As I speed down Sheikh Zayed Road, a perilous 12-lane highway that slices through the heart of Dubai, the view is a surreal spectacle of outlandish skyscrapers, each of which tries to outdo the other in cash, flash, and dash. It is a shameless show of unbridled ambition, a dizzying display of hubris and chutzpah that recalls the boomtown years of Miami and Manhattan, Houston and Las Vegas...Seoul and Shanghai. There is an unforgettable sequence of striking juxtapositions, of $400,000 Rolls-Royce Phantoms cruising confidently along the highway past sweating construction workers in dirty blue coveralls, who wait in packs by the side of the road for the buses that take them deep into the desert each night to the camps they call home.
Amid the visual cacophony, one tower stands high above the others—elegant, aloof, Oz-like. It is Burj Khalifa, and at 2,717 feet it is more than twice the height of the Empire State Building. Which, much to the glee of the powers that be in Dubai, makes it the tallest building in the world. One of the first tenants is the Armani Hotel Dubai, occupying the underground level through floor 8 and floors 38 and 39, and representing designer Giorgio Armani’s debut as a hotelier.
Some 10,000 fireworks helped mark the topping-off of the $1.5 billion reflective-glass tower designed by Adrian Smith of Chicago-based architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Originally named Burj Dubai, it was rechristened Burj Khalifa on opening night, in honor of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, the president of the United Arab Emirates and the emir of Abu Dhabi, the neighboring oil-rich emirate that came to Dubai’s 11th-hour rescue last November, when the emirate was unable to make payments for its $59 billion debt. A decade of profligate spending and impossible-to-sustain development had finally undone Dubai, as the flashy emirate had very publicly treated itself to posh trinkets (CityCenter, Las Vegas, $5.1 billion; Barneys New York, $942 million; the Queen Elizabeth 2, $100 million) and endless construction projects, including the $20 billion development Downtown Dubai, home to the Burj Khalifa. The 500 acres house a massive aquarium, an Olympic-size ice-skating rink, the $12.1 million Dubai Mall, the world’s largest indoor gold souk, a 30-acre man-made lake and, at the center of that lake, a kinetic $218 million fountain that shoots water more than 500 feet into the air while lights flash and Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli is heard singing an impassioned rendition of “Con te partirò.” It is being billed, in the hyperbolic spirit of Dubai, as “the most prestigious square kilometer on earth.”
“Downtown Dubai is our flagship project,” says Mohamed Ali Alabbar, who is chairman of the multibillion-dollar Dubai-based development company Emaar, which is responsible for the venture. “The jewel at the center of this neighborhood is Burj Khalifa, and Armani Hotel Dubai is a sterling value addition to the world’s tallest building.”
Wearing khaki trousers, white tennis shoes, and a navy-blue T-shirt, a relaxed and tanned Giorgio Armani strolls into the hotel’s ballroom to meet the press. It is April 27, the long-awaited opening of the Armani Hotel Dubai, and the designer is flanked by Alabbar and his ever-present interpreter. (Armani does not speak English.) Though Alabbar was educated in the United States, like most traditional Emirati men he is wearing a kandura, a white, ankle-length cotton garment, and a guthra, a white head scarf held in place by a black rope called an egal. Armani confirms that when first approached by Alabbar to design a hotel, he declined. “Dubai was described as a Las Vegas in the desert,” says Armani, who was not interested. But Alabbar’s charm and perseverance (not to mention deep pockets) ultimately prevailed. After two years of wooing and negotiating, Armani signed a contract with Emaar—for 10 hotels, resorts, and villas to be built over 10 years. “I wanted something not just for the present, but for beyond the present,” says Armani, who celebrated his 76th birthday in July. A reporter asks a question about the impact of the world financial crisis on the project. Alabbar is not only very cool but very crisp. “Cycles come and go,” he says, indulging in the luxury of the long view. “What you see here today is much better than what was originally designed,” he says, noting that at every stage of the project, the materials, furnishings, and finishes for the hotel were all upgraded, as per the ever-evolving specifications of “Mr. Armani.” In short, no corners were cut during the five-year process. There were, however, delays. At one point, there was an on-site riot by dissatisfied construction workers, who did substantial physical damage. Then, shortly after it opened last February, At the Top, the observation deck on the 124th floor of Burj Khalifa, closed for two months. It seems a group of sightseers got stuck in one of the elevators for 45 minutes. No one quite knew why. Finally, in April, just as the Armani Hotel Dubai was set to open, airborne ash from a volcano in Iceland caused air traffic to grind to a halt. The opening was postponed a week.
