NEW YORK — Beirut is embarking on a new era in retailing with the renovation and debut of the Souks shopping mall, a revitalization project by Solidere, The Lebanese Co. for the Development and Reconstruction of Beirut’s Central District.
The south corridor of the outdoor mall reopened late last year with about 200 luxury stores, and more will be added through 2012 as the location is expanded and the north area of the district is unveiled.
The goal of the project is to make Beirut the premier shopping destination in the Arab world. And with shoes and handbags comprising about 45 percent of sales in the women’s category in the region, according to Tony Salamé, owner of the Aïshti luxury multibrand boutique, the mall could become a footwear and accessory mecca in the Middle East, especially for logo-thirsty Persian Gulf shoppers. New stores such as Jimmy Choo, Camper and Converse have opened in the Souks in recent months; Aïshti has revamped its footwear floor; and Bottega Veneta, Louis Vuitton and Yves Saint Laurent are opening stores there this summer.
Salamé, who also owns the luxury boutiques surrounding Aïshti, said he envisions the district as the region’s Champs-Élysées.
This year, Salamé revamped all of Aïshti’s eight floors, including its mezzanine footwear area, where he removed the accessories section to make room for additional footwear brands.
“Beirut is becoming a shopping capital of the Middle East, but it is quite different than other regional shopping destinations,” said Joshua Schulman, Jimmy Choo’s CEO, who opened the Beirut store in April. “In Dubai and the Gulf, most luxury shopping is inside large shopping malls, but in Beirut, you have a truly Mediterranean atmosphere and an energetic city center environment that provides a perfect backdrop for luxury. While there is a strong local market, there is also the added element of tourists from the Gulf making this a very dynamic market.”
Christopher Bailey, chief creative director for Burberry, attended the June launch of a new boutique in the Souks, and said Beirut was well known for its glamour and sophistication, and was essential to the label’s future plans in the region. “It’s a very important part of our growth,” he said.
“In Lebanon, we have found that the client is very ‘au courant’ and fashionable,” said Norman Jaskolka, VP of Aldo Group International. “At Aldo stores in Lebanon, you’ll find some of our most uniquely high-fashion product.”
But even as the new retail venue sparks fresh enthusiasm, retailers have had to cope with the recession and declines in consumer spending. On top of that, many shoppers in the area are out of the habit of traveling to the once-war-torn part of town, the result of a civil war that spanned from 1975 to 1990.
“It will take time for customers to get used to it,” said Georgette Karout, manager of Shoe Avenue, which sells Replay, Calvin Klein and Byblos shoes, among other brands.
While it may take time for the mall to reach its potential, Suzanne Fattouh, manager of local Shoebox, Mephisto and TBS stores, said being part of the project still lifts the status of participating retailers. “It’s a prestigious mall, and it’s a good marketing strategy to be part of it,” she said.
Fattouh and Karout said sales are picking up for July with the start of promotions and the arrival of vacationers.
“The hotels are all booked,” said Salamé.