Hotel Couture from Christian Lacroix

Hotel Couture from Christian Lacroix

Martyn Thompson
Martyn Thompson
These days, the biggest fashion statement for a designer is having a place to call his own. With everyone from Azzedine Alaïa to Giorgio Armani moonlighting as a hotelier, Michael Gross looks at how a luxury brand translates off the runway

Back in the mid eighties, Azzedine Alaïa, the diminutive Tunisian-born Parisian designer, made ultra-sexy dresses that defined a fashion moment. Then, as quickly as his star rose, it dimmed. Alaïa's genius—which created a clamoring cult of fans—was a double-edged blade. Notoriously difficult, Alaïa refused to show or ship his clothes according to anyone's schedule but his own, routinely offending powerful retailers and fashion editors. Wearying of his maverick perfectionism, which was dismissed as annoying perversity, many people wrote him off, and the articles and the orders for his avant-garde designs died down.

Nowadays, though, the world is again on his doorstep—literally. Thanks to an ethereal Italian editor turned entrepreneur, Alaïa is back in the vanguard, the latest fashion deity to open a hotel of his very own.

In 1991, former Italian Elle visionary Carla Sozzani founded 10 Corso Como, a 13,000-square-foot compound (bar, restaurant, store, gallery) arrayed around a leafy courtyard near Milan's Garibaldi Station. It soon became a magnet for style hounds from around the globe, helping to transform a once-gritty neighborhood into a vital destination. To the uninitiated, however, 10 Corso Como's relentless chic—everything is perfect, every shopper is perfect—can be as forbidding as Alaïa's moods, as difficult to fathom as his elastic dresses were for some women to wear.

Last spring, Sozzani designed and opened her first hotel at 10 Corso Como. Not that anyone would have known. Hidden behind a hedge so that its in-the-know habitués can come and go discreetly, 3 Rooms shares the spirit of Sozzani's former fashion label, No Name Studio. With no sign or advertising, and, as the moniker suggests, just three rooms, the bed-and-breakfast is as exclusive as it gets (even if Sozzani swears that anyone can snag a reservation).

Before the Milan location had even opened, Sozzani teamed up with her friend Alaïa to open a second 3 Rooms, in his complex in the Marais district of Paris. Like 10 Corso Como, it'smultifunctional, with two stores, a runway show space, and a couture atelier. Throughout the year that followed, their hotel's opening date was repeatedly set and delayed; Alaïa's press attaché sounded exasperated when I called in January to ask about it. "As we don't have a precise date, we say, 'Call back in two months'—hoping we will have some news," he said, punctuating this with a sound somewhere between a sigh and a snicker.

Like those women who once craved Alaïa's dresses, I would not be deterred. When I visited 3 Rooms Paris in February, however, the floors were littered with high-tech gadgets in boxes, furniture was wrapped in plastic, and no staff had been hired. In April, the place wasn't ready and the latest word on the opening was early July. Moreover, Alaïa had yet to move into his own new apartment in another part of the complex, even though it was finished months ago.

Clearly, Alaïa hasn't changed. Still obsessed with perfection, still devilishly difficult, he is again making his fans yearn for his nearly unattainable genius. And with Sozzani, he is setting out to create a hotel that, like his coveted clothing, may not be for everyone. Perverse?Absolutely. But hey, that's fashion.

The worlds of travel and fashion have long been linked—and not just because designers dabble in the business, decorating a hotel restaurant here, some flight attendant gear there. Guido Molinari, who owned a clothing factory in Carpi, Italy, near Modena, opened what was likely the first fashion hotel, in the 1950's. Forty years later, his daughter Anna, the brains behind the Blumarine label, reopened the 68-room Hotel Touring as a steel-and-aluminum-clad boutique property. Unlike her father—who simply wanted a place to put his clients up—Anna is part of something larger, a style trend that took off in Italy in the late eighties. That's when the MaxMara Group founded Albergo delle Notarie, a small hotel near the company's factories in Reggio Emilia. Soon after, Krizia's Mariuccia Mandelli and Aldo Pinto built the ritzy K Club on Barbuda, where the Princess of Wales was soon hiding in plain sight of the paparazzi. In the nineties, Miami's South Beach witnessed the opening of Diesel's wacky Pelican Hotel and Todd Oldham's The Hotel; photographer Fabrizio Ferri created Monastero on the remote, volcanic Italian island of Pantelleria; and the Salvatore Ferragamo family bought its first hotel,in the fashion house's hometown of Florence.

