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[Photography by Abdul Ghani Ismail]

The Edge Malaysia (Options), 18 July 2005


After months of dusty pavements and noisy pounding, Starhill Gallery is almost ready to unveil its newfound glamour to the Malaysian public. Can the concept behind the mall transform KL into Asia’s new shopping paradise? CHERYL AMBROSE and SURINDER JESSY speak to the man with the vision and two men who believe in this vision.


The air is heavy with a mist of fine dust, thick with the smell of fresh paint, and the noise is incredibly loud, no thanks to the construction that has taken over what used to be the Starhill Shopping Centre. Despite being regulars at the shopping centre, the new layout leaves us thoroughly disoriented. The Marriott Cafe is boarded up, there appears to be no tell-tale signs of the old Tangs and the escalators seem to have multiplied.


It's only when we sit down adjacent to the old Marriott Cafe for a quick cup of tea before our interview that we realise the lounge area actually used to be Tangs and those extra escalators were the ones that used to take you from floor to floor within that departmental store. So cleverly has the place been disguised that it's impossible to imagine what this quiet shopping centre used to be like.


It's the first week of July, about three weeks before the new Starhill Gallery is scheduled to open and there appears to be no sign of completion to this massive renovation. Well, apart from the beautifully designed Feast Village on the lowest level where restaurant after restaurant beckon to those starved of new fine dining eateries.


Tan Sri Francis Yeoh, managing director of YTL Corp Bhd, looks at us with much amusement when we mention the chaotic surroundings. "Were you here three weeks ago?" he asks. As we shake our heads, he laughs and says, "You see! Three weeks is a long time. Three weeks ago, this place was in a bigger state of chaos." We can only imagine the chaos this place must have been in then.


Such confidence on Yeoh's part is necessary if he's to spearhead the revolution of Starhill, from the quietest mall in the city to the chicest luxury haven. That is after all his strategy: to reposition Starhill (first by calling it Starhill Gallery as opposed to the overused "shopping centre"), not to outdo competitors but to cater to the fast-changing needs and wants of KLites.


That first step is witnessed the day we meet, at the opening of the world's largest Jaeger Le-Coultre (JLC) boutique. A large expanse of space just beside the newly renovated store has been transformed into a fairytale setting for the impending cocktail event. The press is swarming the place and the three men we're to speak to – Yeoh, Jerome Lambert, CEO of Jaeger Le-Coultre, and Datuk Francis Sew, managing director of Swiss Union Fine Watch – are ushered into a private room within the store for an exclusive interview with Options.

The exterior of Starhill Gallery in all its colourful glory.

What we want to know is why a luxury timepiece brand like JLC would choose KL as the site for its largest store and not Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo or any of the rapidly expanding markets in China. Why KL and why Starhill?


Lambert's answer is simple and politically correct although a little difficult to decipher because of his thick French accent: he likes the new Starhill concept.


"We are in a new age," he says of the concept of the mall, which ignores the traditional shopping mall layout, preferring instead to dedicate each floor to one facet of luxury, be it timepieces, spas or food. "Everything is integrated in order to cater to the Malaysian clientele. There is no global brand that is missing."


In that sense, Lambert's definition of new age is on the mark. Instead of an anchor tenant taking up a large expanse of retail space and instead of scattering brands selling a variety of items right across the mall, Yeoh's vision is simply to gather the best luxury brands and dedicate a floor to each aspect of luxury. And in doing so, Yeoh has managed to retain existing labels, and attract new ones that do not have a presence in any other mall in the country. Brands like Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior and Fendi, for example, are exclusively at Starhill.


In Yeoh's words, this is the revolution of Starhill Gallery.


"Starhill Gallery is about choosing the arbiters of style," he says, illustrating this by adding that just as Louis Vuitton is the creme de la creme in its field, so too is Starhill.


"I select all the right people who will vote with their purse, passion and heart. It's not easy to have this convergence," Yeoh says.


"We persuaded the government to drop the tax on designer goods in 1999. So that has given us six years to bring in the brands. Louis Vuitton has invested about RM20 million in its store expansion. And I persuaded Datuk Francis to vote with his purse," Yeoh explains his success in attracting the big names, and therefore big money, to Starhill.


Does this mean that a brand has to attain a certain standard before it will be allowed into this close-knit sect?


"All the brands here are arbiters of style and taste. We don't want wannabes," he says, drawing laughter from Lambert and Sew. Arrogant as that may sound, Yeoh's vision has not been replicated in the city, although some may compare Starhill's concept with that of Avenue K. Although Avenue K has also dedicated each floor to a specific concept, the shopping centre is still largely vacant and incomplete whereas Starhill is already mostly up and running despite the fog of construction. Who copied whom is really irrelevant. At this point, it's survival of the fittest.