“What’s next?” one journalist wants to know, before we adjourn for a whirlwind tour of the hotel. Alabbar reports that an Armani Hotel is currently under construction in Milan, on Via Manzoni. This will be followed by the first Armani Resort, slated for Marrakesh. Then an Armani Residences/Villas, scheduled for the beach in Marassi, Egypt. Other destinations on the itinerary include New York City, Tokyo, Shanghai, and London.
Armani seems not a bit impressed by all the figures and facts being bandied about. But then, why would he be? According to Forbes, the designer’s net worth hovers at around $5 billion. He employs 5,000 people, owns 13 factories and 25 restaurants, and has more than 500 stores around the world. And he also owns, in addition to his custom-designed yacht, an impressive portfolio of personal real estate: a pied-à-terre in Paris; a penthouse in New York; houses in St.-Tropez, Antigua, and Italy (in Pantelleria, Broni, Forte dei Marmi, and, of course, his Peter Marino–designed home base in Milan).
As people familiar with Armani’s work know, the designer is a Modernist. Not a Modernist in the clichéd white-walls, chrome-and-black-leather-furniture sense of the word. But a Modernist with a penchant for streamlined furniture and restrained rooms. They all embody the rigorously understated elegance that is his signature. Armani came to the project with considerable experience in designing interiors and furniture. His Armani/Casa division now has more than 60 stores and outlets in 46 countries. Battalions of architects and designers under Armani’s watchful eye not only create the collections Armani/Casa introduces each season but also perform extensive design services for clients who want to live the complete Armani “lifestyle.”
The first thing you see when you walk in the front door of the hotel are four interlocking arches that rise almost 40 feet. Made of thick tubular steel with a bronze finish, the arches are inspired by regional architecture. They also form the symbol for Armani Hotel Dubai, which has been incorporated into the base of the glass-topped tables found in every room. As I glimpse the hotel, it’s clear Armani is partial to the 1930’s—not only to Jean-Michel Frank but also to a certain period in designer Eileen Gray’s remarkable career. He likes macassar ebony and black lacquer, vellum and parchment. One wall is leather, another is fabric, another is wood. Here and there you can spot a Japanese influence, from tatami mats to sliding shoji-like screens. The palette is all beiges and grays, coffees and cappuccinos, deep olives and pale seafoam greens. At times there is a hint of Art Deco, in the way a corner of a sofa or chair is rounded, the way a curve of a vanity is resolved. But always there is rigor to thwart any nascent inclination toward excess. Like the curvaceous Burj Khalifa itself, the walls in the guest rooms curve and bend, move and slide to give access to the bedroom, to the bathroom, to the walk-in closet. In my suite, there is a dining table with four straight-back chairs, and a dark-wood secretary inlaid with embossed black leather that looks a bit like shagreen. The dining area is separated from the living area by a chest-high bifold screen made of creamy fabric panels framed in ebonized wood. In the bathrooms, the floors are Eramosa stone. In each living room and bedroom, oversize sliding panels, framed in bronze, open to reveal a flat-screen TV that doubles as a computer monitor, thanks to a wireless keyboard. Another oversize panel conceals a butler’s station with an espresso machine, a well-stocked refrigerator, and drawers filled with Armani sweets. From the shampoo to the flatware, everything is stamped armani. Similarly, the flower arrangements in the guest rooms are the work of Armani/Fiori, which has a retail outpost in the lobby next to Armani/Dolci, which sells chocolates, jellies, sweets, and spreads. Also in the lobby is Armani/Galleria, which offers haute couture accessories from the Armani Privé collection. In addition to the hotel’s 160 rooms and suites, which range from $1,000 to $10,000 a night, plus a 20 percent tax, there are 144 one- and two-bedroom apartments in Burj Khalifa designed and furnished by Armani and measuring 1,000 to 2,000 square feet. According to one report, the apartments sell for $3,500 per square foot. The hotel also has eight in-house restaurants, all designed by Armani, along with a serene, 14,000-square-foot spa on the third floor, which opens to an outdoor swimming pool on the spa’s terrace.
