The first tip-off came upon my arrival: a pair of oversize Ming dynasty–inspired vases flanking the Belle Époque entry. This was, after all, the Shangri-La Hotel, Paris, the European debut of a five-star, Hong Kong–based hotel group. I’d half-expected to be welcomed by a phalanx of attendants in crisp mandarin-collared jackets, but what greeted me instead was a small swarm of doormen whose smart, dark uniforms matched the refinement of the surroundings. What was exotic, however, were their broad smiles and lighthearted demeanor. Could this be Paris?
The mantra of Shangri-La Hotels & Resorts—“To treat a stranger as one of our own”—flies in the face of the capable-but-cool attitude that has long characterized the city’s five-star properties. But in something of a white-gloved throw-down, no less than four Asia-based luxury groups have made their entrance onto the scene. Raffles Hotels & Resorts came first last fall with the reopening of Le Royal Monceau, featuring interiors by Philippe Starck. Shangri-La’s December 2010 opening was followed this summer by the Mandarin Oriental, Paris, with the Peninsula slated to join the pack in 2013.
Hotels, interiors, food, fashion: these days, Paris is taking many of its style cues from Asia. Old Shanghai was the inspiration for Louis Vuitton’s Spring 2011 ready-to-wear show, designed by Marc Jacobs and featuring hand-embroidered dresses in a cheongsam-like silhouette. At Givenchy’s Spring 2011 couture presentation, creative director Riccardo Tisci showed his collection exclusively on Asian models. Meanwhile, in canny recognition of the spending power of China’s newly minted millionaires, French luxury houses are even bringing Paris to the East. Hermès (which flew its own artisans to Shanghai last September for a seven-week demonstration on Huaihai Road) is now backing a new apparel and home-furnishings brand called Shang Xia, overseen by French-trained designer Jiang Qiong Er. And Cartier, the top luxury jeweler in China, recently released a limited-edition collection crafted from jade and diamonds.
Although the new yin-yang of Franco-Asian relations is increasingly apparent, at the Shangri-La, Paris, the influences remain understated. The staff is predominantly European, but their comportment (via extensive training) is decidedly Asian. It’s a subtle distinction, yet the result is service that feels genuinely welcoming: professional but never officious. While I was checking in, seated at the desk in my room with its panorama of the Left Bank, the guest-relations staffer poured me a cup of jasmine chun hao tea, the pot kept warm in a lacquered cozy. (She even dealt smoothly with a poorly designed spout that dribbled on the desktop and carpet.) Downstairs in Le Bar, a handsome space done up in Empire style, the drink I ordered had its roots in the East but was composed by a delightfully eager Frenchman practicing a cocktail version of ikebana. Ever so studiously he placed a blossom atop my Kowloon Delight, a concoction of vodka, ginger beer, umeshu liqueur, and kumbawa fruit.
The building that houses the Shangri-La, Paris, couldn’t be more French: an hôtel particulier near the Seine once owned by Napoleon Bonaparte’s grandnephew. Its position high on the Chaillot hill—and steps away from the Musée Guimet, whose Asian art holdings are unrivaled in Europe—means that nearly half the guest rooms have dazzling views of the Eiffel Tower. After four years of restoration, the hotel is appropriately grand and gilded, but also manages to seem warm and intimate. Paintings and ink drawings by Chen Yanning, Chu Teh-Chun, and Hung Hoi are displayed in the marble foyer and in the sitting rooms off the lobby. Groupings of celadon vases and vessels fill shallow niches lined in chinoiserie wallpaper in La Bauhinia, a restaurant crowned by a vast skylight and an equally impressive chandelier of Murano glass. Although Shang Palace, the hotel’s other fine-dining option, had yet to open during my visit, the buzz had been building for months; as the first haute Chinese hotel restaurant in Paris, it promises to further elevate the local perception of the cuisine with sophisticated variations on dim sum and roast duck.
If the Shangri-La, Paris, is an elegant madame, the Mandarin Oriental, Paris, is her younger, jazzier sister. Like the Shangri-La, the Mandarin Oriental is in a listed building, but the Art Deco lines immediately cue a more modern aesthetic. Its location, within the knot of high-end shopping on Rue St.-Honoré, can make for a livelier experience, although the leafy courtyard garden provides an antidote—not only to the hubbub of the street but to the flashiness of a lobby featuring fiber-optic lights and silky curtains with diamond-studded tiebacks.
The Asian notes here—delicate flower-petal sculptures as wall ornaments in the spa; plum-colored silk cushions and trimmings in guest rooms—are light and contemporary. The service is as calm and attentive as that at the Shangri-La. In the spa, discretion meets skill in equal measure: during my massage, the oh-so-polite therapist unerringly zeroed in on my meridians. (No doubt she was also expert at kneading muscles with warm bamboo sticks, another of the spa’s treatments.) A cup of tea and a delicate, diminutive cake were the rewards for such divine subjection.
Ironically, the hotel most overtly Asian in style is one envisioned by a Lebanese decorator now based in London and affiliated with Relais & Châteaux. Hôtel Daniel Paris represents a full-blown fantasy of Orientalism. With Chinese porcelains and Hotan carpets, Orientalist verre églomisé panels, Chinese hand-painted wallpaper produced by de Gournay, and toile de Jouy fabrics with chinoiserie motifs, interior designer Tarfa Salam turned a Haussmannian structure into a masterful celebration of the classically exotic.
Hôtel Daniel is the latest example of France’s long love affair with chinoiserie, a decorative form championed in the 17th century by Louis XIV (he built a retreat called the Trianon de Porcelaine for his mistress Madame de Montespan). The style was further celebrated by Louis XV and his mistress Madame de Pompadour; they became passionate sponsors of the Sèvres porcelain factory, which produced ornate pieces such as ormolu-mounted vases. Today it turns up all over Paris—in the mid-18th-century Salon Chinois at the Musée Carnavalet, as well as at another more astonishing Chinese room in Victor Hugo’s former residence on the Place des Vosges. Amid the expanse of limestone façades, it’s startling to come across La Pagode, a landmark 1895 movie house that still screens an eclectic range of films, or C.T. Loo & Cie, a gallery in a red Mandarin-style pagoda. At Ladurée’s Rue Bonaparte location, those in the know head past the lines at the macaron counter up front for a break in its salon de thé, tucked in the back and featuring bamboo motifs and showy peacocks on the walls.
It makes sense that the strong-est links between Paris and China would involve decoration and, quite literally, taste. Parisians respect the depth of knowledge of tea master Madame Yu Hui Tseng, not to mention her temerity in requesting that customers not wear perfume in the tasting room of her shop, La Maison des Trois Thés. And lately, they compete to secure one of 20 seats at the Michelin-starred Yam’Tcha (“drink tea” in Cantonese), where chef Adeline Grattard’s inventiveness and skill with a wok is complemented by a menu of teas selected by her husband, Chi Wah Chan. They sing the praises of Jacques Genin’s extraordinary chocolates, including those featuring Thé Toi (wu long tea) and Sichuan-pepper ganache, sold at his chic boutique in the Marais. In an age of increasing globalization, such evocative details prove the staying power of Paris’s stylistic connection to Asia—even if the red carpet now goes both ways.