We are all about fashion, beauty and luxury, and there is no one better to discuss these subjects, plus retailing, than Alexandra von Canisius, Retail Director & Head of Retail for Saks Fifth Avenue Bahrain Chalhoub Group Managed Companies. She takes us on a journey into this exciting and beautiful world.
“ …when we look at a multi-brand concept store, it is a very complex business model, as we focus on the tiniest details, precision and perfection across all categories to connect and engage with our clients.”— Alexandra von Canisius
OHLALA – Can you briefly tell us about your career experience?
Alexandra von Canisius – I have been working in luxury retail for over 20 years, having lived in London, Dubai, Vienna and Toronto while managing fashion and jewellery houses such as Dior, Cartier, Bulgari, Harrods, Holt Renfrew and now, Saks Fifth Avenue Bahrain. After graduating with an economics degree from McGill University in Montreal, followed by a few years working in finance, I decided to focus on what I love and am passionate about – luxury retail. I was offered a role at Harrods in London, where I started as a buyer and then worked my way up as a senior manager – after which I left for Cartier to manage the Old Bond Street location for several years before being headhunted in 2005 to the Middle East as retail manager of Bulgari and then as Flagship Director of Christian Dior. After this, I embarked on an entrepreneurial career and launched a series of multi-brand concept stores in Austria. However, I missed being part of a larger organisational structure in the luxury retail world, which was so part of my DNA that I returned to the industry to continue my career leading luxury department stores in the region.
OHLALA – Fashion and beauty are part of your DNA. What attracted you to work in these fields?
Alexandra – Luxury, fashion and beauty have always been an area that I have been passionate about. As a child of diplomats, I was raised to believe that I should study to become a lawyer, investment banker or work in the foreign service. A common misperception back in the days when traditional careers were viewed more positively than embarking on pursuing one’s passion and dreams. What attracted me to fashion and beauty is my love of aesthetics, creativity, art and culture. They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. When I look at a beautiful work of contemporary art, an architectural masterpiece or I listen to a piano concerto by Rachmaninoff, this awakens in me the same emotion and passion as when I view an exquisite couture gown or the precision and beauty in a complicated timepiece or fine jewellery creation. All these are different ways of expressing oneself and finding beauty in all aspects of life, which touches the very essence of being human. It is also about being part of an industry that connects with people’s inner emotions and dreams and gives them happiness and a way to express themselves in an ever-changing world.
OHLALA – You are currently the Retail Director & Head of Retail for Saks Fifth Avenue Bahrain. Can you tell us what is the concept of a luxury multi-brand store?
Alexandra – The idea of a ‘classical department store’ as we knew the term 20 years ago vs. today’s luxury multi-brand conceptual department store is very different. Today’s focus is on experiential retailing across all touchpoints and categories, where the aim is to create a dream-like universe where a client can come in and immerse themselves into the world of the brand. We are not in the business of selling clothes. The word ‘product’ should not even be in the retail vocabulary. The aim is to connect with our clients on a deep emotional level, which awakens all five senses. So, when we look at a multi-brand concept store, it is a very complex business model, as we focus on the tiniest details, precision and perfection across all categories to connect and engage with our clients. This means we focus on the entire client journey: before a client enters the store to their journey throughout the store, the connection that our teams build with our clients, the verbiage we use in the selling ceremony, to the curation of the brand assortment as well as the after-sales experience, clientelling and follow up. It is a business where the partnership between store teams, buyers, merchants, marketing, PR, back of house, operations, supply chain and visual merchandising work in unison hand in hand, with the sole focus of engaging with our clients and creating unforgettable, memorable experiences for them to foster loyalty and deep emotional connections.
OHLALA – What do you aim for with the selection of brands and styles that you carry?
Alexandra – The curated assortment of the store follows this same goal – it is our mission to fully understand our client. We analyse our clients’ preferences, needs and shopping habits while respecting cultural norms and offering a selection tailor-made for the market in which we are. The result is a carefully selected brand matrix across all categories (women’s, men’s, kids’, beauty, home, gifting, footwear, accessories and fine jewellery) that caters to our clients, their various age groups, income brackets and preferences, all of which are presented in an experiential environment where connection and relationship building is key.
OHLALA – How important is it to mix well-known international brands with regional talents? Do you think this is one of Saks Bahrain’s differentials?
Alexandra – Definitely. This is where Saks Fifth Avenue Bahrain differs from any other Saks store worldwide. Alongside our extensive international brand portfolio, our mission is to promote local brands and regional talents. We do this by supporting the local community and offering designers a chance to display their collections in-store, whether a pop-up during Ramadan, an exclusive capsule or a permanent shop-inshop. There is so much talent in the region, and it is exciting to discover them and give them a platform to showcase their work for international visibility and help promote their success.
OHLALA – How important is it to build a relationship with clients? What are the strategies that make them come back?
Alexandra – To be honest, this is the most important aspect of any business and life in general. If you don’t connect with people – be it your colleagues, clients, families, neighbours, communities and all cultures, religions and demographics – then you have missed a crucial element in what makes us human beings. This aspect of connection and relationship building is one of the main reasons I am so passionate about the luxury retail industry. We are in the business of serving and connecting with our people. This fosters loyalty, dedication and retention, which leads to the success of any business. At Saks Fifth Avenue, our clients and teams are our main strengths. We have customers who come just to say hello and have a coffee due to the warmth and connection they feel with the store and our teams. And this is not about the brand matrix and assortment – this is about people and how we connect and touch their inner emotions. That’s generally what life is all about.
OHLALA – How do you see the future of the retail industry? And how does it affect the Bahraini market?
Alexandra – I am super excited about the future of retail, especially in this region – also, with the plans in Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the opening of the market – it’s a defining time for the luxury and retail business, and it is great to be part of this transformation. We are living during a time when there is a general acceleration in tech, AI, data, experience, omnichannel retailing, synergies between classic and futuristic visions and an openness and readiness to challenge the status quo. Although we are also quite dependent on our Bahraini community and our KSA neighbours, Bahrain is unique; many visitors from the region continue to spend their holidays and weekends on the island. With the increase in investment, new real estate developments, malls opening, as well as cultural activities and entertainment options, Bahrain is a pillar destination for the future. In terms of retail, there is also so much room for growth compared to other countries where retail may already be saturated.
OHLALA – How long have you been living in Bahrain, and what do you like most about the island so far?
Alexandra – I arrived in Bahrain nine months ago and have already been captivated by the island feel, the warmth and friendliness of the people and the hospitality I have received here. What makes Bahrain special is definitely its people – and for me, that’s a priority in work, business and life.