decided to take things to the next level and our customers expect nothing less. Our customer is someone in the know and who really is interested in reflecting her own fashion consciousness and if she picks up a magazine or switches on her TV set she wants to see Etoile la Boutique represented.

AW: How important is communicating the Etoile DNA to the greater public? Do they need to understand your USP (unique selling point) or is it only for those in the know? The true fashionista!
A brand's DNA can and should be shared with everyone. There are those who can access it now and others who will aspire to do in the future. We may carry exclusive collections from a range of top designers and our name is today synonymous with effortless style, contemporary high fashion and exclusive labels. All women want to be beautiful and our retail success has been because our retail concept understands this reality.

Our DNA since our launch has been based on this new educated era of luxury fashion growth in the Middle East. Our boutiques seek to further the role of the Etoile Group in refining women's elegance in the region. The theme and interior design of our Etoile La boutiques are individual and unique, rather like the designs that they house and the customers we cater for.

AW: Given your retail experience, do you have plans to franchise the Etoile Group or alternatively would you consider launching an Etoile collection, made and designed in the Gulf by you?
It's far too early to talk about a global brand extension, but within the region, this could be something we could do and most definitely something we'd look at. Also should we consider a ready-to-wear line that would only be developed with collaboration abroad to give us an opportunity to manage the quality and supply chain initially?

Given our knowledge of the retail landscape, many people is encouraging Etoile to go that route, but only time with tell if that would be aviable opportunity for us. On the franchise front, we had many inquires and many which are very positive so that will be our initial focus and follow through.

AW: What are the six true qualities of the shopping experience at Etoile?
Quality is something, which the brands we represent deliver on as a standard. Whether its lingerie or a jacket, the reality is that the item is well-made and takes into account all the qualities of true luxury such as: heritage, quality, craftsmanship, know-how, exclusivity and promise to deliver these assurances time after time.

So if you have a great item, you can have it for years and it never demises in its delivery on quality and style, just like some of my Chanel jackets from the 80s, which I can still wear today. The secret is that one pays what seems a lot because you're paying for the couture tailoring which goes into making a $3000 suit for example. There's so much that goes into it production.

The jackets are weighed down by a chain to ensure that they keep their shape and the fabrication is selected from the top mills in the world. A jacket, which is not made well wouldn't take that aspect and extra cost into account. Quality is truly important because it's timeless in the end and more merely functional.

AW: Why do you think the UAE has become the centre of luxury for the region?
Everything happens in cycles in life I guess. It's Dubai's time now, but in the 1970 it was Lebanon. Before that it was in Egypt given the vibrant film, music and glamour of Cairo in the 60s. Post Beirut in the 70s, the hip and happening centre of the Middle East moved to Kuwait and after the Gulf wars, to Dubai.

What is happening here is truly incredible and I think we will still continue to live a golden age given the plans which the ruler has for the economy? There are more than six million tourists who visit Dubai annually and that figure is expected to reach 15m by 2010and all these visitors, combined with our local population crave luxury and they can find it at Etoile Group.

AW: What makes customers gravitate to one “it fashion item” given that sometimes they may live in different countries, is it merely the marketing/PR push placed behind a specific product or is it the design itself?
I guess it doesn't matter where a customer is given the modernglobal reality we live in. One thing that all these women identify with isthat they clearly connect with the brands' essence, its DNA. If you take Chanel for example, Coco Chanel still lives on today in Karl Lagerfeld'sdesigns and the woman who connects with Chanel today does so in the very same way that women in the 50s' did with Coco Chanel.

The only difference is that toady she may not live in Paris, but could be based in Dubai, Jeddah or even China, but location aside she's a Chanel woman through and through. The same can be said of the Etoile women, she has certain identifiable traits and these are what we plug into when we buy our seasonal collections. Understanding her has kept her loyal to our brand as the Etoile woman is unique because she wants to mix it all up and celebrate her own individual style. She's got something from Chanel paired off with a little Valentino or D&G for good measure and we even have a full-time stylist at each of our stores to help her navigate her complex fashion sensibility.

AW: What five attributes contribute to you being a successful fashion luxury executive?
I am very focused on the responsibility, which I shoulder at the helm of Etoile Group. At the heart of my effectiveness as a leader is my passion for what I do and I think each person we hire has that same belief in the value of the work that they do. I believe strongly in my people, and ensuring that they have the necessary training and support to be able to execute their work to the best of their ability.

Luxury is about a different kind of delivery and it doesn't matter if a customer is spending a few hundred dollars or thousands, they have earned that money and chosen to spend it with us, so that is always respected. I believe in empowering people to grow within their role and function, which is the only way one can canvass the best performance from their team?

