When fashion designers lend their name and talent to a hotel brand, the resulting style becomes a marketing tool with varying degrees of success or failure. Mark C. O'Flaherty considers the trend for collaboration between couture and hotel design.
When Palazzo Versace opened on Australia's Gold Coast in 2000, it represented a radical new look and business model for the luxury hospitality industry.
For the previous 25 years, New Yorker Ian Schrager had taken the boutique hotel format, perfected by Anouska Hempel - who opened Blake's in London in 1978 - and had huge success, reinterpreting it with a night-club sheen as a string of properties that would be seen as successors to his defunct Studio 54.
Hotels were the new discos. Rooms were tiny, but lobbies designed by Philippe Starck were extravagant, geared towards double-page magazine spreads and after-show events. Predictably, the novelty wore off. Starck interiors no longer looked like the freshest, most radical thing on the block and paying customers tired of being forced to take the rear elevator to their rooms while gauche hip-hop stars partied behind velvet ropes in the bar. From the turn of the millennium, fashion hotels would seize Schrager's baton.
Palazzo Versace took the existing concept of fashion designers lending their names to suites in grand hotels one giant step further. Designers would no longer merely be commissioned to dress a single set of rooms in the penthouse at the top-of-the-rack rate. Instead they would go on the payroll of major hotel companies to create whole new brands.
Just as Starwood fashioned its foil to independent Manhattan hoteliers Schrager, André Balazs and Jason Pomeranc by rolling out its urban-hip W brand, so Rezidor - the company behind Radisson - would get into bed with the Missoni family to put their name to a chain of hotels, and Dubai-based Emaar Hospitality would sign Giorgio Armani to do the same.
According to Emaar Hospitality's chief executive Marc Dardenne: "It's full steam ahead. We are maximising our assets. We opened in Dubai in April and we are about to open in Milan. We are making the address international and creating a global, five-star, lifestyle brand. Potential owners have responded very positively to the new brand." Having an internationally recognised designer put their name to a hotel is nothing if not a stroke of marketing genius. Giorgio Armani has a press and marketing value you can't put a price on.
When the second Hotel Missoni opened this summer, it was in Kuwait. "Our first hotel was in Edinburgh," says hotel chain owner Rosita Missoni. "It's a European, cultural, historical city. The new hotel is more of a resort. I wanted a more Arabian feeling. And just as with creating a fashion collection, there's always a starting point. With this, it was with a striped swimming pool."
The hotel is certainly spectacular and a sleek paradigm of the kaleidoscopic Missoni style, but it's doubtful that many from the fashion circuit will ever be swimming in its pool. At the grand opening party Rosita Missoni and her family held court while the bar served alcohol-free cocktails. No champagne corks popped. Kuwait is a purely business destination and the Hotel Missoni is Rezidor's guarantee of having the number-one hotel in the country.
Similarly, by drafting in Maison Martin Margiela to reinvent the lobby, restaurant and several suites of the Hotel La Maison Champs Elysees in Paris this summer, its new owners - it was previously a Sofitel - have assured themselves of superlative press coverage that will keep even the plainer rooms full at premium rates.
Moschino, Bulgari and Camper have all aligned their brands with properties in the last few years, but it's Armani and Missoni who offer the most creatively dynamic and "on-brand" solutions for interiors. Armani launched a homewear range in the same year that the Palazzo Versace opened in Australia, and his fashion work is based around texture and palette - notably his celebrated greige tones - rather than silhouette. Missoni likewise. When Philip Treacy was drafted in to create the G Hotel in Galway in 2007, it was a more difficult fit. The result was vivid and plush, but it's harder - or at least a stretch - to translate an aesthetic of feathered fascinators into a set of bedrooms. As a brand, you can't roll it out.
Armani has spoken of the "subtlety rather than grandeur" he has been striving for when it comes to the style of his hotels, which is what a potentially regular visitor will want. His hotels are in business hubs, where the customer wants a luxe, yet restrained, environment rather than a quasi-religious experience from their bed linen.
Talking about his designs for the new Sofitel So Resort in Mauritius, Kenzo Takada describes the style as "contemporary but soft, with a Zen aspect to it... simplicity with softness." Kenzo, again, is a perfect fit for hotels. The Paris-based Japanese designer eschews his Tokyo peers aggressive and dark aesthetic in favour of romance and nature, exactly what a five-star Indian Ocean resort needs.
He also has an acute understanding of the difference between a hotel and a dress with a six-month shelf life. "When I'm about to create a fashion collection," he says, "the decision to select a theme is based on my general feeling about the world at a certain moment, and for a short time. For a hotel, the thought process is not fleeting. When you go there, you need to feel the vibes of the place and the local culture, which is something timeless."
Some fashion hotels are flights of fancy. Kenzo cites Christian Lacroix as a fashion designer who has translated his aesthetic particularly successfully into hotels. The two Paris properties he art-directed - Hotel le Bellechasse and Hotel du Petit Moulin - are romantic four-star boltholes aimed more at the weekender aesthete than the businessman. They're ravishing but, at the same time, Lacroix's time-star has long faded. He's, quite literally, no longer in fashion. A menswear label bearing his name has reappeared for next spring, but he has nothing to do with it. When his couture house folded two years ago, it owed millions. Just as well then that no Christian Lacroix-branded hotel chain was ever slated. Fashion is a capricious beast. Armani, Missoni, Bulgari et al are tried-and-tested safe-bets and bigger brands than their namesakes. But consider how, less than a year ago, the idea of a John Galliano hotel may well have seemed like a truly excellent idea.
It's the nature of a specific brand, not an association with an abstract idea of the fashion industry, that is key to the success of a fashion hotel. Just as the term "designer" has been abused to the point of redundancy on the high street, it's a label and the label's style, rather than the trappings of fashion, that make for a lucrative hotel project. Credibility in fashion has a profound fragility and one misjudged diffusion line or franchise can kill a label.
It's interesting that the Al Habtoor Group, a UAE-based company, has announced it will soon be creating the world's first generic "fashion hotel" in association with Fashion TV. It will feature a 100-metre exterior LED screen, broadcasting Fashion TV but, as far as reports go, no specific designer will have a hand in the look of the hotel. The project is risky. As the spectacular failure of the Fashion Café in 1998 - intended as a couture competitor to the Hard Rock and Planet Hollywood chains - confirmed, fashion as an abstract concept just isn't enough of a draw. Style needs substance.
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