After the turn of the millennium, this steady trickle became a torrent. Donatella Versace licensed her name and loaned her yé-yé cachet to Australia's Palazzo Versace—a sort of Caesars Palace by the Sea. The Ferragamos now have four hotels in Florence. The ultra-luxe Bulgari chain has forged a partnership with Ritz-Carlton. The first Casa Camper hotels, from the Spanish shoemaker, are set to open soon in Barcelona and on Majorca. Cerruti 1881 and Brioni are getting in on the game. And in February, the trend was sanctified when the almighty Giorgio Armani announced that he would create a chain of 14 Armani hotels and resorts, backed by real estate investors from Dubai. The first eight will open in the next five years (Armani promises), most likely beginning with one in a skyscraper next door to the world's largest mall. Details, as they say, will follow, and rest assured that the famously micromanaging Armani will be watching over every last one of them.

So why hotels?"The two worlds are going to the same place," says Miguel Fluxà, whose family founded Camper. In other words, fashion people travel so frequently, they couldn't help but notice that hotels are invading their turf. Also, many designers think there are no limits on their talents. So why not hotels?

Leonardo Ferragamo calls the idea "extreme retailing." Fashion houses are constantly seeking ways to realize their visions of luxury lifestyles—think about the flagship stores that line Madison Avenue in New York City, London's Sloane Street, and Avenue Montaigne in Paris, where anyone can try on a designer's dream. Hotels let customers indulge in the fantasy by moving into rooms that are live-in ads for sheets and towels, home decorating fabrics and furniture, bath and beauty products.

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.

The Hotel Monaco & Grand Canal reminded me of a Benetton sweater I once owned that looked great on the shelf but didn't wear well at all. On the Grand Canal in Venice, it is a merger of a former hotel with a neighboring palazzo. The public spaces are stunning; the sweeping glass, stone, and steel lobby by architect Piero Lissoni is skylighted and studded with Le Corbusier lounge chairs. But as in so many boutique properties, once you go upstairs, things change.

What the 40 rooms in the original building lack in size they make up for with Murano glass lighting and incredible views of the canal. The 37 rooms in the palazzo do not have those compensations. Mine, though recently renovated, was tiny and thoughtlessly designed. The one telephone had a data port, but it was so far from the only available power outlet that I ended up crawling under wires stretched taut across the room. The lone outlet in the bathroom was hidden inside a cabinet. Three blocks away, an annex called Palazzo Selvadego offers 30 less-expensive rooms and suites with kitchenettes, their own concierge, and, on the upper floors, terraces with rooftop views. When I saw them, I wished I'd stayed there.

The Brioni Suite at Milan's Four Seasons Hotel is a brand extension without apology. Via Gesù, the street leading to the Four Seasons, could be called Via Brioni, so full is it with stores selling the company'sclothing. Oddly, the suite itself is even purer than Ferragamo's Continentale—it contains not a single Brioni product. It's just there to show "how Brioni interprets the sophisticated art of living well," says CEO Umberto Angeloni. The result: a handsome mix of colors and textures. Mahogany floors are carpeted with felt rugs; lamps are covered in Chinese paper; historical photos of the king and queen of Italy sit on the wenge wood bedside table; an antique notary's chair is upholstered in purple velvet.

Angeloni is deeply invested in working on more hotels. Brioni, founded in 1945, was named for an elite pre-World War II resort, the Brioni archipelago, a tiny string of islands off the Adriatic coast of Croatia, just south of Trieste. After the breakup of Yugoslavia, a new government began talking to Brioni about reviving the place. The fashion line is now rumored to be negotiating with Amanresorts and the Marbella Club to work on resorts there. Other fashion types may engage in "labeling exercises to increase profits and visibility," Angeloni boasts. "Brioni is different." He gently mocks his more ambitious colleagues, joking that it will lead to a fashion version of the Las Vegas Strip, with Calvin and Ralph presumably replacing Siegfried and Roy.

But names are everything in this business, and the slightest slipup might tarnish a name—which the Belgium-based hotel group Rezidor SAS Hospitality discovered when it licensed the Nino Cerruti name for a chain of hotels, with the first set to open in Brussels this summer.

Nino Cerruti used to be a high-end Italian designer; Rezidor wanted to run mid-priced hotels, claiming it could because Cerruti no longer owned his brand. But according to Cerruti, when he sold his company and the right to use his name on clothing, he didn't sell the right to use it on hotels. In fact, he'd specifically kept that privilege because he'd long wanted to open one himself. Now he has brought an action in French trademark court to stop the project. "I would like to see certain people in fashion working as night porters in hotels," the designer deadpans.

