The Sheik Of Chic

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At Alexander McQueen fashion shows, everyone aims to turn heads, whether they're McQueen groupies in never-worn-before pieces or editors in origami hats or vintage polka-dot bow-tie blouses. But at last fall's show, the figure most eyes followed was that of a handsome stranger who arrived with Jonathan Newhouse, chairman of Conde Nast International, was greeted warmly by Domenico De Sole, CEO of Gucci Group (owner of the McQueen label), and shown to an envied front-row seat. The fashion plebeians who didn't recognize him or his power-broker companions couldn't miss his three-quarter-length woven leather coat by Bottega Veneta. Who was the guy smiling and schmoozing and wearing a $7,500 coat?

He was Sheik Majed al-Sabah, 35, a member of the Kuwaiti royal family. His mother Sheikha Amthal al-Ahmed al-Sabah is the favorite sister of Sheik Jaber al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, the Kuwaiti Emir, and his uncle Saad al-Abdallah al-Salim al-Sabah is the country's Prime Minister.

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A distant relative of the leaders of a Middle Eastern country is not normally enough to impress fashion big shots, who often mingle with the likes of Queen Sofia of Spain or Queen Rania of Jordan. Designers and CEOs know, and care, about Majed al-Sabah because largely through his flashy exoticism and smarts — and, perhaps, wallet — he has become one of the most prominent retailers in fashion.

In spring 2001, Majed al-Sabah opened Villa Moda, a 100,000-sq.-ft. mall-cum-boutique (he calls it a "luxury bazaar") in a glass box on the outskirts of Kuwait City. The $20 million building is nearly as impressive as the swarm of big brands — Fendi, Marni, Ferragamo, Prada, Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent — clustered in mini shops inside, along with a Botox bar and a traditional Middle Eastern restaurant (with nontraditional Cappellini furniture) overlooking Kuwait Bay. To make sure the opening didn't go unnoticed, al-Sabah offered members of the international fashion set free business-class flights so they could celebrate with him at a $500,000, three-day party. Some 200 of them, including Bloomingdale's fashion director Kal Ruttenstein, designer Stella McCartney and many, many fashion journalists, accepted.

Villa Moda shows why fashion is interested in Majed al-Sabah, but why is Majed al-Sabah interested in fashion? His stock answer, "I've always had a passion for fashion," hardly explains why a could-be leader of his country would annoy his relatives by deflecting suggestions that he become the country's next ambassador to Italy and instead go into a field so unseemly, so unmacho, so unimportant to global affairs.

Perhaps it's because, as a rather burly teenage sheik, al-Sabah wanted to wear only loose-fitting clothes by avant-garde Japanese designers, difficult to obtain in Kuwait. His penchant for getting the hard-to-find became his vocation. In 1991 al-Sabah began visiting the top European fashion houses, begging them to let him carry their brands in Kuwait. None consented. Undeterred, al-Sabah went to the U.S., where business was easier. "All the Americans wanted was a credit rating," he says. And despite a few hiccups — the head of sales at Donna Karan sent him away and later explained to her staff, "We have enough outlets in South America"--al-Sabah managed to get all the big brands. In 1996 he finally cracked Europe.

When at home, al-Sabah, like most other men in Kuwait, leaves the dressing up to his wife and sisters, preferring to wear traditional robes (called dishdasha). But in Europe or the U.S., he's quickly developing a reputation as one of the suavest men on the fashion scene. The British magazine Tatler recently deemed him a style icon and made him a contributing editor. Yet al-Sabah wants to do more than bring the fashion set to Kuwait. He wants, says Tashfeen Niaz, Villa Moda's COO, "to prove that Kuwait is not someplace you can ignore."

Of course, Saddam Hussein has helped him — political writers who haven't been to Kuwait since the end of the Gulf War are back. Yet al-Sabah wants Kuwait to be known not only as a jumping-off point for war but also as a locus of beaches, shopping and spas. He wants Kuwait to be cool. So he keeps fashion folk interested with events he knows are irresistible to them: Prada caftans! A T-shirt collaboration of British artist Gary Hume and Stella McCartney! Cappellini furniture, reconceived by fashion designers!

Now that al-Sabah has the brands, the store (including a franchise deal for a second store in Dubai) and the press — plus a little respect from his family — his ambitions have expanded. He didn't attend the haute couture shows last month. "My uncle, the Prime Minister, wants to have me involved in a new creative project — development and work in promoting tourism in my own way," al-Sabah explains. "You see, Saddam's days are counted, and Kuwait will experience a major change and big economic boom in the near future." So while the Americans and the Europeans have war on their minds, al-Sabah is dreaming up plans for a postwar Kuwait: a land of Botox bars, five-star hotels, celebrity chefs and, of course, the world's best shopping.