Still, it's not as if KL is starved of shopping malls and certainly not along the Bukit Bintang stretch. Even if you dismissed KL Plaza, Lot 10 and Sungei Wang Plaza as has-beens, there's the looming threat of Pavillion, the new mall that's currently being constructed at the site of the old Bukit Bintang Girls' School. True that among the numerous malls in the city, Starhill has seen the least number of people walking in, mainly because of its extremely controlled tenants.


The concept, Yeoh explains, is to maintain exclusivity. The people he hopes to lure into Starhill Gallery want privacy and security without having to battle weekend crowds. And that's where leaving out an anchor tenant and other crowd pullers such as bookshops makes sense. How many Malaysians will throng into a shopping mall to view art on one level, shop at Louis Vuitton or Gucci, and then indulge in fine cuisine, without considering the damage to their wallets? In that sense, Yeoh has the upper hand over overcrowded malls which shoppers who want luxury products stay away from on weekends and after hours.


So JLC's new boutique here makes perfect sense. It is this type of shopper who will spend good money on luxury timepieces. And when purchasing such high-end personal effects, the last thing a shopper wants to deal with is a crowd of window shoppers.


It's not like the Swiss manufacturer is alone in its field, though. JLC's boutique is located on what Yeoh has termed the Adorn Floor, where all the fine luxury timepiece brands are situated. According to Yeoh, watch retailers occupy over 20,000 sq ft of the entire Gallery's 250,000 sq ft, with over 70 luxury watch brands on that floor.


"Jaeger Le-Coultre saw out their commitment," Yeoh says of the brand setting up its largest store here in KL. "I realised too late that the only guys who pay their rental on time are the watch guys. So they must be here for the long haul,” Yeoh says half in jest.


Of course, from Yeoh's point of view, it's fantastic that a brand like JLC would choose to locate its largest store in the world right here in Starhill. But from a sales perspective, will this decision reflect positively in JLC's books?


"Sales in Singapore are a little [higher] than in Malaysia," admits Lambert, "but that's because Singapore has had a head start. But in terms of local clients, Malaysia is very comparable to Singapore. There has been a genuine luxury development locally in the last five years. Starhill has 99% of what London can offer. It's about luxury."


While Lambert speaks from a point of emotion, Yeoh explains it in terms of dollars and cents. "KL gains because of the lower currency value. The ringgit is pegged, so it's good for retailers," he says. The lower currency value simply means that rental is lower and margins are therefore higher. "Rental here is peppercorn. Rental in Hong Kong is between RM250 and RM600 per sq ft. Here, it's about RM40. It's good to be competitive with rent."


The brand Anne Klein, for example, has skipped the Singapore market and the effects of the escalating Singapore dollar to open its first store in the country at the new Starhill. "I'm happy that KL provides world-class service at almost Third World prices. The Marriott and The Ritz-Carlton here are the cheapest in the world. That's why I'm very confident," Yeoh says.


Lambert nods in agreement. "JLC is planning to have its annual convention in Kuala Lumpur next."


"Make sure it's at The Ritz-Carlton," Yeoh laughs, but becomes serious again.


"KL is booming. We have a credible number of luxury cars despite them being the most expensive in the world. [Malaysians] do have money." Money that Yeoh hopes will filter through Starhill's very expensive offerings.

The lowest level of the Gallery hosts the Feast Village.

"Starhill is marketing its name like a brand. An icon for an icon," Lambert says, glancing at Yeoh as all the men begin to laugh. "For Jaeger Le-Coultre to be present, being associated with Starhill the brand, gives us security."  

It has been six years since YTL acquired Lot 10, Starhill and JW Marriott Hotel, yet it has taken Yeoh this long to realise his vision of recreating Paris's famed shopping walk Champs Elysees along Jalan Bukit Bintang.

When asked why, Yeoh claims that Bintang Walk is a hit with shoppers and that although nothing but scaffolding occupies the stretch directly in front of the hotel and Starhill, by the end of this month, the place will be magically transformed.


"While I was enthusiastic about the first acquisition, I realised a little too late that the retail industry in Kuala Lumpur was not as sophisticated as it appeared to be," Yeoh says. But after six years of observing KLites, he has decided that we are ready after all for such a revolutionary concept.


Besides, Starhill is really a reflection of what he wants from a shopping centre.


"Starhill Gallery is a gallery of rich experiences," Yeoh says. Whether there's an innuendo in that statement is unclear, but there might as well be. This is an expensive destination and in that sense, a homage to Champs EIysees. "The impact on Malaysians will be tremendous. Malaysians want to experience these things but no one has provided them the avenue."


Yeoh's certainty that Starhill Gallery will exceed the expectations of most affluent Malaysians is largely based on YTL's other successful projects, such as the Pangkor Laut Resort, which hasn't deterred select locals despite the hefty price tags.


"Malaysians welcome this already. The concept is working with Shook!," he explains. The entire lower level where the restaurant Shook! has stood all these years has been converted into a haven for the finest cuisine. Twelve new restaurants and bars have been added and since then, Shook!'s business has increased by 30%.


