Piaff opened its doors in Beirut in 1980, in the midst of a raging civil war. Prevailing despite the odds, almost forty years later it remains Lebanon’s go-to luxury fashion destination. “When my mother and aunt first opened the store, there were no big name brands in Beirut, so they sought to introduce fashion-forward international designers to the Lebanese market,” explains owner and buyer, Nabil Houssami.
At the time, conceptual brands like Yohji Yamamoto or Comme Des Garçon were all the rage, while major players like Gucci and Lanvin were comparatively unpopular. “Over the decades, I’ve seen a shift in demand from independent designers to big luxury houses, but in spite of the trends, Piaff has always represented up and coming designers,” he says. Indeed, today the boutique mainly carries independent labels like Peter Pilotto, Tata Naka, and Simone Rocha, while its more established selection includes Issey Miyake and Ann Demeulemeester – labels which it has championed since day one.
In recent seasons, Issey Miyake and Uma Wang, are amongst Piaff’s top sellers, but interestingly it’s Australian evening wear brands Alex Perry and Maticevski that are really flourishing. He suggests these sell-throughs are the result of Beirut’s thriving wedding and nightlife scenes: “There is a huge demand for wedding and party attire in the city, so although we mostly stock ready-to-wear, occasion wear is an important part of the business.”
“Knowing and taking care of each client personally is what has kept us going for so many years”
Aside from a curated edit of brands, Houssami puts a major part of the store’s success down to his personalised customer service. Clients are given individual attention and staff often personally follow up post purchases or when new collections hit shelves. Additionally, tailored scents and custom-made soundtracks aim to enhance all the senses and offer a unique shopping experience.
“Knowing and taking care of each client personally is what has kept us going for so many years,” he explains. “I think a physical store really has to work on all these aspects and details to be able to compete with the online revolution.” And it’s paying off — according to Houssami, in the last five years, Piaff’s sales have grown exponentially. He believes it is down to returning clients who value the store’s unparalleled service.
Stores in Beirut are relatively traditional and online retailing is still primitive (in fact, Piaff doesn’t have a website, let alone engage in e-commerce.) Houssami believes digital retail is yet to replace brick-and-mortar in Lebanon because consumers continue to crave the physical shopping experience, which ties into a highly sought-after lifestyle. He admits, however, that the retail scene will eventually evolve in line with global retail shifts, thus developing Piaff’s digital presence is still an essential line of enquiry.
How does Piaff stay relevant to consumers in the meantime? By embracing new technology. “We want to develop our customer service through tech. Next year we will implement touch screen smart mirrors in store, offering things like suggested items and mix and match options,” Houssami says. He adds that “in-store sales staff will also be connected to the technology and assist where needed, merging the efficiency of digital shopping with personalised service.”
Looking to the future, Houssami has ambitious plans to expand Piaff’s two locations into multi-functional concept boutiques. “Since taking over Piaff in 2000, I’ve had the vision to transform it into a concept store complete with a cafe and bookstore... I loved Milan’s 10 Corso Como growing up, and it has inspired me to push Piaff in that direction.”