It could have picked London or Hong Kong. Instead, the lingerie retailer that styles itself “the original sex symbol” chose the buttoned-down sheikdom of Abu Dhabi for the launch of its first international store.
Frederick’s of Hollywood, famed for its curve-cinching corsets and provocative push-up bras, opened up to little fanfare in the Emirati capital late last month. Another outpost offering the chain’s racy lingerie is set to open soon up the road in more freewheeling Dubai.
The choice of venue is revealing — not only about demand for risque unmentionables on the Arabian Peninsula, but also for what it says about the United Arab Emirates’ retail pull. In only a few short years, this South Carolina-sized desert country has emerged as an unlikely first port of call for retailers looking to test their brands overseas.
“Despite the outward conservative culture ... this is a very fashion-conscious market,’’ Frederick’s Chairman and CEO Thomas Lynch said in a recent interview. “They’re no less interested in what we have to offer.”
Other retailers seem to agree. Crate and Barrel, American Eagle Outfitters, Aeropostale, Pottery Barn and Bloomingdale’s each have launched their first stores outside North America in the UAE in the past couple of years.
Smaller companies are making the leap too. When Manhattan favorites Shake Shack and Magnolia Bakery decided to take their burgers and red velvet cupcakes overseas, the first city they turned to was Dubai.
Retailers and restaurant chains that once shied away from overseas markets are being seduced by the region’s deep-pocketed citizens and the growing track records of their Arab franchise partners, who take on many of the costs and much of the legwork that goes into transferring the brand abroad.
Frederick’s deal is a good example.
While financial details are private, Lynch said paying for the Gulf expansion is mainly up to the company’s Abu Dhabi-based partners, Safeer Establishment. Frederick’s is primarily providing “brand support” for an arrangement that envisions 10 stores across the region in the next three years, he said.
The UAE has other advantages too. It boasts plenty of high-quality retail space and few of the deeply entrenched local brands that can put retailers off expanding into mature markets like Europe. The country’s booming airlines have turned the Emirates into a global crossroads, funneling armies of guest workers — including Westerners — and millions of tourists into the country’s shopping malls each year.
That was part of the appeal for Bloomingdale’s, which opened its first international store in Dubai’s biggest shopping mall early last year.
“With all the tourists passing through there, it’s a great billboard for Bloomingdale’s,” chairman and CEO Michael Gould said.
Gould said it is tricky for many American retailers to translate their brands to Europe, as it is for European chains looking to enter the US. A market such as the Emirates, however, offers a “much more fertile environment. People have an opportunity to build something there,” he said.
A recent surge of new retailers, particularly from the US, has pushed Dubai into the No. 1 spot alongside London in terms of market penetration for major retail brands, according to a recent report by real estate firm CB Richard Ellis. On the national level, the UAE is in second place globally, just behind Britain and ahead of the US.