Mocktails, music and dancing marked the first birthday of Dubai’s 96,000 sq ft Level Shoe District, the world’s largest luxury shoe store, last month. Customers and luxury-world luminaries such as Vogue Italia editor-in-chief Franca Sozzani attended the party at the footwear centre in Dubai Mall.
“We bought shoes, mingled with designers and were able to put faces to names,” says Bulgaria-born Dubai resident Mira Martinova, who thinks the huge store offers “the best customer service and collections”, including her favourites Phillip Lim and Alexander Wang. Such is Martinova’s passion for shoes that she claims to own more than 100 pairs – and to shop at Level Shoe District every week.
British luxury shoe designer Nicholas Kirkwood, who also flew in for the party, says: “When I heard about the size [of the store] I thought, ‘How are they going to make it work, make it intimate, stop it being a sea of shoes?’ But it really does work. There are wide walkways and it is very well designed.”
New York designer Paul Andrew, also at the event, agrees. “Every department store is looking at their shoe floor right now – but this is impressive. Quite simply, it has the best shoe offering.” Edgardo Osorio, founder of luxury footwear brand Aquazzura, describes the place as, “Shoe heaven … You have department stores with incredible shoe departments – but nothing at all like this.”
In London, Selfridges was the first to supersize its shoe department when it opened its 35,000 sq ft women’s Shoe Galleries in 2010. In New York, recently expanded shoe departments can be found at Barneys, Saks Fifth Avenue and Macy’s, whose shoe area stands at 63,000 sq ft. Lane Crawford opened the largest shoe floor in China (30,000 sq ft) at its new Shanghai flagship store last month. Back in London, Harrods will launch a new footwear floor in 2014.
As yet, nothing rivals the scale of Level Shoe District. But is bigger necessarily better? “Personally, I am sceptical of supersize retail concepts,” says George Wallace, chief executive of London-based retail consultancy MHE. He says that while “they are very much a feature of the Middle East”, huge areas dedicated to a single clothing sector risk overwhelming customers; he points out that 96,000 sq ft is “much bigger than an average whole department store in the UK”.
Still, Level Shoe District has its fans: 12m people visited in its first year. Nadia Revenkova, a stylist for wealthy Russian women, flies to Dubai from Yekaterinburg in Russia every month to shop for shoes. “Many of the world’s fashion houses make a collection especially for Dubai. Only in Level Shoe District have I seen such an impressive selection in one place,” she says. A large range of sizes, a VIP area for fittings and the convenience of shopping in one place all contribute to its appeal, she says.
Patrick Chalhoub, chief executive of the Chalhoub Group which runs Level Shoe District (along with many luxury retail outlets across the Middle East), says the concept has been much more successful than was anticipated and has generated interest internationally. Two US mall owners have approached him asking him to replicate the idea in America, he says, and there have been overtures from China and Thailand. But Chalhoub is adamant that there will be only one such store. “We don’t intend to take it elsewhere – we want it to be a unique place and a unique experience,” he says. He hopes the store will in time be considered as much of a Dubai attraction as the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building.
With 300 brands on offer at Level Shoe District, you would be hard-pressed to think of leading shoe labels that are missing. As well as 40 designer shop-in-shops – ranging from Harrys of London and Berluti to Chanel, Dior, Miu Miu, Prada and Roger Vivier – the store carries many independent brands such as Ancient Greek Sandals, Castañer, Gianvito Rossi, Grenson, Rupert Sanderson and Ugg. It also houses the 1,400 sq ft Sole Lounge – podiatrist Margaret Dabbs’ largest and first foot spa outside of London.
So is this the apotheosis of large-scale shoe retailing? Robert Burke, head of New York-based luxury goods consulting group Robert Burke Associates, thinks the Dubai store will be “tricky to top” but reflects a change in how consumers view shoes.
“In the past, shoes were bought to complete an outfit or a look,” he says. “Now they are a separate fashion statement – this is a major shift.”