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Sat 10 Jan 2009 04:00 AM

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The ladythriller

After establishing a loyal female customer base in Dubai, Sifico Fashion CEO Ziad Matta plans to take his business to the next level. He talks to Katharine Slowe about customer habits, buying trends and tough times ahead.

After establishing a loyal female customer base in Dubai, Sifico Fashion CEO Ziad Matta plans to take his business to the next level. He talks to Katharine Slowe about customer habits, buying trends and tough times ahead.

Ziad Matta, the CEO of Sifico Fashion, shifts on his seat restlessly. "I am realising this is not actually a very comfortable sofa," he suddenly exclaims. "I will have to tell the buyer about that. Are you comfortable?"

The elegant item in question is in the exclusive furniture section of Matta's new ‘Boutique 1' store, which has just opened on The Walk in Dubai Marina.

There wasn't actually anything exciting happening in Dubai in terms of fashion retail.

Some might argue that after opening a high-end boutique amidst a global economic downturn, a single black couch should be the least of Matta's concerns. But the Lebanese entrepreneur likes to pay attention to every detail, which could account for his current success.

The multi-million dollar store is just the latest of Sifico's luxury shopping outlets, with Matta now sitting pretty on what is rapidly becoming a retail empire.

The company has a total of eleven outlets in the Middle East, including two Boutique 1 stores and five mono-brand shops in Emaar's Dubai Mall. It possesses the exclusive franchise in the Middle East for brands such as Missoni, Elie Saab, Mulberry and Tabbah.

The idea to create Boutique 1 occurred to Matta several years ago, when he spotted a gap in the Dubai retail market - the emirate's lack of multi-brand stores.

He and his wife determined in 2001 to launch a store where multiple luxury brands, both well-known and less-well-known, could be sold under one roof.

Customers would receive the convenience of a department store, with all the comfort and personality of a boutique. The first Boutique 1 was opened in Dubai's Emirates Towers on the emirate's busy Sheikh Zayed Road.

"There wasn't actually anything exciting happening in Dubai in terms of fashion retail," Matta explains. "There were the usual mono-brand stores and it was very boring. So we thought: ‘There's a gap. We have to do something about it. We have to fill the gap.'"

Seven years later, and Matta is planning to expand this business model further. "We have Emirates Towers and we have the location here," he explains. "We're looking at the third location for Boutique 1, which we will hopefully finalise very shortly."

Boutique 1, as can be deducted from its name, relies on a reputation for luxury and exclusivity. Planning and launching a new store is a mammoth task that can take several years to complete, and Matta stresses the importance of finding the right site.

The location of the newest store on The Walk, he says, is ideal - and is a partial response to feedback from Matta's customers that they didn't want to spend afternoons struck in traffic while attempting to reach Emirates Towers.

"In a place like this, we don't even know who our neighbours are," he says. "We don't even care who our neighbours are. It's our own world. Plus, what attracted us here was its proximity to the five-star beach resorts, to Emirates Hills and Dubai Marina."

The luxury aspect of Boutique 1 is not just reflected in its situation, but also in the shop's decor. The whole store looks likes a gleaming palace of ice, with the walls, floor and ceiling all the same shade of gleaming white.

Tottering across the slick mirrored surfaces are numerous high-heeled women, their gaze scanning the minimalist surroundings with haughty ennui. As it is 10am in the morning on a Thursday, it would appear they do not have jobs.

"Many of the ladies who shop with us don't work and they tend to come to us three to four times a week," Matta says. "We see the same faces. It's not like they come once a month. One lady comes every day in fact. Like other people go to work, they go shopping. It's almost like work."

Each customer, Matta says, is looking for something unique, as for Boutique 1's clientele the worst fashion faux pas is to be seen wearing matching dresses to a party. Many of Matta's customers frequent the same social circles, so it is particularly important to them - and therefore to Boutique 1 - that they do not leave with identical outfits for an event.Boutique 1 takes care to avoid this through the use of a personal stylist, who is careful to take note of each item of clothing that is bought and who has bought it.

Yet for some customers, wearing a unique item at an event is not enough. It also has to be unique within the city, country or preferably the continent.

Matta, chuckling, tells the story of a woman who walked into Boutique 1 at Emirates Towers, looking for a handbag no other woman would own: "She asked, ‘how many of these bags have you got?' And we said, ‘five'. She said, ‘okay, I want to buy all five of them'. She bought five, and probably used only one. I don't know what she did with the other four."

This is not the most extreme example Matta has to offer. A second shopper at Boutique 1, he claims, used to wear a particular brand of jeans available only in Los Angeles, and which no other woman in Dubai possessed. In order to please her, the boutique finally managed to obtain her favoured brand. Instead of being grateful, Matta says, she was furious.

"She said, ‘oh no,'" Matta says. "She was so upset and annoyed. It turned out that her thinking was ‘oh, now it is available in Dubai everybody can have access to it', whereas when it was only in LA, she could buy it when she was in LA and then she could be the only one in Dubai to have it."

This desire for individuality can mean there is a lot of competition between Boutique 1's customers. Whilst this is extremely profitable for Matta, who is more than happy to fulfill their desire for the latest bag or pairs of shoes, it is less so for their husbands.

Matta explains there is a lot of pressure on them to support their wives' shopping habits, even in the current economic climate.

"I've had friends of mine who've been very hard hit by the crisis, because they hold some shares or property," Matta says. "They're complaining to me, saying that their wives who shop at Boutique 1 are still shopping at Boutique 1, as if nothing has happened.

"They are telling they're wives: ‘Don't you know what is happening? Don't you know that the stock market is 50% down? Don't you know that we're unable to sell the properties that we own?'"

Matta fears that the economic downturn could have a level of effect on his business. While he remains optimistic that his customers will continue to overcome their husbands' protests, he does have concerns.

"It is not something that [the customer] can easily give up. She's got to have ‘that bag'. She's got to have ‘that pair of shoes'. Whatever happens to the credit card statement at the end of the month, the husband will have to deal with it. Whether the husband nagging will finally have an effect on the sales, I don't know."

With the cheapest item available at Boutique 1 being the coffee, and dresses reaching prices of up to US$30,000, shopping there is an expensive option.

Though Matta finds it unremarkable that a few of the dresses are costlier than the furniture, he does admit it is a bit of a pity that they are often worn just once.

Matta can afford to spend time pondering the prices. He says that in 2008, Sifico Fashion will have made around US$30million in sales, and he is targeting US$50million in turnover for 2009.

With Matta's profit consisting of around 15% of the overall sales, he has the funds to frequent his own shop. Aside from his shoes, which he explains are Churches, he is dressed top to toe in Boutique 1 brands.

Still, wealth cannot always grant comfort. With relief, Matta deserts his sofa for another to have his photograph taken. He settles down in the new seat with a sigh.

"It's surprisingly comfortable," he says of the incredibly uncomfortable-looking glossy white chair. "It doesn't look like it. It looks more like a sculpture."

Ziad Matta

1967 - Ziad Matta is born in Lebanon.

1988 - Matta graduates as a Civil Engineer with Honours from the Imperial College of Science & Technology in London.

1989 - Matta obtains an MBA from the management school of the same college.

1990 - Matta joins the family business, Sifico Group.

2000 - Matta launches a fashion retail division of the group, Sifico Fashion, with his wife Lena Jabbour.

Matta currently lives in Dubai with his wife, Lena, and three sons, Max Gabriel, Luca and Ralph.

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