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The Original Boutique Hotels

The onetime horse breeder owes the jump-starting of his second career to Grace Leo-Andrieu, the powerhouse whose company manages the Montalembert, and who stuck her neck out by tapping him to remake it. And, if not nearly as famous as Philippe Starck, Liaigre is these days nonetheless considered money in the bank by hoteliers, having gone on to design the Mercer Hotel in New York and Club Med Bora Bora.

But no hotel can stand still, Leo-Andrieu believes, not even one as iconic as the Montalembert. Last year it came off a "lifting" (as the French call cosmetic facial surgery) that is clearly not the work of the hotel's original creator, who (having become a certified star) had already begun publicly complaining years before about wayward elements creeping into the place without his approval. Recent changes were made by a team directed with a firm hand by Leo-Andrieu. Discreet pin-striped bedcovers replaced the bold awning-striped ones that caused such a stir when the hotel opened. Slender chrome bedside lamps gave way to a bronze model with an undulating base. Blackout curtains in mock grosgrain are now fronted with crinkled linen panels—a soft, romantic improvement. One of the hotel's great innovations was to offer contemporary rooms alongside others filled with Louis-Philippe furniture. The mix endures. The gimmick in the new restaurant is to have dishes in two sizes: "dégustation" and "gourmet."

Such is the mystique of the Montalembert that people with the means to stay in any Paris hotel continue to choose it. Their loyalty has something to do with the service, which is crisply professional. Hundreds of copycat properties from Melbourne to Milwaukee were inspired by the Montalembert, whose look isn't nearly as sharp and focused as it once was. But no one seems to mind. 3 Rue de Montalembert, Seventh Arr.; 800/323-7500 or 33-1/45-49-68-68; www.montalembert.com; doubles from $330.

HOTEL MONTALEMBERT
THE LOOK Compromised Liaigre
THE SCENE Francophiles, shoppers
THE SECRET WEAPON Croissants from Gérard Mulot
THE DIRTY SECRET Rickety furniture
BEST ROOMS Top floor
THE VERDICT Future assured

GREAT MOMENTS IN DESIGN-HOTEL HISTORY
(Not All of Which Involve Leonardo DiCaprio)

1980 Studio 54's Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell sentenced to prison for tax evasion. They serve a year, exploring design challenges of minimalist, confined, dimly lit spaces.
1981 The design-hotel saga begins: Anouska Hempel opens Blakes London. Traveling celebrities everywhere rejoice.
1981 Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants founded: first boutique-hotel chain. Mini-bars stocked with "intimacy kits" soon follow.
1984 In New York, Ian Schrager begins his new career as a hotelier, opening Morgans (minimalist, confined, dimly lit).
1985 Fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier lunches at Blakes for the first time. Returns for the next 18 years.
1988 The Royalton cuts its Philippe Starck-designed ribbon in New York. Mind the sharp edges.
1990 Hotel goddess Grace Leo-Andrieu refurbishes the 1920's Hôtel Montalembert, Paris.
1991 Historic Marlin hotel in Miami Beach reopens as first Island Outpost property—Chris Blackwell's maiden hospitality venture.
1993 Design Hotels, a consortium of stylish properties around the world, founded to "provide modern travelers with an alternative to the optimized norm, bringing creativity, style, and individuality into the experience." Sadly, such rampant individuality soon makes everything start to look alike.
1993 The Hempel, Anouska Hempel's posh minimalist property in the not-so-posh Bayswater section of London, opens, drawing such revelers as Elton John and Valentino.
1993 Joie de Vivre Hospitality, a San Francisco-based boutique group, makes its design-hotel debut with the Nob Hill Lambourne.
1995 Is the design hotel over?Leonardo DiCaprio interviewed at Royalton by New York Times reporter.
1997 Yes, it's over: Duran Duran holds court at Blakes. For two months.
1998 Maxim sends reporters to hip New York spots—including the Royalton and Morgans bars—to see whether life is better as celebrities live it. (It is, though the Maxim guys still can't get the girls.)
1998 Leonardo DiCaprio and his posse allegedly brawl with posse-deficient ex-actor Roger Wilson at Asia de Cuba, the Morgans' restaurant. A $45 million lawsuit results; at issue, in part, is whether DiCaprio "had the hots for Elizabeth Berkley."
1998 Starwood opens first W hotel. Within five years, 16 more open in North America.
1999 A boutique-hotel moment: Elizabeth Hurley inhales oxygen from canister during interview with reporter in room 007 at Blakes London.
1999 Book series on hip hotels called, well, Hip Hotels is launched.
2000 Schrager's Mondrian (opened in 1996 in L.A.) settles $1 million discrimination suit brought by nine minority employees who didn't "fit in" with the stark-white "atmosphere."
2000 Interior designer Christian Liaigre in dispute with Grace Leo-Andrieu. Paris police arrive at Leo-Andrieu's Bel-Ami and remove lamps Liaigre says were copies of his designs.
2001 Under headline HEMPEL OF DOOM, London's Independent on Sunday claims Anouska Hempel "has been ousted from her temple of minimalism." Hempel sells the Hempel.
2001 Royalton's entrance given cameo in Vanilla Sky, starring Tom Cruise.
2002 The Washington Post declares the end of the boutique hotel. Nevertheless, in 2002 and 2003, from San Diego to South Beach to Times Square, eight boutique hotels—apparently owned and operated by people who missed that article—open around the United States.
—Hillary Geronemus

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