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Fontainebleau Hotel’s Extreme Makeover

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Photo: Paul Costello

On an evening of deranged opulence in Miami Beach, the Fontainebleau—the iconic hotel that heralded a new order of glamour when it opened in 1954 with such guests as Walter Winchell and the mayor of Fontainebleau, France—is relaunching itself with the cheesecake semiotics of a Victoria’s Secret fashion show (broadcast last December on CBS). At a hotel where women once dressed for dinner in furs and diamonds, Heidi Klum struts a runway in bra, panties, and three-foot-tall wings, sashaying past Usher, who’s doing a post–Sammy Davis Jr. number in a bowler hat and vest.

The following evening, Mariah Carey and Terrence Howard perform for a crowd that includes Kate Hudson, Martha Stewart, and Gwyneth Paltrow. George Hamilton and Deborah Harry greet one another as if they’re long-lost friends in the great American fame club. The $10 million opening weekend wraps up with Miami Beach boy (and Rush Hour director) Brett Ratner helping to install the Fontainebleau’s first mezuzah, at the front entrance, accomplished with a local rabbi given to a celebrity clientele.

The opening festivities and the hotel itself are as close to the overloaded social gestalt of Las Vegas as Miami has ever come. As it happens, the Fontainebleau was acquired in 2005 by Miami developer Jeffrey Soffer, who’s also responsible for the 3,800-room Fontainebleau casino hotel in Las Vegas, scheduled to open later this year. Soffer dropped a cool billion dollars on the Miami Beach Fontainebleau, and the hotel, like Vegas itself, is a mix of low party culture (pounding house music, bouncers, and velvet ropes guarding the lobby on weekends) and high art, beginning with an exquisite James Turrell light sculpture behind the reservations desk. Everything is infused with glitz—constantly changing colored lights under the floor of the Bleau Bar in the lobby, spectacular chandeliers created by artist Ai Weiwei—and sex: the Fontainebleau’s campaign of Vegas-like ads with nearly nude models in poses of sensual abandonment is carried out in real life throughout the property, with topless sunbathing and the like.

The new LIV nightclub—situated within the former La Ronde supper club, where Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack would dazzle all the high rollers back in the day—is an obvious nod to the wayward-starlet slice of the nightlife market, and the Fontainebleau is playing that game with lots of money and celebrity wranglers. South Beach has been a Florida outpost of Vegas for years—and many hotels have become free-form nightclubs—but the Fontainebleau has used its power to orchestrate that something-is-about-to-break-loose illusion of Sin City: Paris Hilton, assorted young models, and controversial Bill Clinton confidante Ron Burkle making a splash in LIV; Jay-Z and Beyoncé suddenly turning up in Blade Sushi Bar for a Tory Burch dinner.

Curiously, the iconography of the long-dead Rat Pack is still the hotel’s most potent marketing lure; even Solo, the resort’s coffee and pastry shop, is decorated with black-and-white stills of Sinatra at the Fontainebleau. Miami Beach was home to the Rat Pack in its early days as well as a slew of illegal gambling clubs, and the Fontainebleau invented the modern Las Vegas theme-park-à-go-go resort hotel model. Steve Wynn spent time there in the 1950’s, when his hotel-as-theater concept began percolating, and places like Caesars Palace obviously learned from the big showroom, curved walls, and thematic exuberance.

Fontainebleau Las Vegas, styled after—a long way after—the aesthetic of original Fontainebleau architect Morris Lapidus, brings it all full circle and has ratcheted up the Vegas sweepstakes. And Soffer has reeled in the ultimate Vegas whale, Nakheel (a real estate arm of Dubai World), which has bought a 50 percent share in the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach and, of course, plans to open a Fontainebleau in Dubai. Ironically, the Delano, the hotel that launched South Beach’s second coming in 1995 and eclipsed the Fontainebleau overnight, is also opening an outpost in Dubai.

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