Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Union: United they stood!

I first saw the adverts on the streets, a funky new store opened in the Pub infested Gemmayze street…. I felt compelled to go see what it was all about. Little was I prepared for The Union, the hip clothing outlet that was there. Somewhere in the cul de sac between Mystique and Cloud 9, there it was. In this exclusive interview, owners Claire Liddell and Rowan Kamel bare it all – or rather dress it up even heavier! TJC: People usually shop for clothes to go out at night, rather than go out at night to shop, how did you manage to break that cycle with union? CL/RK: We saw our location as an opportunity to open from 12:00pm to 11:00pm, Gemeyzeh is a great place to have lunch and shop during the day, and the street comes alive at night, so we wanted to be part of that. It actually makes more sense for The Union to be open later at night because the majority of our customers work during the day and are unable to shop.For us it was really about providing a more convenient shopping experience for our customers. TJC: With Paul Frank and other alternative hip brands, you are not the usual "uber chic" clothing outlet, do you think Lebanese people are now prepared for couture urban-wear? CL/RK: We definitely think that Lebanese people are ready for urbanwear, and it’s long over due! So many people in Lebanon travel all over the world where urbanwear is part of a lifestyle; from music, art, graffiti and design. Cities like London, Barcelona and Berlin ooze with creativity and people buy into the fashion brands that represent that lifestyle. Also, the international fashion magazines available in Lebanon are a great indicator of global fashion trends. Our brands like Paul Frank, Supremebeing, Vans, Dickies, Merc, Gentle Fawn, Upperplayground, Rocksmith, Alternative Apparel and others are all featured in magazines like ID, Dazed and Confused, Lowdown and Nylon. TJC: Being situated in Gemmayze between Gauche Caviar and Cloud 9 to be specific, in a back alley cul de sac, did this add tot he charm of the operation, or on the contrary made it more difficult for people to spot you? CL/RK: As soon as we saw the location we knew it would be perfect for The Union. Being situated down The Alley Way has its challenges but the charm of the location outweighed them. The best shopping experiences we have had is when you find a little boutique tucked away in city streets. The challenge for us is to spread the word. We’ve focused on street marketing, including bar coasters and valet tags to piggyback on the nightlife on Gemeyzeh. The plans for The Alley Way include a restaurant tanning salon and nail bar so we’re looking forward to the atmosphere that will bring. Finally, the Union is not your typical “high street” commercial clothes store. We believe that our customers appreciate The Union’s “hard to find” location as it represents their individualism and desire to dress uniquely TJC: It is true that you positioned yourself as urban wear boutique, but what differentiates you from other such shops, who basically sell high end knock offs for a cheap price in other areas of Beirut? CL/RK: You can never compare a knock off to the real thing! But other than that, the brands we carry are mostly exclusive to The Union. It’s important for us to offer brands that are new to Lebanon, and only offer 4 or 5 pieces of each item. A lot of people shop at the same high street stores because that is what is available to us in Beirut and so the scope for individuality is limited. In such a vibrant and creative city people are looking for something a little different. The shop itself is different to most in Beirut, we took time to develop the interior design concept and execution. We wanted the shopper to feel comfortable and enjoy hanging out at The Union. We incorporated street elements, like highway street lamps, bricks, steel, wood and scaffolding and mixed it with bright inviting colors. We want to support and encourage homegrown creativity so we are inviting artists to exhibit their work on our “artwall”, and we’re always on the look out for Lebanese designers. TJC: Having a men's, women's and even kids section in addition to an accessories corner makes your target audience less defined, how come you took that risk to diversify so much? CL/RK: For us it wasn’t a risk at all. We wanted to offer a complete look for guys and girls. We really wanted to own a store that we would love to shop at which included a day or night outfit for me, a gift for a new baby and something cool for my boyfriend or husband. TJC: How do you see the future of Gemmayze with the advent of The Union, will it be a "lifestyle" street with design and handmade and alternative stores, or will this be just a small byproduct of the clubbing and pubbing business? CL/RK: We hope Gemeyzeh continues to evolve and for new businesses to diversify more into the retail and fashion business. The pubs certainly put Gemeyzeh on the map, however now is the time for Gemeyzeh really to establish itself as a world class destination. The Gemeyzeh area has the potential to be Beirut’s equivalent of Soho in New York or Notting Hill in London, however for this to happen there has to be a healthy balance of shops, cafes, restaurants, pubs etc. Too many of one and it wont reach its full potential. We feel Gemeyzeh is perfect for small European style boutiques and already it has lots to offer. It has established a large and successful business community, everything is within walking distance, it is a really beautiful street and the architecture is probably one of the best in Beirut. Last but not least, Gemeyzeh is also one of the most affluent residential areas of the city.
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