And if the food concept works, why not the Spa Floor, which takes up about 50,000 sq ft? "It's twice the size of Harrod's spa floor," Yeoh says with pride. "Everything is available. Even a men's spa called Spa Indrani."


Does his inspiration then spring from his travels, soaking up ideas during his sojourns into foreign shopping centres and walking European streets? We're quite certain it does for no one can claim to remain unaffected by the experiences encountered on travels.


But Yeoh's expression turns serious as he says that his inspiration for this project, along with everything else, comes from God.


"Where do you get passion from? God. Today, everything a person does is reduced to worth. It's sad," he says with a shake of his head.


Since he mentions worth, albeit in the negative, we ask how much money has been pumped into the rebirth of the Bukit Bintang area. He glares at us and shakes his head again, as the entire room is reduced to laughter.


"You see, money again!"


Yeoh sighs audibly and then replies that about RM250 million has gone into the project. Right now, the aim is to make people forget about the old Starhill, Tangs in particular. He's pleased though when he hears about our initial confusion as we walked in circles on the lower levels of the mall. The idea is to erase all past associations and build this "brand" from scratch.


And one good way to do that is to hire big guns in the industry to transform the image of the mall. which Yeoh did by engaging David Rockwell Group from New York, a global icon for mall designers. This is the company's first shopping mall assignment in Asia.


Of course, competitors want to know what's going on behind the hoarding, and not surprisingly "'spies" have been spotted walking around wielding cameras. Yeoh laughs at this, obviously proud that Starhill has been deemed enough of a threat by the burgeoning shopping mall industry.


"You know, I don't mind if they take pictures but the other malls stop us, so…,” Yeoh says with a shrug, referring to his security guards throwing out the so-called spies.

The largest Jaeger Le-Coultre boutique in the world.

"It's about competing and winning," says Sew, who has been listening intently all this while, laughing and smiling at the right times. While Yeoh is the brains behind this project and Lambert provides the backing, Sew's job puts him in the front line. Swiss Union, currently one of the two watch retailers in Malaysia fully owned by locals, is in charge of managing the JLC boutique exclusively and has been working with JLC since 1998.


Both Yeoh and Lambert are convinced that someone like Sew, a renowned watch entrepreneur, is the perfect person to take the sales of luxury timepieces to a whole new level in this country.


"Selling watches isn't easy unless people trust you. How many people can you trust?" asks Yeoh.


"If you want a watch, Francis will find it for you," says Lambert, referring to Sew. "People do trust him and it's important. You need people like him if you want to become a collector. The next step is to gain the confidence of people through professionals like Francis and his team."


Sew remains silent, accepting the compliments with a shy smile. For him, it's all about making KL a shopping paradise for watches.


"Without these companies, you can't do it,” Sew says, referring to the numerous watch retailers in the country. "It's about competing and winning. It doesn't matter whether the company is owned by Malaysians or foreigners. The Singaporean companies bring in awareness."


That awareness, no doubt generated by the larger watch retailers like Sincere Fine Watches and Cortina, has had a positive effect on the local market. Suddenly, Malaysians are into collecting watches. Not just any old watch but timepieces of high calibre that are at once aesthetically pleasing and technically astounding.


"When Jaeger Le-Coultre first established a store [in Starhill] six years ago, they had the vision of opening the largest boutique here," Yeoh says. But the market wasn't quite ready for it then. "Jaeger has since built a brand and educated the public. It's a pity that all people want to know is how old the company is and how much they're worth. What about the skills and history behind a brand? I don't like craftsmanship and passion to be overlooked or taken for granted. You can't commoditise a product here," Yeoh says with passion.


Just before the start of the interview, Yeoh had walked around the store asking relevant questions, clearly intrigued by the history of this 172-yearold brand. In order to continue to educate the public on the salient points of fine watchmaking, JLC will house a master watchmaker in the store to provide an unrivalled level of service.


"How wonderful it will be to visit the boutique to learn and observe the skills of a master watchmaker! This practice will allow the continuation for the soul of the manufacturer to be visible; this level of service and master craftsmanship has not been seen before in Malaysia and is a compliment to our vision," Yeah says later at the cocktail reception after the opening of the store.


Now it makes sense why one of the foremost Swiss watchmakers should set up its flagship store in a city that is quickly gaining a taste for luxury. Instead of selecting a saturated market, JLC has had the foresight to aim for a growing market. And Asians are the fastest-expanding consumers of anything with logos on it, never mind the price tag.


Yeoh's vision which began six years ago might have been too radical for KLites and foreign investors to understand, but today, it's that vision that KL is moulding itself to fit into. Who knows, Bukit Bintang might just help KL become the iconic city that Yeoh has visualised it to be and he's not sparing anything to realise that potential.

Sigh! Here's saying goodbye to finding parking space at Starhill any time of the day. -- Cheryl Ambrose & Surinder Jessy, THE EDGE MALAYSIA (OPTIONS)










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