Despite its generic name, Milan's 3 Rooms is the designer hotel that—so far, at least—best delivers on fashion's promise to travelers. "It's the apartment I would have done for myself in a foreign city," Carla Sozzani says. "I designed it so you could really live and work there and not just fall asleep. Fashion people have an opinion on everything and believe they can do it better." In this case, she did. The moment I dropped my bags, 3 Rooms felt like home—albeit a home that had been transformed into a Pop design playground.

As in Milan, the new locationin Paris will be decorated with unique pieces of Pop furniture and art (by Marc Newson, Jean Prouvé, and Pierre Paulin), accented with up-to-the-minute gadgetry. And there's an added attraction not available in Milan: the suites will look across a courtyard directly into Alaïa's atelier, frequented by his friends Stephanie Seymour and Naomi Campbell.

Most of us don't often see sights like that, but Alaïa insists his hotel will not be some fortress of fashion. "It's not a typical hotel," he says. "It's an extension of my home. Those in fashion become pretentious and think they are king when in fact they are nothing at all. Luckily, fashion allows you to meet new people from other worlds. I want to host more guests and I want them to stay longer. It's an experiment, absolutely: to open my world, where you leave your mask outside and a baroness and a worker can eat at the same table."

If he ever opens his hotel, that is.

Guido Molinari, leader of the pack, opens a hotel in Carpi, Italy.

Flame-haired French designer Sonia Rykiel overhauls Paris's Hôtel de Crillon—down to the plates. Three years later she heads across the Seine to re-create the 1930's in the restaurant of the Hôtel Lutetia.

After falling in love with the tiny Italian village of Montegridolfo, Alberta Ferretti buys a ruined palace there. Within six years she cuts the ribbon on the restored Palazzo Viviani hotel, along with several stores and cafés.

Krizia owner Aldo Pinto and his wife buy a villa on the Caribbean island of Barbuda. Their holiday getaway eventually morphs into the K Club.

In an attempt to match the opulence of Louis XIV's Versailles, the house of Givenchy creates a spa at the nearby Trianon Palace hotel. Westin soon takes over, and Givenchy is out. But that doesn't stop them: Givenchy spas eventually open in Cannes and Mauritius.

Ralph Lauren packs up his polos and heads to Jamaica to help redecorate Round Hill. No wonder the classic resort claims it's as comfortable as "a cashmere sweater."

As if running Chanel, Fendi, and his own label weren't enough, Karl Lagerfeld—Germany's so-called Kaiser—revamps the Schlosshotel Vier Jahreszeiten, a castle-like hotel in Berlin. He keeps a private suite for himself, which is now available to paying guests.

Hipster jeans maker Diesel unveils the equally hip Pelican Hotel in a restored Art Deco shell on Miami's South Beach. Visiting rock stars and models make the scene in the lobby.

The Ferragamos open the Hotel Lungarno in Florence, the first of four hotel projects for the fashionable Italian family.

Die-hard New Yorker Donna Karan crosses the pond to outfit the staff at the Metropolitan in London; minimalist uniforms blend into minimalist setting.

Dominican-born Oscar de la Renta returns home to transform Punta Cana Resort & Club—and enlists his pal Julio Iglesias as a partner.

After taking over her late brother's company, Donatella Versace lends her family name—and plenty of gold, glamour, and glitz—to the Palazzo Versace on Australia's Gold Coast.

Giorgio Armani scores backing from investors in Dubai, where he will open the first of eight properties. Also this year, the bejeweled Bulgari makes a foray into the hotel business.
—Hillary Geronemus

3 Rooms
DOUBLES FROM $357. 10 CORSO COMO, MILAN; 39-02/626-163;

Hotel Touring
DOUBLES FROM $207. 1 VIALE D. DALLAI, CARPI, ITALY; 39-059/681-535;

Albergo delle Notarie

K Club

Pelican Hotel
DOUBLES FROM $135. 826 OCEAN DR., MIAMI BEACH; 800/773-5422 OR 305/673-3373;

The Hotel
DOUBLES FROM $165. 801 COLLINS AVE., MIAMI BEACH; 305/531-2222;


Palazzo Versace

Bulgari Hotel, Milano

Hotel Lungarno


Hotel Monaco & Grand Canal
DOUBLES FROM $520. 1332 SAN MARCO, VENICE; 39-041/520-0211;

Four Seasons Hotel Milano
DOUBLES FROM $690. 6-8 VIA GESU, MILAN; 800/332-3442 OR 39-02/77088;

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