A twelve-lane highway, Sheikh Zayed Road, cuts through the city. This is the main traffic artery where sports cars whizz past the high-rise apartment buildings glittering in the dazzling sunshine. Dubai is the capital of the eponymous Emirate, which, together with another six, forms the federation of the United Arab Emirates. But only nine percent of the city’s inhabitants are Emiratis. The rest are expats, sent over to work here by their companies back home, or migrant workers from South-East Asia, India, Pakistan and North Africa, trying their luck as construction labourers or hotel staff. If you think London and New York are melting pots, you should visit the bustling microcosm of Dubai – you’d be hard pushed to find a more vibrant mix of cultures anywhere else.
But it’s not only the mix of nationalities that defines this metropolis, which meanwhile more than two million people call home. The motto they go by here is higher, faster, bigger, better – a mission statement that’s being received loud and clear around the world. Following an unprecedented building boom, the Emiratis are particularly proud of the structures they have built, including the Burj Khalifa, the world’s highest building with a breathtaking viewing platform, gigantic consumer temples like The Dubai Mall and The Mall of the Emirates, not to mention one of the most expensive and luxurious hotels ever, the Burj Al Arab with its own island and the architectural appearance of a billowing sail. These superlatives are magnets for up to 14 million tourists annually, making Dubai one of the top five most visited cities in the world last year.
However, most of these tourists, who tend to immerse themselves in the glitz and glamour of this consumer paradise, miss out on another side of Dubai that is equally as fascinating: the creative use of free spaces. In the former Al Quoz industrial area, for example, a flourishing art scene has developed in vacant warehouses, which has had a knock-on effect on the local fashion scene. The centre of activity is Alserkal Avenue, a compound in which meanwhile nine high-profile galleries have settled. Additional art spaces and artist ateliers, boxing clubs and bicycle stores have since opened in the surrounding streets. Pretty concept stores along Jumeirah Beach Road and buzzing events like the Ripe Food Market, which takes place every Friday at Zabeel Park and draws locals as well as an international crowd, also portray a different side to the city.
A city that doesn’t define itself solely by superlatives and its many different facets, but also by its energy-driven, business-oriented inhabitants. Flaunting your wealth is the norm here. Lamborghinis, Hummers, Rolls-Royces, Ferraris and Porsches can be spotted on most street corners. Young people, even students, are dressed from head to toe in designer brands. So the retail sector is booming; shopping is inextricably linked to Dubai. So it’s only logical that the store designs and mall architecture are especially lavish and grand, with every conceivable luxury brand represented. Brands here seem to be battling it out to have the most elaborate and sumptuous store.
This makes Dubai a dream market for store architects, as confirmed by Karl Schwitzke in our interview with him on page 56. The German retail specialist runs a branch of his shopfitting business in the city. And an interesting insight into the shopping culture in this part of the world was also provided by Nisreen Shocair, who, as President of Virgin Megastores for the Middle East & North Africa, is one of the most influential businesswomen in the Middle East and who J’N’C editor-in-chief Ilona Marx found not only to be very inspiring, but also incredibly hospitable and welcoming – attributes she shares with many of Dubai’s locals.
Selected articles from the guide
Boutique 1 on the exclusive Jumeirah Beach Walk is so huge that it’s more like a department store than a boutique. But, hey, we are in Dubai after all! The dimensions are simply different here. Ziad Matta, CEO of the multi-brand store thinks the personal touch is what counts when it comes to fashion, whether in terms of buying or advising the clientele. And so despite its size, they very much pursue a boutique concept here. Particularly as the selection of the collections is very bold and progressive, which also justifies the 1 in the name. Seeing themselves as Dubai’s fashion vanguard, they are daring enough to lead the way in terms of designer names. And so Isabel Marant, Phillip Lim, Raquel Allegra, Proenza Schouler, Oscar de la Renta, Giambattista Valli, Victoria Beckham, Erdem, Elie Saab, Paul & Joe, Alexander Wang and Monica Vinader are the boutique’s drawing cards. They also stock several of these labels’ more affordable secondary lines, like Étoile by Isabel Marant, T by Alexander Wang and Paul & Joe Sister. In total the portfolio includes an impressive 200 labels. As they appeal to a globetrotting clientele, the team from Boutique 1 also runs a well-stocked online shop. In their dedicated studio on the first floor of the store, stylists, photographers and online specialists showcase the newly arrived styles for the internet. In addition to the architecturally impressive store in Jumeirah there is also another equally large branch at the Mall of the Emirates. The small fashion empire also has shops in Abu Dhabi and Beirut. And a store on Sloane Street in London will be opening soon.