Cliché it may be, but there really is no “I” in teamwork and Etoile Group is a focused and energized group of people to make our premium daily service delivery a priority reality. They know and understand the DNA of each of the brands within our group and they also have the motivation to keep learning so they are always abreast of trends and what our sister stores are doing in other markets.

AW: How do you select the brands which you'll launch in this market?
As we establish new brands in this market we are very selective given that we have such a comprehensive line-up of the most coveted established brands in the world, but we are also conscious of those up and coming lines. We never ignore small brands which could be the next big thing and at Etoile boutiques at least, it's important to get them to our customers before they become mainstream.

That is what makes us special. We have a great research team which finds out what the next season's trends will be and then we visit those brands we have agreements with and see how those trends translate in reality, then we make the final decision on the edited collection. We shop at all the collections so we're in London, Paris, Milan and New York and right after he shows, the buyers are securing merchandise for our stores whether it's Etoile la Boutique, Chanel or Dior etc.

AW: As brands keep adding new categories to their offering; do you think there is a possibility of some brands loosing focus? We see Giorgio Armani launching hotels in Dubai and Versace starting to work on interiors and Ferarri making watches with Panerai. What are your thoughts on this current trend and whether diversification is dangerous or the way to go?
IC: I think brands face a really interesting time at the moment. There is so much room especially for the more established ones to cautiously explore brand extensions as the ones you mentioned in your question. Some make sense and others I guess we have to wait to see how the change in focus affects the brand. It may work out to be dangerous for some and be a winning magic formula for others. I guess one can never tell without the risk and that is the reality of the business terrain.

Danger is always lurking, but it really depends on how you handle the challenge and as in life in general and in business, fear can't stop you from exploring. So yes, some brands may regret their extensions, but they can be commended for their effort. Brands which have got it right include Christian Lacroix, whom we represent. He has been involved innumerous hotel interior design projects and designed a limited edition bottle for Evian and it's worked for him because his message is so strong and bold.

AW: What gets you up in the morning and do you feel you are living your purpose?
Yes! I am living my purpose and what gets me out of bed is that very fact. I am excited and energized in my family life and my work reality. I think everyone can get closer to living their purpose if they listen to their inner voice and believe in themselves, no matter how crazy a dream may seem.

The dream to realize Etoile Group only became a reality over several years, but I had to take the initial steps to start laying the foundation which today supports the multiple brands with our group. It wasn't overnight and as I have said earlier there were so many challenges, which at the time seemed insurmountable. I also appreciate what I have been blessed with and I think that gratitude is what has leaded me to wonderful opportunities.

When I had this dream, I had no business experience, just the qualification and the self-belief and success are opportunity meets preparation and I was prepared when my opportunity came.

AW: If you could do anything differently given all that you know today would you?
Oh, no! I wouldn't change anything because it all contributed to the woman I am today. My trails and successes to date have also brought my family closer and yielded an incredible business aspiration. I have no regrets and I don't lament about facing challenges, including the looting in Kuwait.

Even the businesses failure there enriched me as a person and that is what life is about really. The growth and the lessons we learn and how they enhance and deepen our lives as we live it to the fullest. Never wishing anything away, but rather by embracing every experience for what it added and taught. I take the best out of each failure and I don't reject anything.

Galliano's girls explored throwback styles from 40s golden glamour, mixed with aneerie style of enigmatic freedom and luxury.

Peter Dund as displayed a sense of understanding his clientele – the new, young starlets of LA – as he showcased a glam-rock collection fit for Studio 54.

John Galliano's collection for Christian Dior showed the high-society women a new level of luxury. Showy colours and dramatic treatments of oversized fur trims and excessive drapery gave this vintage collection a dazzling complexity and ultimate new look. Bold drizzle-grey ensembles were balanced with enough orange, lilac and hot pink outfits to brighten a drab winter's day, and more than enough drama to make you stand out in the crowd.

Lacroix gave his signature quirky, romantic style a fresh new take when he mixed gothic undertones with 80s rock-chic and threw in a bit of bold fuschia for good measure.

Karl Lagerfeld gave us a unique collection from the monochrome house of chic, when he sent bold colours, plaid and vintage-styled ensembles out on the catwalk. Geometric plaids in a multitude of colours were teamed with comfy knits and belted cardigans to show the new-season Chanel girl to be carefree, but with a nonchalant air of cool elegance.

An upper-class attitude and slicked, set hair are the only things you'll need to pull of fthe scintillating collection from the master, Valentino. Dark layered fabrics from wool tweed to felt made up trenches, pencil skirts and men's-style suits that were cut to perfectly fit the female form. Bold red styles from day coats to evening gowns were followed by a similar selection in cobalt blue and then a daring capsule of black and white evening styles that nodded to 40s glamour and screen-ready style.

Source: Arabian Woman
Posted: 29/06/2008

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