Once ranked as the fourth best shopping city in the world in a survey by CNN Travel (2012), Kuala Lumpur’s appeal lies in its rich diversity of retail options within spacious malls, all just minutes apart from one another. Today's trendiest shopping belt is Bukit Bintang, aka Bintang Walk, located in the heart of the city’s Golden Triangle. Once a red-light district that offers some of the best street food, the busy thoroughfare is now home to upscale malls and luxe fashion boutiques with a busy boardwalk that sees foot traffic of 50 million people annually.
Tan Sri Francis Yeoh, executive chairman of YTL Corp, attributes KL’s popularity as a shopping destination mainly to removing import tax on branded goods. If you compare the prices of imported goods, they are just as competitive as those in Singapore and the region. “In 1999, we persuaded the government to do two things: Remove the 40% duty on branded goods and build a boardwalk like Champs-Élysées to connect the malls. We managed to get both done in a few months, and now Bukit Bintang is a thriving shopping destination for locals and foreigners,” says Yeoh.
A Malaysian infrastructure conglomerate with a diverse portfolio of businesses, YTL manages prominent buildings along Bintang Walk, such as The Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott Kuala Lumpur, Lot 10 and The Starhill. Singapore-listed Starhill Global REIT owns the latter. Yeoh affectionately calls the mid-sized mall “the living room” of the district simply because of its relaxing and calming environment amidst the maddening traffic outside. If you head down to the ground floor, there is an actual neoclassical living room in the middle of the atrium, much like a hotel lobby lounge, that invites guests to sit back and enjoy afternoon tea.
The living room of KL
Despite being smaller than its neighbours, with only 300,000 sq ft of retail floor space, you don’t feel crammed in or claustrophobic at The Starhill. There is a deliberate attempt to keep tenants to a minimum with plenty of floor space for exploration. Here, you enjoy experiential retail in a warm boutique environment that exudes a home-like sense of place.
With car park access on every floor, plenty of privacy is offered here, so it’s not unusual to find the city’s rich and famous discreetly walking the corridors here. The only noise you’ll ever encounter is outside at the mall’s piazza or entrance foyer, where a variety of mall activations like pop-up stores, brand showcases and launches by tenants, as well as knowledge-sharing talks and workshops.
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Once known as Starhill Gallery, the mall underwent a massive two-year transformation and reopened in 2019 with a new identity as The Starhill, as well as a hybrid concept that seamlessly infuses hospitality into the retail experience. Today the seven-storey integrated development features four floors of refurbished retail space, while the former retail floors on the top three levels have been converted into three floors of hotel space with 160 new rooms belonging to JW Marriott.
“The Starhill’s success is built on our meticulous curation of unique labels and concept stores that are one-of-its-kind in Malaysia. Our focus is to offer a holistic experience that goes beyond retail and dining, encapsulated in an intimate space with a sense of familiarity where patrons can escape from the hustle and bustle of the city,” says Joseph Yeoh, son of Tan Fri Frances, and VP of YTL Land & Development.
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Unique labels and concept stores
Positioned as the “Home of the Tastemakers”, The Starhill cements its place at the epicentre of Bukit Bintang as the definitive lifestyle destination for discerning urbanites and travellers to enjoy a host of unique labels and concept stores that you cannot find anywhere else in the district. Not only is it home to the only Louis Vuitton store on the strip, but this is also the only place you will find international brands like Balmain, Tom Ford, Roberto Cavalli, Audemars Piguet, Off-White and Philipp Plein. Well-known Asian labels like Shiatzy Chen and Ivan Young have also opened their first Southeast Asian outpost in this mall.
Beauty enthusiasts should check out Trove, which offers unusual cult fragrances and salon-grade skincare. It also manages KL’s only Ambassade Biologique Recherche salon on the same floor, offering bespoke face and body treatments using the famous Parisian skincare brand. For gentlemen looking for a beard trim, bespoke suit or slimming treatment, Apollo Men’s Wellness Centre is an all-encompassing salon managed by medical doctors that cater to the diverse needs of men.
The spirit aficionado will find The Chamber a great place to explore rare whiskies and other popular spirits. Here, members get preferential rates, drink tastings, and exclusive access to the store’s private drinking chambers. If you are more of a cocktail person, Alchemy is a light bar on the mall’s dining floor, serving a revolving menu of gin-based libations.
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For dining options, I highly recommend Luk Yu Tea House, which offers a halal menu of Cantonese delights; Okaju for its impressive robatayaki omakase set in a chic cavernous dining space; and Tarbush Restaurant, which serves Turkish favourites and shisha on demand.
The reading room
Completing the mix is the arrival of the anchor tenant, Taiwanese lifestyle chain, eslite spectrum, which opened its doors to an overwhelming 50,000 visitors on the weekend of Dec 17 last year. The megastore with a lifestyle library concept takes up the entire floor on level one. Covering 70,000 sq ft of floor space, this is the first eslite outlet to enter Southeast Asia.
