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Hotel Couture from Christian Lacroix

Brand extension and profit growth are other obvious motives. And since, by definition, fashion is about the stampeding herd, Bulgari chief executive officer Francesco Trapani speaks for many of his colleagues when he explains why he's going into the hotel business: "To increase sales, to enhance the glamour of the brand, to be a PR machine," he says. "In lodging, the brand is becoming more important. You're happier if you're able to say, 'I went to a name that's considered prestigious.'"

Nuns once lived in a convent on the site of Bulgari's first hotel, near the shopping mecca of Via Montenapoleone in Milan. Though the sisters are gone, the building still feels cloistered—muted, restrained, yet catholic in its universal elegance. It's also rich—very rich, as befits a hotel where rooms will start at $675 a night. Being expensivenever hurt Bulgari's reputation, or its business.

The Bulgari Hotel is also incredibly seductive. Done in dark Zimbabwe marble and black leather, its lobby and rooms are overtly masculine—while the atmosphere is nurturing and feminine. The basement spa, with Vicenza stone and Turkish Afyon marble, has a gold mosaic lap pool at its center. The ground-floor restaurant and bar face a massive garden. All 52 guest rooms have jewel vault-thick doors and graphic punch, for example a travertine freestanding tub separated from the bed by a gold mesh screen. Everything down to the natural sponges in the bathrooms was chosen by architect Antonio Citterio. Even the hangers (with logos) are custom-made. But Trapani also knows when to let go. He chose to partner with Marriott and use the keen management skills of its Ritz-Carlton subsidiary, because, as he says, "We could not afford to be unsuccessful."

Not that any fashion eminence would accept that as a possibility. Most fashion designers believe they know not only what people want, but also how to give it to them better than anyone else. Some designers, however, became hoteliers simply because they couldn't get what they desired. Take Krizia's Aldo Pinto and his designing wife, Mariuccia Mandelli, who were unable to secure a room at their favorite inn on Barbuda one Christmas. The solution?They bought a six-room compound "for the cost of an apartment in Milan," Pinto says. Then the itch to make it perfect kicked in. Some $50 million later, they owned 260 acres and a 23-cottage resort on two-and-a-half miles of beachfront property. "It was love, not business," admits Mandelli, who calls her hotel "a very crazy adventure." Would she ever open another hotel?"No!" she cries. Although she goes to the K Club every December, all she does there is work, she says.

Most guests at Albergo delle Notarie do the same; 40 percent of them come to Reggio Emilia (known for its churches and hearty provincial cuisine) to work with MaxMara. Albergo delle Notarie is a rustic, unpretentious place with a friendly staff. The Maramottis, who own MaxMara, first planned to build apartments in their palazzo in central Reggio. When workers uncovered the 13th-century loggia where the town's notaries put their seals to business deals, the family decided that "the building was so interesting, it seemed a pity to break it up," Luigi Maramotti says. "Also, our business was expanding—people were coming here from all over the world—and there was no hotel that was suitable for them. It sounds romantic and I am not, but it seemed nice to have something with good taste that told a little story about a small city and its part in the richness of Italy. There's no marketing here."

But there is ego.

Unlike Trapani at Bulgari, Maramotti is skeptical of the contribution hotels can make. "Everyone's desperate for brand stretching," he says. "You can't just attach values. You have to create them. Consumers are not fools. It's about how long it takes to get breakfast to your room—not lifestyle. Lifestyle is just a first impression."

Lifestyle can be segmented, however, and that's what the Ferragamos have done in Florence, where their hotels are almost as visible as their billboards. Lungarno Hotels, a nine-year-old subsidiary run separately from the fashion empire, has hedged its bets in a way the label has not. Two of its four hotels are relentlessly modern. The family also owns the Hotel Lungarno, which is as comfortable and classic as a pair of Ferragamo shoes. Although they recently opened Lungarno Details, a store selling furniture and accessories used in the hotels, Leonardo Ferragamo insists they're neither extending their brand nor creating a new one: "You need success because of substance, not branding. Branding can reassure—it doesn't drive the business."

If a hotel doesn't work, it can hurt the brand. Ferragamo, however, won't admit to that possibility. "A fashion brand has to have a vision," he says, "a sense of beauty, of good taste, of lifestyle. If you are fine with that vision, why not extend it?"

Ferragamo's fashions are subtle and don't announce themselves. While not a brand statement, the group's Continentale hotel is all about making a statement. It's pretty, and there isn't a Ferragamo logo in the place, but it's still designed to a fault, demonstrating the fashionable folly of valuing form over function. The white-on-white lobby is a crowd-pleaser; a glass elevator furnished like a bedroom takes guests to an enclosed balcony with daybeds overlooking the Ponte Vecchio. My room—an all-white box set into a round medieval tower—was designed to make a visual mark, with twin beds draped in veils, a surfeit of gadgets, a desk masquerading as a trunk, and a bathroom as dangerous as it is beautiful: you wouldn't want to slip in the tub (made from sharp-edged slabs of DuPont Corian), and woe unto anyone putting in contact lenses at the sink. Instead of a stopper, a heavy Corian board protects the always-open drain.

Instead of trying to extend its brand, the Benetton family invests strategically; its holding company owns a big share of the privatized Italian highway system (as well as the Autogrills that serve them), plus other food, agricultural, and telecommunications firms. Their two hotels in Italy are just another moneymaking opportunity for the Benettons, who have hired professional managers because this business "is too far from the DNA of Benetton," according to Luciano Benetton, co-founder of his family's fashion dynasty. That hasn't stopped the family from getting involved aesthetically. Though no connections, overt or covert, are made to Benetton fashions anywhere in its two hotels, both are mass-market products positioning themselves above their real station on the luxury ladder.


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