Much has been said and written about Ingie Chalhoub, but one description comes up time and again: ‘trailblazer’. Raised in her family’s environment, the Founder and President of Etoile Group could hardly have helped becoming the grande dame of luxury fashion retail in the Middle East.
Ingie grew up with a very glamorous mother, whom she recalls wearing couture from head to toe and from morning to evening. Under such influence, it was no surprise that Ingie didn’t enter a traditional career after graduation. “My biggest interest was fashion,” she confesses.
Her ambitions and creativity were not to be contained in a regular nine-to-five, so she chose instead to build a fashion empire with her mother in 1983. Etoile Group was born.
It began with a single Chanel boutique in Kuwait, the country’s first and, at the time, its only. “It was truly a virgin market at that time,” Ingie recalls. “Luxury brands did not have a presence in this part of the world. Convincing fashion houses that there was potential in the Middle East was not easy.”
“Convincing fashion houses that there was potential in the Middle East was not easy.”
Nevertheless, the mother–daughter duo persevered, finding success through franchising Chanel and opening their own multi-brand boutique three years later. Unfortunately, their success was short-lived. “The Gulf War started in 1990 and a lot of merchandise was stolen. We had to start all over again.”
Undeterred, Ingie and her husband, Patrick, looked for new opportunities, and spotted one in the Jebel Ali Free Zone. Built in 1985, this logistical hub in Dubai was still relatively new and under-populated when Ingie and Patrick decided they should move there in 1992. “We were one of the first companies to invest in the zone,” she claims.
This marked Etoile Group’s first foray into the UAE. Ingie recalls the best encouragement she received during those uncertain times. “The then-Fashion Director of Chanel came to visit me and told me, ‘I believe in you. You can do it. If you could make it happen in Kuwait, you can make it happen again in the UAE market’.”
She decided to repeat her tried-and-tested strategy of building a retail experience based around foreign labels that had yet to gain a foothold in the Middle Eastern market. It worked, and growth came quickly.
In 1994, a Chanel corner was established in the Group’s multi-brand store. “I started the Etoile ‘La boutique’ multi-brand store by bringing all high-end fashion luxury brands and then Chanel as a corner inside Etoile, then moved to Chanel, a mono brand, and other mono-brand stores,” Ingie explains.
The firm moved rapidly into opening mono-brand outlets, starting with Chanel in Dubai Intercontinental Plaza in 1995, then in Wafi, with Etoile “La boutique”, Chanel and Chanel Jewellery.
Then she opened Ralph Lauren in BurJuman Centre in 1998, along with Valentino, Tod’s, two Chanel stores, Emanuel Ungaro, Fratelli Rosetti, Christian Lacroix, Etoile “La boutique” and Valentino. The same year, Etoile Group re-entered Kuwait with Polo Sport, Ralph Lauren, two Tod’s stores, a second Chanel store and Etoile “La boutique”.
Today, the group has more than 80 boutiques across the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Bahrain, and partners with such brands as Chanel, Ralph Lauren, Tod’s, Etro and Italian shoemaker Aquazzura.
In addition, 2009 saw the birth of Ingie’s very own ready-to-wear label, Ingie Paris, which opened its first UAE store in the Fashion Avenue extension of Dubai Mall last year.
Ingie believes that the key to her success lies in her understanding of her customers. “When I first started, brands would approach the market very arrogantly, saying, ‘This is how we do it in Europe, so this is how it will be done here.’ They did not care what the market wanted,” she recalls. “However, it’s completely different today. Now, I have brands coming to me to collaborate on capsule collections for Ramadan.”
Technology has also made Ingie’s job easier. “My son is in Silicon Valley, and I’ve visited the top companies there. Seeing how quickly things are happening in the US, I realised that Europe and the Middle East are a little behind, so I decided to invest in enterprise resource planning (ERP). Business intelligence is very important today, and it has allowed us to stock the right sizes, colours and merchandise, providing a better experience for our customers.”
Also essential to the customer experience is service, which is why Ingie is adamant about training and treating employees well.
“Our reputation is in the hands of the frontliners who represent us to customers. They have to be well trained to provide the right answers, give the right welcome, create the right experience and show passion,” she asserts. “Otherwise, why would customers shop in-store?”
To complete the luxury shopping experience, some of Etoile Group’s employees have been known to bring their services – whether it is tailoring help or personal delivery of merchandise – to the doorsteps of customers who do not have time to visit the store.
“It is about going the extra mile to personalise the service to make it an excellent experience for the customer,” Ingie says.
She still remembers the time Etoile Group hired its first employee. “For the first three years, it was just my mother and me. Then, we met our first employee. He came to me and said, ‘Try me’. I told him that we could not afford him, but because I saw passion in him, we gave him a chance. I hired a man for a store frequented by women.”
It was a radical decision, but it turned out to be the right one. “It was pioneering to have men serving women at that time, but he’s done very well and is still with us as an assistant manager of one of the Chanel stores. I am very proud of where Etoile Group is today, with more than 500 employees, some of whom have been with us since the beginning. To be able to boost them and help them get to the next level in their career is something I take pride in.”
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