Emma Sawko and Alexandra de Montaudouin share the same destiny. Both from France, they met in 2011 after following their partners to Dubai – and neither of them fell in love with the place to begin with. The city on the southeast coast of the Persian Gulf seemed to offer nothing that the two ladies loved so much about their native France: understated design, casual fashion, filigree jewellery, vegan food. Basically the opposite of opulence and ostentatiously flaunted luxury, which seems to be the prevailing style in Dubai. But, as so often is the case, necessity is the mother of invention and led to the two ladies teaming up and developing a successful business model. Upon entering Comptoir 102 you’ll feel like you’ve been transported to Europe or California. With its laid-back hippie vibe, the store, which is full of nooks and crannies, and its adjoining restaurant, could just as well be located on Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice, L.A., but is actually housed in a single-storey building on the busy Jumeirah Beach Road. Collections by Isabel Marant and Raquel Allegra and bags by Jérôme Dreyfuss complement each other perfectly, rounded off by homeware, porcelain and selected food items. And as Comptoir 102’s vegan cuisine is proving just as popular as its clothing range, a second terrace with bamboo roof has been added behind the building. Healthy meals are served here for lunch and dinner, but make sure you leave plenty of room for the homemade vegan cheesecake. Just as appealing as the sweet treats on the menu is the range of jewellery Alexandra and Emma have put together: according to French Vogue, the world’s best jewellery selection in a concept store.
Shopping is a major pastime in Dubai, but it’s very different here than in other places. Most of the city’s districts seem to have been designed from scratch at the architect’s drawing board – there are few truly organically grown areas. But authentic hotspots with a special past do exist if you look hard enough. A good example is Alserkal Avenue, a compound dominated by huge warehouses in the industrial area Al Quoz. Although it doesn’t look too inviting at first glance, some of the best galleries in the city are hidden here behind the mostly windowless façades of a disused marble factory and in the recently added extension buildings. Not to mention one of the most spectacular fashion shops in the million-strong metropolis, tucked away behind an inconspicuous entrance. To enter the hallowed turf of The Cartel, you have to cross a large hall before reaching the graphic-influenced designer store with its strictly black and white colour scheme. Individualistic asymmetrically arranged cabinets provide a separate niche for every collection. The wide staircase leads up to the gallery of the spacious location. A mix of European and Arabic lines, enriched by a few American and Asian brands, awaits a clientele of bold fashionistas. And even if black and white also prevail when it comes to the collections, the look propagated here is very avant-garde. In their own words, they sell wearable art, which fits in nicely with the offer of the neighbouring art dealers. The brains behind the store, May Barber and Peter Richweisz, even go as far as to speak of a symbiosis of art and fashion, reflected in the items on display, the décor and even the event line-up. Fashion film screenings, exhibitions and presentations are regularly on the agenda at The Cartel.
Even if malls aren’t necessarily everyone’s cup of tea and, especially among young Europeans, certainly aren’t regarded as a guarantee for the ultimate shopping pleasure, there’s absolutely no getting around them in Dubai. But the indoor shopping halls to be found here don’t really have much in common with the boring shopping arcades and centres we know in the West. Collections and concepts are carefully vetted by the retail space owners, and even the décor is subject to high quality standards. You’ll find the city’s best and most exclusive stores in these malls, of which the modestly-sized Galleria Mall is one of the best. It’s also home to Zayan The Label, a womenswear line designed by Zayan Ghandour. The Lebanese designer dipped her toe in the fashion pool with a T-shirt collection, before taking the plunge into retail in 2004 as co-founder of multi-brand boutique S*uce. In addition to her role as creative director and head buyer for S*uce, she also developed her own collection: Zayan The Label, which she presented for the first time in 2011 at Paris Fashion Week. With resounding success. She has now opened her first stand-alone store for Zayan and also sells the line abroad. The designer’s biggest fan base is in Japan, but she’s also represented with her fashion in Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Italy, the USA, China, Egypt and even in Kazakhstan and Taiwan. The Lebanese designer’s latest collection, which once again reflects her laissez-faire style, is influenced by Jane Birkin’s seemingly effortless elegance in the 1970s. But with her shift dresses, asymmetric flounce tops that reveal a glimpse of the shoulder, and the wide, knee-length circle skirts, Zayan Ghandour is referencing several decades all at once. Not to mention her eclectic fabric mix, combining androgynous stripes with fresh white broderie anglaise and pearl appliqués with transparent PVC: bold statements that make Zayan The Label really stand out from the crowd.
