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Puttin’ on the Ritz

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Photo: Andrea Fazzari

Abstemious and feeling left out?Darjeeling is poured at the Ritz 10 days after harvesting. If your kids are not already brats, lacquered baskets filled with certified-green goodies—a stuffed animal, Bomford baby balm, cotton PJ’s—are not going to get them in line. Last year the hotel had the good idea of holding a competition for a new floral designer, though unfortunately I don’t think they got the right guy. Djordje Varda, self-taught and from Serbia, is very talented, and I believe he believes in what he is doing. But his spidery, vertical, nose-thumbing compositions are frankly a little scary, and they declare war on a house style that—if you plow through the pastiche and reproductions of reproductions—champions the decorative idioms to which a succession of Louis lent their names. Clumps of catnip, with their turf, posed directly on the odd antique, a marble-topped commode?You could be dreaming. Except you’re not.

While pretending that their own innovations and wonderful occupancy rates keep them too busy to notice, the Ritz’s rivals in the so-called palace hotel category spend a lot of time tracking such developments, reading them as if they were tea leaves. (Sometimes a crumb of turf is a crumb of turf.) For years the number of Paris palace hotels—an unofficial designation, which the French fetishize but which means little to me and you—was stalled at five, not counting the Ritz: the George V, the Crillon, the Plaza-Athénée, the Meurice, and the Bristol. The Ritz had it easy. If it worried at all, it was about these institutions.

The stakes were raised in 1999 when the George V was reborn and rebranded as a brilliantly polished Four Seasons. It continues to take a big bite out of the Ritz’s business—specifically, its American business (Ritz customers are faithful, up to a point). Three years later, the Park Hyatt opened up the block. Humbled by the reaction to all those disturbing Christ-like bronzes commissioned by designer Ed Tuttle, the Hyatt is less insistent on referring to itself as Paris’s first modern palace hotel than it was when it launched. In late 2006, Fouquet’s Barrière bowed noisily on the Champs-Élysées, calling itself the best this and the best that, though I honestly don’t think the Ritz has anything to worry about here. Just for the hotel, Jacques Garcia, a decorator I normally like, coined a new style, High Tape-à-L’Oeil. One day I'm going to write a book: When Bad Hotels Happen to Good Designers. The Ritz will not get off so easy when Shangri-La and Mandarin

Oriental open branches, in 2009 and 2010, respectively. Located off Place du Trocadéro and with 118 rooms—many facing the Seine, a huge selling point—the Shangri-La Palais d’Iena has pedigree: it was built by Napoleon’s great-nephew, Prince Roland Bonaparte, in 1897. Didier Le Calvez has been poached from the George V to manage the Palais d’Iena, and Rochon, surprise, is the decorator. The designs of the 150-room Mandarin on the Ritz client are implicit in its location: around the corner from Place Vendôme, in an Art Deco town house at 247 Rue St.-Honoré.

Every time the Ritz looks down, someone else is biting its heels. The Bristol bought the bank next door to create 27 new rooms, which will come on line later this year and increase its inventory by a full 16 percent. The Plaza Athénée is sending guests out into Paris empowered with a “private concierge”: a GPS-equipped PDA loaded with an address book, cultural itineraries, and dictionaries. (A no-brainer, but then why didn’t the Ritz think of it?) Others of the Plaza’s attempts to distinguish itself are meaningless, unless you sleep with your security detail (the 5,382-square-foot Royal Suite is billed as the largest in the capital), or just plain silly ($35 “alco-mist” mojitos, served in spray bottles in the bar).

In the end the most serious threat to the Ritz may be the Crillon, which was purchased in late 2005 by Starwood Capital, the private real estate investment firm headed by Barry Sternlicht, the founder of Starwood Hotels & Resorts. The Crillon is poised to become a chain (a posh chain, anyway), with Paris as the flagship and projected outposts in London, Rome, and New York. To ensure that all the aesthetic cues it gives are the right ones, the Place de la Concorde landmark will undergo a redesign in 2008.

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