Expansive, charming and cosy, eslite spectrum looks out to the street and the mall’s inner atrium, including JW Marriot’s three new floors of hotel rooms. The bookstore has direct escalator access from the mall’s main entrance, but there are various other ways to enter the store from the inside. Depending on where you walk in, you might find yourself starting from the Expo Select section, which showcases design-led Taiwanese brands; the eslite gallery showcasing an artist of the moment; or the Floating Cities marketplace of curated designer wear, bags, skincare, aromatherapy, candles, jewellery, and other lifestyle goods.
To complete the experience, eslite spectrum invites the customer to sit back and relax over coffee and light eats at its F&B offerings, which include celebrated Taiwanese coffee chain Come True Coffee; Espresso Bar by Korean coffee brand Bean Brothers; and Malaysian homegrown brand the Messengers by JWC, known for its dedication in nurturing coffee professionals and bartenders.
“Eslite spectrum epitomises the discerning taste of a true Tastemaker, a seasoned retail player who has constantly set new benchmarks and delivered a slew of first-ever creative retail concepts and experiences. They are a match made in heaven for The Starhill’s plan to create KL’s ultimate premium social destination for all to celebrate literature, the arts, fashion, design, music, food and creative events,” says Joseph.
An iconic multi-dimensional retailer that created the world’s first 24-hour bookstore, eslite (pronounced ‘elite’) was founded in 1989 with the concept of “books and everything in between”, offering a place for people to experience arts and culture in a myriad of forms. It boasts 48 points of sale around Taiwan and also in Hong Kong, mainland China and Japan, with 3.3 million members globally. The stores report 200 million unique customer visits annually, many of whom come for not just the books, but also year-round arts and culture activities that include 5,000 lectures, themed exhibitions and musical performances.
Eslite’s cult status is so well-documented that Time Magazine and CNN have dubbed it "Asia's Best Bookstore" and “World’s Coolest Bookstore”, respectively, while eslite spectrum Songyan in Taipei was named among the “14 Coolest department stores in the world” by CNN. Considered the complete store in terms of offerings, Songyan has an added art gallery and wine cellar and is very near eslite Hotel, which opened in 2015.
Every eslite outlet looks different from the next and offers different attractions, but one thing they all share is the desire to become a cultural venue that integrates reading, sharing, and a place for peace and relaxation. For Mercy Wu, chairperson of eslite Group and the daughter of late founder Robert Wu, the need for humanity and close connections are essential pillars of the brand. “Our core values lie in the desire to integrate the humanities, arts and creativity into life and the importance of venues with the spirit of the place. Through the interaction of space, activities and people, eslite hopes to create the possibility of people encountering their spirit within its spaces,” she says.
Her hope for bringing eslite into KL is to promote exchanges and interactions across cultures, create more opportunities for cross-regional dialogue between Taiwanese and Malaysian writers and their works, and present readers with novel reading perspectives. “Malaysia is an exciting country, with its characteristic design aesthetics and cultural creativity, and we look forward to integrating Southeast Asia's multi-ethnic and cross-cultural characteristics and inspiring, exciting diversified creativity in our store.”
Eslite spectrum, brought to life by Taiwanese architect Powen Ho, greets the customer with a 60-metre statement wall of red brick arches — a unique design element seen in all of eslite’s branches. The scale of the book display area at this branch will approach that of eslite Dunnan in Taiwan, offering a broad selection of 160,000 books and magazines in Chinese, English and Malay. Books here are unsealed to encourage reading at appointed reading rooms or in cosy nooks. There is also a Children’s Zone specially designed for parent-child experiences. Wu says eslite spectrum will carry more humanities and social sciences books than fiction and non-fiction titles. This will also be the first outlet to carry only 40% Chinese titles, given the multicultural demographic in KL.
Aside from books, there will be more than 100 stationery brands from Europe, the US, and Japan; a luxury gift-wrapping zone; and an eslite writing boutique that resembles an urban speakeasy bar offering unique stationery items from 36 countries. At various times, there will be talks by famous writers and book exhibitions on different themes at the “eslite forum” — a perfect space for lectures, concerts, and movie viewing. If all goes well, book lovers may also enjoy late-night bookstore-browsing if eslite spectrum extends its weekend shopping hours to emulate its 24-hour concept in Taiwan.
Given the global decline of book reading and brick-and-mortar experiences, will eslite spectrum succeed in KL? Wu insists that there are multiple entry points to enjoying your time at any eslite store, whether picking up a good book, shopping for gifts, or meeting friends for coffee and dessert. “You don’t have to have a sense of purpose to come to eslite. You can wander around, and who knows, you might discover something surprising,” she says.
Wu also accepts that digitalisation is a necessary evil in the book business, which is why eslite spectrum was created in 2010 as an omnichannel platform for creative commerce. The company is also working towards building a more seamless e-commerce platform to facilitate smoother book transactions online. “It's a bit paradoxical because our brick-and-mortar stores emphasise the spirit of the place, and the tempo is slow, but websites are purely about fast deals and discounts. We are learning how to strike this balance daily and integrate the offline with the online,” adds Wu.