When Level Shoes opened in The Dubai Mall five years ago, much of the buzz was about its massive footprint — at 96,000 square feet, it’s one of the biggest standalone shoe stores in the world.
But the retailer quickly proved that size was just one part of its ambitious strategy to become an influential global retailer catering to the “shoe-obsessed” consumer.
In a short time, Level put together an eclectic mix of must-have designers and rising stars in a unique environment that emphasizes experience. A high-end cobbler, shoe stylists, a bridal suite and bespoke services are among the amenities that quickly set Level apart from many other stores.
“[The goal] was to build a community spirit around Level, not just a fantastic store concept,” said Patrick Chalhoub, co-founder and co-CEO of Chalhoub Group, which owns Level. “We have been able to create a place where people meet and linger. That’s not easy.”
Today, Level features about 250 labels merchandised in a curated space that is divided into five distinct multibrand areas and 40
designer boutiques. Both top designers and emerging talent regularly visit and partner with the store on exclusive collaborations and special capsule collections that can’t be found anywhere else.
“I don’t think anyone has been able to execute a stage for shoes like we have,” said Rania Masri, who led the retailer before recently assuming a new position as chief transformation officer of Shift, a digital initiative within the Chalhoub Group.
As Masri moves on, she is handing the reins to incoming general manager Thierry Pichon, who previously held management positions at Gucci and Louis
Vuitton in Hong Kong and Macau.
Pichon, who most recently worked at L Capital as the chief commercial officer for R.M. Williams, believes there is major potential for growth.
“Digital is at the forefront,” he said. “We’re always looking for ways to reinvent how we engage with the customers online and to be more innovative and proactive — as a way to attract new customers online but also to better engage with our existing community.”
A familiar face will soon be back in action at Level. Alberto Oliveros is rejoining the retailer as GMM following a yearlong stint in Hong Kong with On Pedder and Lane Crawford. “Level was my baby,” Oliveros said. “I never really let go, and I’m now looking forward to coming back to take the commercial business to new heights.”
The team — which will assume oversight for Level and Level Kids (a standalone children’s concept in Dubai) — will be focused on catering to millennial and Gen Z consumers — who make up a huge part of Dubai’s population. “In a world that is increasingly difficult, we must be relevant for the younger generation. We have to be more meaningful for them and [ensure] they feel empowered and assertive.”
That will clearly be one of Masri’s major goals in her new role, too. Here, she talks about the journey so far, the big changes across the industry and how the retailer plans to take its next steps.
As you reflect on five years, what stands out most?
RM: “It feels like one big dream. Yesterday, I found the hard hat I was wearing when we were still designing the store. I reread our original vision, and I feel proud that we’ve stayed close to that. We wanted to be a community for shoe lovers and the shoe-obsessed.”
Tell us about how you’ve executed that original vision.
RM: “Five years ago, the buzzword was ‘storytelling.’ How does the space feel? How does the music play? How does everything fit together? That was at the core of what we were trying to create. We knew how impactful visual merchandising could be. We transform our space every couple of months for our regular fan base to rediscover us. If someone comes in and buys shoes, that’s great. But the goal has always been to entertain and connect with the community.”
How does the city of Dubai itself fit into your strategy?
RM: “It’s a vibrant city at the forefront of innovation. Our population is young and exposed to everything around the world. We wanted to
create something that people of Dubai can feel proud to be a part of. The social web has created one world, so we’ve taken a homegrown concept and made it international. Our consumers crave something unique, so we launch eccentric and strong fashion pieces. In other [global fashion] cities, it’s not as easy to be creative and playful. They’re a little more conservative. We also want to create ‘wow’ experiences and services to emphasize convenience.”
How have you cultivated local fashion labels?
RM: “I remember saying we can’t be a homegrown concept and not have [United Arab Emirates-based product]. There was a sandal brand called Private Collection. We went into their boutique, and the two co-founders were there. We were taken by how beautiful their concept was. We opened a boutique at Level, and that’s been one of the most successful brands since opening.”
What are the biggest ways the industry has changed?
RM: “Brands have really started listening to what consumers want. Look at how Gucci re-created itself and Dolce and Gabbana’s [new focus] on sneakers. You’re also seeing a lot of [interesting] collaborations. When we bridged couture Indian designers with up-and-coming designers, we were able to bring these worlds together and grow our community even more.”
Why has it been so important to champion emerging designers?
RM: “The curation of the space is what has made us unique. Being able to offer the customer product they can’t find anywhere else is part of a clear value proposition. The team has a strong common goal: How can we be the first to discover the next up-and-coming designer?
For example, we knew Aquazzura and Paul Andrew had huge potential, [and we were there from the beginning].”
Why did you decide to focus so heavily on the children’s market with a standalone store?
RM: “Look what’s happening with the mini-me phenomenon. Like shoes, kids was an interesting category that the group was looking at — this idea of creating a whole new world that would be about the life of kids and luxury kids.”
What is the key to Level’s success during the next five years?
RM: “It’s about always reinventing ourselves, always innovating. We never want to get too comfortable.”