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Hotel Couture from Christian Lacroix

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.

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