Luxury hotels are ten a penny in Dubai, but one of them really stands out from the crowd. Its waterfront location alone, right next to Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club, makes the Park Hyatt Dubai such an oasis in the middle of the desert. But it’s not only the five-star establishment’s green surroundings, paradise-like tranquillity and stunning views that make this hotel worth its weight in gold. The list of amenities is long and includes spacious rooms all with open-plan bathrooms, terraces or balconies, views of the Creek, a stunning 25-metre pool, which is the perfect place to wind down after a long day in the dusty desert or inside air-conditioned malls, plus the adjoining spa, voted one of the best in the world by the readers of Condé Nast Traveler. And on top of all that, the Park Hyatt’s restaurants also enjoy their very own legendary reputation in Dubai. Traiteur, the fine dining restaurant serving up Michelin-star-worthy French cuisine under German management has been voted the city’s best brunch location for several years in a row by Time Out Dubai.
It should be pointed out that brunch in the Emirates, traditionally on Fridays (the first day of the weekend here), is a whole different ball game. Compared to our more modest Western variety, a Dubai brunch is more like an opulent banquet fit for a king. Starting at 12 o’clock, it is basically the perfect excuse for an entire afternoon of eating and drinking. The fine foods conjured up by the chefs of Traiteur would delight the taste buds of the most discerning Emir. Asian food connoisseurs will be spoilt for choice at The Thai Kitchen, while Café Arabesque serves up local cuisine. Dubai might have a lot of exciting activities to offer, but you may have to plan in some extra time to ensure you can make the most of this exceptional hotel.
Upon setting foot in this spa, you’ll feel like you’ve been whisked off to the land of OneThousand and One Nights. With its white walls and blue domes, the architecture of the luxury relaxation retreat adjoining the Park Hyatt Dubai is a respectful nod to the Moorish culture. Even if you’re not staying in the hotel next door you can still come to the Amara Spa for a head-to-toe pampering session. The journey begins with a refreshing rain shower in the small private garden of your spa suite. This is followed by a rose petal hand and foot ritual enveloping you in the heady Oriental scents. The accompanying music is then selected to contribute to your state of deep relaxation in the following hour or hours, depending on your budget and needs. And only then does the actual massage begin. You can choose from a menu of different invigorating or tension-releasing treatments.
The ceremony will end on the soft recliners in Amara’s intimate courtyard, over tea and dried fruits. And if they can’t quite bring themselves to leave just yet, spa visitors can choose to spend the rest of the day by the pool of the adjoining Park Hyatt.
Even if the USA has long since held the crown as the land of unlimited opportunities, the nighon impossible feats achieved in the United Arab Emirates in the last few years should certainly make it a candidate for the title. The highest tower, the biggest mall, the most exclusive hotel: these are just the most obvious and best-known superlatives that Dubai has to offer. And no less impressive is the only manmade deep-sea harbour in the nearby port town of Jebel Ali and the already completed artificial islands in the Persian Gulf. In Dubai they seem to have a knack of defying nature, the laws of physics and all the elements, making this new recreational pleasure seem almost modest in comparison: The Oasis is a man-made group of lakes, approximately an hour’s drive away from the city centre. In the middle of the desert a truly idyllic retreat has been created where those fleeing the city can spend the day and, if they wish, also the night. Beautiful campsites by the water, peace and quiet and the fantastic night skies all entice city dwellers to set up camp here. And because these are the only bodies of water far and wide, The Oasis has become a real paradise for birds in no time at all.
Photography: Nikolaus Grünwald