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Style and Travel

A festival of shopping

Lesley Thomas indulges her weakness in Dubai

20 February 2008

12:00 AM

20 February 2008

12:00 AM

For me shopping for fashion is something that happens under cover. It is surrounded by stealth, tainted with guilt. Harvey Nichols bags are stuffed at the back of wardrobes. Rarely worn Louboutin heels are hidden from view — mine as much as anyone else’s. I don’t like to be reminded of my weakness for the beautifully superficial.

Footballer’s wives have given shopping a bad name. Avarice is a vice, it’s true, but it does not preclude intelligence. Do brain cells deplete the moment you cross the threshold of your local Prada outlet? A friend once looked — down the end of her nose — at a prized Lara Bohinc handbag of mine and dismissed it thus: ‘I just couldn’t spend money on that kind of thing. I’d rather buy theatre tickets.’ But who says you can’t enjoy Shakespeare in the company of an exquisitely embellished clutch?

So imagine a world where shopping is shameless, where people consume not only conspicuously but with pride; where it is as legitimate a hobby as, say, reading or being a gastronome. Welcome to Dubai — fashion’s new Disneyworld. In Manhattan, prompted by the favourable exchange rate and overexposure to Sex and the City DVDs, many of us have enjoyed girlie shopping weekends for years. But it is impossible to be in New York without feeling that you really ought to pop along to the Guggenheim or the Met. You should take in Battery Park at least once in your life and occasionally try and get some off-Broadway tickets. No such pressure in Dubai, now being referred to ‘Manhattan on speed’. Everyone shops in the ‘malls’ in Dubai. There are dozens of them and many more being built. These temples have a culture all of their own — one that’s taken off so much that there are plans to build an entire island of fashion stores called Isla Moda. Armani and Versace are due to open hotels here soon.

When I visited the other weekend, it was the start of the Shopping Festival, known as Dubai’s ‘fifth season’, where fashion-conscious bargain hunters are treated to widespread and heavy discounts of up to 80 per cent on lustworthy labels. The city was just recovering from a last-minute public holiday, declared to help with visiting Dubya’s security arrangements by keeping everyone at home and the roads clear for Mr President and his outriders. You couldn’t have invented a funnier name for this impromptu festival but retailers, who lost millions, were not so amused by Bush Day. All the shops are in enormous malls, of which there are dozens. The Mall of the Emirates is the biggest and the best known; it houses a ski slope with real snow and a Harvey Nichols — where I picked up a Diane Von Furstenburg dress for £50 and was tempted by some patent tangerine arm candy from Chloé. It has its own ‘designer alley’ to rival Sloane Street with Marc Jacobs, Cavalli and Gucci. The BurJuman Mall is one I’d recommend, in particular the Saks store, which had cheaper-than-New-York goodies including irresistible half-price Marc Jacobs blouses and quarter-priced Louboutins and Lanvin.

If you are a hopeless shopper, or need advice on which of the 50 malls you should visit in a weekend, there’s help. Kelly Lundberg, who runs the Divine personal shopping and styling service (; +971 50 396 2296), will pick out what’s best for you. She sussed me out pretty quickly, and pointed me in the direction of the Village Mall, which sells tasty local designs and has a darling boutique called Sauce selling quirky, boho labels such as Erotokritos and Zara-priced Anna Sui.

Gems are a good buy out here, too. The famous gold and diamond souk is densely packed with shops and stalls selling stones and precious metals — some of them paying shameless homage to Bulgari and Cartier. You’ll be approached by jewel touts, but it’s usually in as polite a way as this sort of raw sales technique can be. One of my travelling companions used a gem expert called Deborah Cleary from the Dubai diamond Company ( and was very happy with her services in finding the best price for ice. For souvenirs, cushions, carpets and embellished scarves, the indoor Madinat Souk has much to recommend it. I was delighted with my £50 embroidered scarf and sequinned Matthew Williamson-style cushion covers.

For refreshment and a break from air-conditioned environments, the Australian-owned, award-winning Lime Tree Café ( is where the in-crowd go for a relaxed lunch of gourmet salads and homemade cheesecakes. After having my aching body soothed with a pumpkin body mask at the Ritz Carlton spa (two days of uninterrupted shameless shopping were a physical challenge) I took my new pleated Cynthia Steffe silk skirt out on the town. Awkward licensing laws mean that hotels are the centre of night-time food and party zones. The glitzily trendy Buddah Bar at the Grosvenor House Hotel was great for music and people-staring. We swung by the super-luxe China Moon bar on the 16th floor of the new Raffles Hotel for a mojito with a stupendous view. Dinner was at La Baie in the Ritz Carlton, where I had the best sushi this side of Nobu.

Silverjet; 08448 550 111 Silverjet flies to Dubai daily from Luton

Ritz Carlton Dubai; +00 971 439 94000

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