In the hospitality industry, state-of-the-art style rings hollow if it is not accompanied by state-of-the-art service. So each guest at Armani Hotel Dubai is assigned what is called a “lifestyle manager,” someone who, in effect, acts as a full-time concierge and personal assistant. Before I even arrived in Dubai, my lifestyle manager contacted me by e-mail and telephone to make arrangements for transportation from the airport to the hotel, if I should want it—I did—and to apprise me of the numerous entertainment options in Dubai: from polo to downhill skiing, golf to watersports. She then followed up by having her supervisor, a senior lifestyle manager, greet me at the hotel entrance the moment I arrived from the airport in one of the hotel’s silver Range Rovers, escort me to my suite, explain the mechanized lighting, curtain, and computer systems, and make sure I was taken care of.
Would you like a wake-up call? Breakfast? What time? I hear the airline lost your luggage? If you give me the claim tickets, I will have your bags delivered to you tomorrow. Would you then like to have your clothes unpacked? Pressed?
And so it goes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Your lifestyle manager even has an assistant, who is up to the minute on your schedule, preferences, and needs. Meaning that you are never without support, if you want it. Some 600 employees from around the globe were aggressively recruited and meticulously trained, according to Pierre Lang, the hotel’s executive assistant manager of rooms and residences. And they are all, naturally, dressed in Armani. Young, enthusiastic, and cosmopolitan, and giving it their absolute all.
The last night of the press conference, Armani flies in a catwalkful of gazelle-like models who show off his ethereal spring/summer 2010 Privé collection on a luminous runway installed in the hotel’s concourse-level ballroom. At show’s end, Armani appears on the catwalk wearing a midnight-blue three-button suit with a matching tie and walks toward the photographers, smiling and waving, until he reaches Alabbar. Armani pulls Alabbar up onto the runway, and the two men lead their 500-plus guests out onto the hotel’s expansive terrace to view a water, light, and sound show put on by the Dubai Fountain. After that, it’s off to dinner in the hotel’s restaurants, followed by champagne at Armani/Privé, the bi-level club that has its own entrance on the ground floor of the tower. There is a resident DJ, and it is open to the public from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. It is not only prudent but also required to telephone ahead for a table reservation—although securing one of the seductively illuminated circular onyx-and-lacquer banquettes will set you back $820. The party is calm but festive, celebratory but not crazy. On the one hand, no one seems bored or blasé. On the other hand, no one gets drunk and falls into the fountain. There is plenty to look at, to remember. And the hotel is a refined beauty. The quality of the materials and finishes and, just as important, the construction can stand up to the closest scrutiny.
Armani provides a mix of images, a spectrum of visual and sensory souvenirs. In Dubai we are left with more than a custom-designed his/her perfume set, courtesy of “Mr. Armani.” For example, at the party that night, there is plenty of décolleté and diamonds, of course. At the opposite end of the spectrum, however, there are plenty of Emirati women who chose the “national dress” option given on the invitation. They wear abayas and, on their heads, hijabs. Which does not mean they do not also carry bubble-gum-pink quilted Chanel purses, or crocodile Birkin bags. In other words, the juxtapositions are instructive, pertinent, appropriate. A perfect fit, you might even say.
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