For an entrepreneur, being able to follow one’s passion is an exciting proposition by itself, but what makes the experience feel a lot more exhilarating is when one is able to capitalize on that interest by filling a gap in the market. That’s why Hazem Aljesr considers himself to be lucky with the enterprise he set up in 2008, the Cities Design, Art & Lifestyle Store.
Born in Lebanon and then raised in Saudi Arabia, Aljesr went to the U.S. and then the U.K. for his higher education, and on his return to the Kingdom in 2006, he, along with two other co-founders, set up a graphic design company called Zoom Creative. Following that company’s success, he then launched Cities with its first location in Riyadh- according to Aljesr, the store was set up to address a very particular need he saw in the market. “When I returned to Riyadh, I saw that there wasn’t a lot of variety available in terms of design and interior décor; it was very centered on traditional and classic styles,” Aljesr remembers. “So I created a store that I would want to shop at. We took the name Cities, because we want people to feel that they can shop [from] all the cities of the world from one place. As such, Cities focuses on encouraging a new approach to design and interior décor; it’s a fusion of styles, quite eclectic and unique.”
Aljesr’s first store for Cities in Riyadh attracted a lot of attention, following which he moved on to a dedicated space at Harvey Nichols in the city, and now, he’s back to his standalone roots with a larger, freestanding store in the Saudi capital. “It’s in a very popular shopping location, and I think that the location and our existing reputation will help us to succeed and continue to expand,” he says. “We also have a strong presence on social media, and we are always involving the Cities name in new ideas and initiatives to further extend our influence and gain more interest. We have moved slowly and steadily upwards, and I feel that we are aimed at continuing along that path. Hopefully, we will be able to open up additional Cities locations in the near future.”
Aljesr has already made some headway on his expansion plans for Cities- it opened its first Dubai outlet in 2014, and Aljesr reveals that the company is set to open a new store in the Emirate at Dubai Mall in February 2016. Abu Dhabi is also on the cards, as is the rest of the Middle East- but for now, Aljesr wants to focus his efforts on Cities’ existing outlets. “If we have a few Cities’ locations in the region that are doing very well, we can continue to build our name and brand, and have a solid foundation to branch out from,” he explains. “We’ve looked at other locations in the Middle East, but so much is dependent on the response to the growing design sector in the region. We want to encourage that, but the result must be financially viable for us as well. With time, as things continue to change, more areas may become possible for regional expansion, but right now, it’s really a game of wait and see.”
But given that the design sector in the region is –arguably- a rather crowded space, how has Cities managed to break through and make its presence felt? “Well, I think the Cities concept sets us apart in a number of respects, but what really seems to make an impact is our store display,” Aljesr replies. “We work really hard to create a store display that makes an impression and also offers inspiration, and we focus on combining diverse items to show our customers how these pieces can be used in their own space. So, even though they might be unfamiliar with some of the brands and designers, the dynamic displays draw them in. We also change the store display quite regularly, usually about once a month, so with every visit, customers feel like it’s a new store.”
As the owner and Managing Director of Cities, Aljesr has made his passion for design an integral part of how the store involves itself with the creative space of the region. Besides participating in several fairs and exhibitions to showcase its extensive inventory, Cities has also sponsored many artand design-related events in the region. At the same time, Aljesr claims that Cities’ instore presentations also act as a source of inspiration and a resource for people interested in this sector, while also providing a platform for up-and-coming artists and designers to share their creations. “We have undertaken all of these initiatives not just because we want to stand out, but also because our goal is to encourage all forms of creativity in the region,” Aljesr says. “We want art and design in the region to succeed and grow, [and] so at encouraging individuals and enterprises in order to help them succeed.”
Aljesr’s work to encourage and scale up this domain is particularly noteworthy given the disjointed nature of the sector here. “The design scene in MENA is quite variable,” he explains. “In some areas, it’s developing very well; while in other areas, there is still a lot of progress to be made. There are also many barriers to be surmounted. For example, in Lebanon, many designers complain about having to alter their manufacturing process or material selection, because the technology and resources cannot be gotten to help them create the designs they have envisioned. In other areas, it’s a matter of educating the public and helping them understand why design matters.” But that’s not to say that Aljesr’s outlook for this sector is all dry and dreary. “What is really wonderful is that I’ve noticed is the deep level of support that exists in so many areas in the region,” he says. “There is a lot of camaraderie, and designers are very supportive and encouraging of one another, and many cities throughout the region are becoming more focused on design and taking steps to bring it to the forefront. We’ve seen a huge increase in involvement and in the number of initiatives and events that are being created to encourage design, especially for the younger generations. That is very reassuring, and we’re glad to be a part of all of this at such an exciting time.”
Aljesr points out that Cities also features a lot of Middle East names as part of its repertoire. “A number of the designers whose works are on display [at Cities] are from the region,” he notes. “We carry a large selection of items from Orient 499, a Lebanese-based atelier, and of course from Nada Debs. We are also very excited to carry the Wisada floor cushions created by Saudi designer Ayah Al Bitar. We also carry items from Lebanese designer Georges Amatoury, both from his design collection and from his Ardeco Gallery, Corinne Martin, who creates paintings that are influenced by Middle East popular culture items from the past done in a pop art style, and of course, Khaled El Mays, Nayef Francis, and Hawini. We recently held an installation of works by Nayef Francis at our Dubai location, and Khaled El Mays and Hawini designs are available at Cities and have also been featured in our exhibits for Design Days Dubai 2014 and at the Beirut Art Fair in September of this year.”
