'Chic sheikh' shows Arab women how to be sexy

A scion of Kuwait's ruling family is launching a fashion magazine that he hopes will rival 'Vogue'
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The Independent Online

Sheikh Majed al-Sabah, a member of the Kuwaiti royal family and the most unlikely of fashion entrepreneurs, is set to spread his brand of Arab culture to the West with the launch of a luxury fashion and lifestyle magazine in the mould of Vogue and Vanity Fair.

When it launches this autumn, Alef will be the first magazine of its kind aimed at fashion-conscious women in the Middle East, as well as consumers in the usual market for fashion magazines in New York, London and Paris.

Dubbed the "chic sheikh" by Time magazine, Sheikh Majed has put together a team of editors and designers with experience on major international fashion magazines such as Wallpaper* and The New York Times Style Magazine. They include the former publisher of Wallpaper*, Paul de Zwart, who has been brought in as Alef's consultant publisher.

Sheikh Majed has been responsible for a fashion revolution among the Middle East's upper classes. His Villa Moda emporiums bring visitors flocking to buy the latest Prada, Dior and Gucci in Kuwait, Qatar and Dubai. It is this success that has persuaded the sheikh that there is a market for his magazine.

To be launched this September with an initial print run of 60,000, Alef - which translates as the letter A in Arabic - will target the same type of consumer that he has managed to attract to his fashion stores. It says it is lining up top-end advertising clients such as Calvin Klein and Donna Karan and will sit on magazine stands alongside Vogue and Tatler.

"Alef has been a dream of mine for many years," says Sheikh Majed. "I want to repeat the success I have had with Villa Moda. I can bring a level of access that no one else could. That will be crucial."

Fashion is not the normal profession of choice for members of Kuwait's ruling al-Sabah family. One of Sheikh Majed's uncles is the country's Prime Minister, another is the Emir. The government ministries and the parliament are full of al-Sabahs. But the sheikh, who was in exile in London during the 1991 Gulf War, argues that he can have more influence over how Kuwait is viewed by the West. "I am doing more for the exposure of my country than my cousins who are in politics," he says. "I want to change people's views of the Middle East and I could not do that if I was in politics."

The sheikh claims that Alef will challenge the West's ignorance about Middle Eastern culture and lifestyles. "There is a misconception about what the Middle East is about," he says. "Hopefully this will tackle that ignorance. It will expose the world to who we are; to our lifestyle, our food, our home."

He will not be drawn on his political views, in particular the ongoing war in Iraq. "I am not someone who can give you an opinion on that," he says. "But I can talk to you all about the latest Prada collection."

Later this month, he will add to his string of luxury fashion boutiques in the Middle East by opening a new store in Damas-cus. It will be located in a 17th-century stables in the middle of a spice market.

"Syria has never had a luxury fashion store," the sheikh points out. "We are trying to make the initiative and be the leader in introducing the luxury brand out there."

Britons will be exposed even further to Sheikh Majed's style revolution in three years' time when he opens a fashion emporium in London, to be based on a traditional Middle Eastern bazaar. He intends the store to sell everything from "luxury shoes and jewellery to pistachios and peanuts".

Sheikh Majed opened his first shop in Kuwait City months after the first Gulf War. It was relaunched as Villa Moda in 2002 and branches in Dubai and Qatar soon followed. The sheikh's success has been built on his ability to persuade designers such as Donna Karan, Calvin Klein and Tom Ford at Gucci to allow him to sell their goods, and he is a front-row fixture at fashion shows in Paris and Milan. He also managed to convince the likes of Prada and Fendi to create limited-edition series of kaftans exclusively for his customers.