As the countdown to the Third CNI Luxury Conference begins, Suzy takes another research trip to the Arabian Gulf
An aerial view of the Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa in Muscat, Oman, where the third CNI Luxury Conference takes place in April 2017
Sunrise the colour of marmalade spread across the still waters to reveal a rocky landscape in the distance. Sea and mountains were the twin visions from the window of my room at the Al Husn Hotel at the Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort in Muscat, where the next Condé Nast International Conference will take place next April.
The Al Husn Courtyard at the Shangri-La Muscat
“Mindful Luxury” is the name I gave to this seminar nine months ago when I first conceived it, and those words seem even more pertinent today. As political uncertainty spreads across the globe, with the rise of populism and radical changes in government, luxury needs to be less about showing off wealth to the world — and more about what we find meaningful.
The luxury industry is accepting that millennials have a different mindset to the previous generation and perceive luxury as exciting experiences, rather than just desirable objects.
Oman - such a peaceful arena in a turbulent Middle East — has a different culture from the surrounding states. As we took the route to the hotel, carved out between vertical rock faces, I noted the low-rise buildings nestling into the landscape, the only vivid colour coming from posters of His Majesty, Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, the ruler of Oman.
The trip included visiting the Muttrah Souk, with its heady scents and exotic wares, as well as the striking new National Museum, which focuses on the maritime history of Oman and includes examples of preserved boats salvaged from the seabed.
I had a mission: to find out more about frankincense and fragrance, for which the country has been known since Biblical times. The two indisputably local products are now internationally renowned. I was pleased that we would have His Excellency Sayyid Badr bin Hamad bin Hamood Al Busaidi, the founder of the Amouage fragrance company, as a speaker at “Mindful Luxury”.
The subject of Middle Eastern dress might seem more of local interest, but the collections of designer Amal Al Raisi, another Conference speaker, inspired me to understand the layers of reference and meaning in outfits that might be the strict black abayas or something lighter and more decorative.
Amal had many surprises in her boutique — not least in the rooms upstairs, where all-male teams were working on dresses with intricate details of embroidery and lace. The designer explained the importance of handwork and of liaising directly with clients on couture orders. The variety included three-quarter-length tunics, decorated at the front and the hemline, worn with narrow trousers; while other simple dresses had complex three-dimensional embroidery including the favourite regional motif of palm leaves.
I went on to think about jewellery — such a flashy accessory throughout the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). But I am noticing how many female jewellers, often from Lebanon, are setting a new tone in how women choose to decorate themselves.
Mother & daughter design duo Shadya Al Ismaily and Suad Al-Riyami showed me their jewellery collection in a quiet shopping mall. Their Deema brand includes table linen, fine china, and bed linen as part of an elegant lifestyle store with a focus on jewels, while inspirations include sheaves of corn - so fashionable with jewellers for next summer.
Back at the hotel, the CNI Conference team met with the many people in Oman who are helping to make the Conference as authentic as possible. Talking to those connected with public building projects, I was interested to learn that it is not only low-rise architecture in traditional style that has been absorbed into development, but that planners are also studying Oman’s particular needs and the thoughtful way that building can be worked into the natural fabric of the country.
The next day, I had the opportunity to see the arid landscape and, as our car climbed steadily upwards into Oman’s interior, I understood how “The Green Mountain” got its name from the flourish of verdure that appears the moment that rain falls. Exploring Nizwa, its ancient fort surrounded by green palms, I looked at the tribal silver jewellery that is taken so seriously in the souks that buying it is a case of “weigh to pay”. Each piece had a price based on the amount of silver used.
The literal highlight of this excursion was when we reached the Alila, a retreat that has been developed as a series of grey stone villas with spectacular views across the mountains and a yoga deck with a vision of uninterrupted blue sky beyond. Mindful luxury? Yes, indeed.
I am always frustrated in countries with a rich history of handwork when it is difficult to find jewellery, weaving, and metalwork on an elevated level of material or workmanship. But, thanks to the dedicated work of the half-Omani, half–Scottish Muna Ritchie, handwork history has been brought back to life in the Omani Heritage Gallery.
“Preserving the past, creating a future” is the aim of the store, filled with straw baskets, delicate paintings, sculpted metals, woven carpets, and even a life-size stuffed camel.
The next day, on my way to the airport, I stopped off at the Scientific College of Design to talk to students and their teachers. Although their own clothing was entirely a uniform of black abayas, this was not all I saw. A room full of designs on mannequins — including short, graceful dresses — and spirited shoes and handbags with classic Omani emblems, convinced me that Muscat already has a spirit of “Mindful Luxury”.