But this is not to say that it’s an easy task picking the designers whose works are featured at Cities- Aljesr makes it clear that there’s a lot of research happening in the background to find the creations of such talents. “It takes a lot of work to stay abreast of everything that is going on, because there are so many designers creating, and they have a lot of pressure to produce new pieces to remain relevant in the market,” he explains. “We look for items that are unique, well-crafted, and fit with our concept. When we find a designer that we like whose work does well, we want to build on that, especially if it’s a designer who does bring new items with some regularity. We make contact with individuals, design firms, art galleries, and small independent artists. We also rely on design companies which offer pieces from a number of different designers all under one company name; they may have dedicated designers or collaborate on specific items with designers who aren’t affiliated with any specific company. This affords us a varied base to draw upon, but we are always on the lookout for new names and new creations. Some of our most successful pieces were discovered by chance, so we try to keep our eyes and minds open to many different sources.”
And this is the approach Aljesr wants to continue using as Cities compounds its presence and plans for further growth in this sector. “It’s not an easy area to maintain a presence in; it requires extensive investment, and it’s a slow path to turn it all around,” he says. “Building a brand and a concept takes time; you have to grow your customer base, and maintain it by constantly sharing something new. It often feels like two steps forward, one step back. Right now, the progress is incremental, but we are already seeing signs that we will continue to benefit from our vision.” Aljesr also has hopes to expand Cities beyond the Middle East region. “My desire is to bring Cities to the people,” he says. “I think that we have a unique concept, and we are evolving and growing. Cities’ concept and its focus on encouraging self-expression and variety in design and décor are very relevant, and it’s also an approach that holds appeal on a global level as well.” Aljesr admits that he has his eyes on entering the European market, but adds that he is in no hurry to do so either. “I think that the Cities concept would fit well with the European lifestyle, but first, we have a lot of work to do to strengthen the name and better define ourselves. Right now, Cities speaks to a customer base that either identifies with our mindset and philosophy or is inspired by it. So, I think the appeal is great. However, the European market is vast, so we would need to find some niche to fill in order to succeed there. Hopefully, the way will become clearer as we continue to grow and progress.”
Starting up in Saudi Arabia
According to Hazem Aljesr, the challenges of setting up shop in the Kingdom prep you for the rest of the GCC.
“It’s definitely not a job for one person! Making the initial decision and investing was the easy part. It was really the little things that caused the greatest difficulties. The paperwork, the waiting for approval for things, the lack of set deadlines for things to occur to move the process forward; those things were frustrating, because there was a lot of uncertainty, and it made the planning process difficult to adhere to because there were so many factors that were reliant on other entities.
We succeeded with patience and perseverance. Some things that surprised me were the cultural issues that caused a bit of frustration. Even though I’m Saudi, I’ve spent a lot of time abroad, and I found it somewhat problematic at first dealing with the approach to business. The Americans and the Brits are all about taking initiative; they don’t wait for you to map out the steps of how you want something done. You say, ‘Do this,’ and they figure out the best way to do it, and get it done. But here, there is a lot of deference given. It’s nice, but you have to be very explicit in how you want things done, and I found that difference in attitude to be a bit of an adjustment for me.
I think that starting with the Saudi market has made things easier for me now. I learned a lot from the experience, and I got a good solid team in place, and together we figured out how to surmount the difficulties. So, starting in Dubai, there weren’t really any surprises. I’ve learned how the process works, and now I think we are ready for just about anything. The differences [between the two markets are] in some ways are vast, in others, minimal. In the Riyadh market, they know us now so they know what to expect. Our job is to meet that standard, but also we have a lot of pressure to continually have something new to share. There is a deeper desire for novelty; what’s new that can’t be found anywhere else. In comparison, in Dubai, there has been more exposure to the design sector, so the tastes are sometimes a bit more daring; people are more drawn to truly unusual and innovative items. They are also just learning about Cities, so we are trying to make a strong impression.”
Tips For ‘Treps
Hazem Aljesr’s five points of advice for an enterprise that stays the course
1. Do your research. “Having a good idea isn’t enough, you have to make sure that there is room for it in the market, that it is viable, that you can create it from a financial standpoint, and it has a reasonable chance of success.”
2. Focus on human capital. “Surround yourself with a strong team that you can depend on and then delegate. Don’t get bogged down trying to micromanage all the tiny details by yourself, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.”
3. Remain steadfast in the face of adversity. “When things get tough, trust yourself and believe in yourself. Don’t listen solely to the negative critics, but don’t surround yourself with sycophants either. Be realistic and take logical risks.”
4. The more you know, the more likely you are to succeed. “Never stop learning, researching, exploring, innovating and expanding. The world is changing so quickly; your business has to change along with it. Be adaptable and keep an open mind to changes.”
5. Don’t forget your supporters. “Show your team and your customers that you value them. Your business won’t succeed without hard-working employees who feel invested in their jobs, and it won’t succeed if you don’t show your customers that you appreciate them. Listen to your employees and listen to your customers. Address their concerns, and use their input to keep improving.”