A taste for sauce
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I have been going for long evening walks in Dubai Mall—agreed it is silly, but the alternative is to burn and wilt in the heat outside—with the objective of hitting 10,000 steps every day on my Fitbit. And while I go round and round, floor by floor, I have inadvertently become a minor expert on what’s on display in every store window. But here’s the thing—at some point, usually by the second round, the hundreds of brands that populate Dubai Mall start blurring into a sea of sameness. I feel like I am swamped by similar styles, similar colours, similar prints, similar fabrics—everything is very nice, no doubt, but it is similar.
In the midst of this repetitive landscape, one of my secret pleasures is a store called S*uce, a relatively small multi-brand store which has a decidedly quirky collection. In fact, quirkiness seems to be its central theme—almost every piece has an unexpected little twist, a tongue-in-cheek detail that makes you smile—for instance, the floral printed dress by Vivetta which has a collar that looks like two cut-out hands, thumb to forefinger, with daintily painted nails. It stocks brands that I am not familiar with, often young new designers from far-flung lands—Australia, Japan, South America and more—whose promise and talent you recognize from your own gasp of joy and discovery. They have a bunch of Indian designers too, happily rubbing shoulders with other international brands—the offering doesn’t cue “Indianness”, in fact I went home with a Rimzim Dadu dress, painstakingly appliqued with little black petals and buds, and happily realized a few weeks later that this is an Indian brand.
I am intrigued—quirkiness as an organizing principle is not something I have come across before. So I reach out to S*uce’s co-founder and creative director, Zayan Ghandour, who turns out to be a lovely Lebanese lady, full of energy and spunk—and as I talk to her, it slowly starts dawning on me that she is actually able to predict the future with remarkable accuracy. Now, I know that sounds batty, but stay with me—her business is to explore and curate the outer edges of fashion, to travel the world and pick out little-known designers with unrecognized talent, and in that murky, still-forming realm lie the fashion stars and fashion trends of the future. She is like a wave-catcher, who is catching them while they are just a swell in the vast ocean, miles before they land on the shore.
For example, way back in 2004, when she started S*uce, she brought in Australian brands like Zimmermann and Sass & Bide, which were unheard of then. Today, of course, both are sought-after brands, especially by the fashion-forward shopper. Or take Phillip Lim. In 2004, she carried his brand Development, the one he had co-founded with an earlier partner. She saw something in him even before he had founded his own label, 3.1 Phillip Lim, which of course is now in the big boys league.
Or take the French accessory designer Shourouk. Ghandour found her at a small trade show, where she had displayed a tiny collection—but she immediately saw potential. S*uce was Shourouk’s first store ever, and within five-six seasons, her brand was selling in major global stores like Nieman Marcus, and being sported by celebrities like Sarah Jessica Parker, Jennifer Lopez, and even Michelle Obama.
It is a rather special skill, this sure eye for the future, but I don’t think Ghandour sees it that way. She isn’t even trying for the future stuff, she is just focusing instead on finding stuff that is unusual—that has some novelty in its design, that has special details (she loves details, that’s a recurring theme in our entire conversation), that exudes a certain attitude. “This is the only criterion we go looking for,” she says. “We don’t look for a brand name or established credibility. We just want it to be special.”
She has thought this through. Right from the start, she wanted to give customers “something they will fall in love with”, something they will keep for years because “it is exciting, has a story behind it, is a conversation starter at the table”. The S*uce concept is built around the idea that you buy it not just because you need it, but because “it brings an extra flavour to your wardrobe”. I suppose it does for your wardrobe what a good pickle does for a meal, or a spicy chutney does for a plate of pakodas: add piquancy, interest, a sensory high.
What happens when the up-and-coming brand grows up and becomes a big brand? “We then start moving into the next new set of brands,” she says. For example, there is a surge of young Australian designers that she has brought in-store. Fillyboo, for example, which has a summery, breezy, bohemian air; or Thurley, which is all about elegant evening looks, with lace and daring cut-outs.
“We are a speciality boutique,” she says. “And we love to stay that way. To keep bringing in fresh new people, designs, ideas.”
And chances are some of these eccentric new additions will in turn become the big brands of the future.
Radha Chadha is one of Asia’s leading marketing and consumer insight experts. She is the author of the best-selling book The Cult Of The Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair With Luxury.