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When Chic Meets Sheik

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Last week, as U.S. diplomats met with Yasser Arafat, some other emissaries were on a different type of mission to the Middle East. The international fashion flock was off to Kuwait.

Four hundred New Yorkers, Parisians, and Milanese were invited by Sheik Majed J. Hamoud Al-Sabah, the 34-year-old prince of the small Gulf state, to attend the opening of his pet project: a department store. A soaring glass-and-steel cube that cost the sheik $53 million to build (only a small fraction of his family's billions), Villa Moda's 100,000-square-foot space houses almost every conceivable high-end designer, from old standbys like Prada and Christian Dior to Marni and Hussein Chalayan -- plus a spa with a "Botox bar."

"Villa Moda is the best store in the Middle East," said the sheik, in a white dishdasha and black Ray-Bans. "We are going to put Kuwait on the fashion map."

Luckily, there was no trace of the pro-Palestinian protests that had recently taken place on the streets of Kuwait City (perhaps scaring away designer Zac Posen and his muse, Stella Schnabel, who canceled at the last minute), and so the sheik's glamorous weekend went off without a hitch. Besides, fashion heavyweights like Gucci CEO Domenico de Sole, YSL president Mark Lee, and Bloomingdale's Kal Ruttenstein didn't seem to have the Middle East crisis foremost on their minds. "Kuwait is simply fabulous," said Fendi chair Carla Fendi.

And fabulous it was: There was camel-riding out in the desert with the locals ("Bedouins are so cute!" trilled one fashion editor), and a caftan party in the old souk. The Kuwaiti society women -- few of whom wear burkas but none of whom can vote -- wore caftans embroidered with gold (while Elle fashion director Nina Garcia made do with a borrowed slip and a see-through Diane von Furstenberg dress). Richard Johnson of "Page Six" passed around a hookah as a band played Kuwaiti folk songs. "Do you think if I gave them $20, they'd play 'Hava Negilah'?" asked House & Garden design editor Mayer Rus.

There were things to buy, like headdresses with just a slit for the eyes -- "I've heard they do wonders in the bedroom," said one female writer -- and a luncheon at the palace of Majed's uncle, Sheik Mubarak Al-Sabah. This sheik was also in a dishdasha, but he'd accessorized with a 60-carat diamond ring -- which Stella McCartney asked to try on. "I can't believe he wanted it back!" she wailed. "I thought that in this country, if you asked for something, they'd let you keep it."

An endless fleet of BMW series 7s carried everyone to the weekend's main event, a late-night party in Kuwait City's "warehouse district." Though there were no cocktails served, as per Islamic law, it could easily have been a night at Lotus. A Parisian D.J. spun trance music, and the place was given a mod makeover by Wink, the branding arm of Wallpaper* magazine. But toward 4 a.m., as the crowd started to disperse, a couple of male publicists approached some of the more fashionable sheiks about what to do next. "Which," asked one, "is the cruisey souk?"


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