The Middle East is ramping up its retail game – with Western namesakes like Abercrombie & Fitch and Apple recently launching flagship stores in the region – and the country of Oman is no exception.
Global lifestyle and fashion company The Apparel Group (Dubai, U.A.E.), which controls the rights to various fashion labels in the region, tapped design firm Álvarez-Díaz & Villalón (San Juan, Puerto Rico) to complete its latest retail venture at the Oman Avenues Mall in Muscat, Oman: a new department store concept intended to house its brands under one roof.
Spread across 50,000 square feet and two levels, the first completed Empora Department Store showcases fluid curves, references to nature and an uncommon customer journey.
For the design firm, creating a department store concept from the ground up might have been the initial challenge, but the larger obstacle was making the space appeal to a wide range of shoppers, including Western tourists.
The designers adopted a timeless, multi-generational approach: “Nature is something that doesn’t have an age,” says Ricardo Álvarez-Díaz, founder, principal, Álvarez-Díaz & Villalón. “We wanted to have a story focused on the experience of walking through the woods. We didn’t want to make it a literal theme, [but] we wanted to make it honest. Not something [that’s] in your face.”
The nature-inspired designs are first noticeable on the exterior, where mirrored surfaces – intended to resemble a cluster of angled tree trunks – create an air of curiosity and encourage passersby to peek in through the glass façade. The sense of adventure resumes inside with a continued tree pattern and an asymmetrical floorplan designed to send customers on their own journey of discovery, rather than on a set path.
Since women do most of the shopping in Oman – usually in groups of seven or more, according to Cristina Villalón, founding member and lead designer of Álvarez-Díaz & Villalón – designers incorporated ample seating and widened aisles to accommodate groups.
The men’s and children’s departments reflect the overall theme, but also appeal to each targeted market: The men’s section has a hard-edged design, according to Álvarez-Díaz, while the children’s section features a ceiling resembling the sky and whimsical light fixtures imitating umbrellas.
Designed in-house, the ceiling and fixture treatments, along with contrasting color schemes, help present the variety of brands with subtle distinction between each. Created with flexibility and modularity in mind, brands can adapt the spaces to work for their requirements as needed, says Villalón.
Beyond the aesthetics, another hurdle was planning: The time difference between the client and the design firm was roughly eight hours, and Oman practices a Sunday-through-Thursday work week. Despite this, the store was completed within its six-month deadline.
The store has an intimate atmosphere, explains Álvarez-Díaz. “You come in, you are romanced [by the design] … it takes you on an intuitive journey without noticing. Nowadays it’s so challenging because a lot of people buy through the Internet; you have to create that experience so the [shopper] feels compelled to actually go into a retail space.”
Apparel Group, Dubai, U.A.E.
Álvarez-Díaz & Villalón, San Juan & Miami, Fla.: Ricardo Álvarez-Díaz, partner in charge; Cristina Villalón Brito, partner in charge; Gilberto Ibarra, project architect; Antonio Garate, architect; Estefanía Alejandro Silva, architect in training; Joaquin Hernández, assistant.
Outside Design Consultants, Lighting
Gianluca Picardi, lighting designer
Formica, North Shields, U.K.
Arpa, Via Piumati, Italy
ATI Laminates, Greensboro, N.C.
Abet Laminati, Englewood, N.J.
Lumicor, Renton, Wash.
Sensitile, Ypsilanti, Mich.
3Form, Salt Lake City
Milliken Carpet, Spartanburg, S.C.
Imola Ceramics, Viale Vittorio Veneto, Italy
Design & Decor Center, Yanez Diaz, San Juan, Puerto Rico
Photography: Courtesy of Apparel Group, Dubai, U.A.E.