Thursday, December 16, 2010

Retail Visionaries

40 years ago if a woman in Jeddah or Kuwait wanted to purchase a Saint Laurent suit or a Chloé dress, her only options were to hop on a plane to Paris or frequent one of the few pioneering boutiques that were scattered throughout the Gulf. Today independent fashion stores such as Kuwait’s Al Othman (established in 1956), have acquired legendary status amongst the region’s fashion savvy.

Another legendary store is Sufana, Bahrain’s first designer boutique. The Polyglot spoke with its co-founder Balqees Khunji about the evolution of fashion retailing in the Gulf.

Sufana today has grown into a multi-brand boutique and is a favorite amongst the Kingdom’s fashion savvy.

How did the idea behind Sufana come about?My sister Samia and I have always loved fashion, but there wasn’t a store in Bahrain that offered women the kind of clothes one could find in Paris or Milan. This was back in the early 70’s so we decided to open a boutique.

When we launched our store, Miss Twenty, in 1974, we began the business by carrying the Paris-based label Cacharel. We stocked the brand exclusively for seven years before bringing onboard other designers from Milan and Paris. In 1983 we moved to the Bahrain Commercial Complex and changed the boutique’s name to Sufana.

How do you chose which collections to carry at the store?Although we’ve attended fashion shows in both Paris and Milan, the real work gets done at the designers’ showrooms. Each season we will set up appointments to view the collections at the different studios, make selections and place orders.

A boutique owner in Bahrain waits on her customer, 1974. By the early 70’s a number of pioneering women in the Gulf were opening boutiques to cater to a growing demand for the latest fashions from both European and American designers.

Who are some of the designers you helped introduce to Bahrain?In 1984 we were one of the first boutiques in the Middle East to carry Escada. Since then we’ve stocked Roberto Cavalli, Etro, Kenzo and Christian Lacroix. But we are constantly looking for new and exciting labels. The Milanese designer Renato Balestra as well as Paris-based Paul Louis Orrier, who creates striking evening dresses, are two designers we recently brought on board.

Can you describe the Sufana customer?Sufana is a boutique that bridges different generations. We’ve literally watched some of our customers grow before our eyes, catering to mothers, daughter and granddaughters. We keep our customers in mind when ordering pieces for the boutique, and retain a data base of regular clients, many of whom are members of the royal family. One has to constantly evolve in this business and understand what women want from one season to the next.

Better education and job opportunities saw a new generation of Bahraini women entering the workforce, many of whom adopted the latest western fashions. From Left: Two Bahraini women in downtown Manama, 1974; Models in looks from Cacharel’s fall 1975 collection. Sufana boutique was the first retailer to introduce the Paris label to Bahrain in the 1970’s.

What is the secret to Sufana’s longevity?In addition to my sister and partner, we have an amazing network of family support that includes nieces and nephews. My niece, Huda Al-Saie, who is an accomplished artist, meets with customers, accompanies us on buying trips and creates the visual merchandising for the store.

Finally any future plans for Sufana?We’re constantly studying the market and looking at new ways to expand the business. We’ve established flag-ship stores for our popular labels such as Escada, Kenzo, and Betty Barclay. We’ve also opened a Sufana Outlet store where we sell previous seasons collections. Recently my niece Shahrazad opened Ruzan Boutique, which carries bridal gowns and evening dresses by New York-based designers.

Contrasts in style in Manama’s old souk, 1974; A look from Yves Saint Laurent’s 1971 spring collection.

In the 1970’s Bahraini women were increasingly entering the fashion and beauty market. A young Bahraini cosmetologist helps a Western customer at a department store in Manama, 1974; A model in a coat from Dorothee Bis’s 1977 collection.
Images of Bahrain, 1974 by Anthony Howarth
Images of Sufana Boutique by Sueraya Shaheen
© THE POLYGLOT (all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS

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