Architecture & design Tourism & hospitality

The height of fashion

Versace, Bulgari, Armani, Moschino – these leading luxury brands need no introduction, and with their ability to create customer loyalty and indulge the senses, they seem an ideal platform from which to enter the hospitality arena. We explore a trend gathering pace across the globe.

Over 12 years ago, the first Palazzo Versace opened its doors on Queensland’s Gold Coast. With its marble floors, jewelled chandeliers and hand-laid mosaic tiles, it would be hard to find anywhere more opulent. Palazzo being Italian for ‘palace’, and Versace international shorthand for ‘high-end fashion’, a hotel concept combining the two was never going to be low-key.

The Palazzo generated quite a buzz, not least because it claimed to be the world’s first fashion-branded boutique hotel. Developed by the Sunland Group, the hotel sought to distil the very essence of Versace – taking everything you associate with the brand, and turning it into an all-out immersive experience.

Strictly speaking, Versace was not the first fashion house to embark on a hotel project. That honour goes to Salvatore Ferragamo, the Italian shoemaker, which opened Hotel Lungarno in Florence in 1995, followed by several others.Ferragamo, however, approached the venture as a straightforward business investment – the chance to add another string to its bow. You can stay at the Hotel Lungarno without acknowledging footwear. There are no Ferragamo insignia, no on-site stores, no curious urges alighting upon guests to buy a pair of shoes.

The Palazzo Versace took quite a different tack. Designed specifically to capitalise on its fashion connections, it set the template for what followed. Since then, numerous fashion houses have jumped on the bandwagon – Armani, Bulgari, Missoni, Moschino, John Rocha, Azzedine Alaïa and Christian Lacroix among them.

What is notable about these hotels is their breadth of distribution. Both Armani and Versace have, or will have, hotels in Dubai; Bulgari has a resort in Bali; Missoni hotels are slated for Oman, Turkey, Mauritius and Brazil. As the trend gathers momentum, fashion hotels are spilling from traditional sartorial hotspots into emerging markets across the globe.

So why have brands embraced the concept with quite such alacrity? We should remember that no hotel has yet generated significant revenue for the fashion house, and it remains to be seen whether the early onrush will pave the way for something more long-lasting.

Widen those horizons

On the other hand, with the desire for luxury relatively unscathed by financial turbulence, high-end travel is widely regarded as an investment opportunity. Brands can no longer afford to stick to clothes alone, but, in the interests of leveraging brand equity, are looking to expand their product range.

“Since 1978, the House of Versace has created beautiful luxury items that have been able to withstand global recessions,” effuses Russell Durnell, general manager at the Palazzo Versace Gold Coast. “We maintain this aesthetic through our high-quality service, sincere hospitality and immaculate facilities.”

There are indeed some distinctly non-couture items in Versace’s portfolio, not least watches, pens and mobile phones, and a hotel may well be seen as the next logical step. Utter permeation of consumers’ lives might seem an ambitious goal, but it’s one that many labels are starting to pursue in earnest.

Of course, no two brands are approaching this aim in precisely the same way. Each has its own idea of what it will derive from the venture, its own strategy, and its own understanding of how best to project its image and ethos.

Take Missoni. Visually, these couldn’t be more distinct from the Palazzo Versace. Making prolific use of patterns and fabrics, the Missoni look is based around a kind of kooky, contemporary eclecticism, a million miles removed from marble pillars.

“The whole look and feel of each hotel is immediately identifiable as Missoni,” says Rosa Kutzli, VP branding at parent company Rezidor. “Because Rosita Missoni, the creative director, is a great fan of lots of designers, she makes a point of having those designers in her hotel as well. So it’s not that everything has to be 100% Missoni – it’s more about portraying a lifestyle and recreating the environment that she enjoys in her home.”

While there is an element of continuity, the hotels lack a centrally stamped aesthetic. Rather, each is designed individually to reflect something of its locale. “Edinburgh is architecturally very dramatic, so the hotel design there draws upon Missoni’s existing black and white theme and adds the occasional flash of colour,” says Kutzli. “The Kuwait hotel is more of a resort. It takes in the colours of the sand and the sea – the turquoises, beiges and golds.”

In short, Hotel Missoni is very much your archetypal boutique chain. While the likes of Versace and Armani operate their own properties in tandem with a developer, Missoni’s are managed by Rezidor.

“We work very closely together, and learn from each other too,” says Kutzli. “Rosita Missoni gets involved in every detail, but obviously she has never designed a hotel before. So Rezidor brings its operational experience to guide Missoni in the right direction.”

Hotel head starts

This relationship brings clear benefits for the fashion house, chief among them global reach. While Versace and Armani have faced some well-documented logistical challenges in opening new hotels, Missoni benefits from all the operational nous of any other chain.

Meanwhile, Rezidor can piggyback on the associations evoked by the name. A fashion-branded chain provides a ready-made base of loyal customers. Some of these customers buy the clothes already, and others simply aspire to, but in either case the branding stirs up a powerful sense of desire.

Bulgari is following a similar strategy, teaming up with Marriott in a bid for profitability. With properties in Bali, Milan and London – Shanghai comes onboard in 2015 – Bulgari Hotels & Residences rubs shoulders with Ritz Carlton and Edition in Marriott’s uppermost tier.

The latest Bulgari Hotel opened in Knightsbridge, London, in summer 2012. This resolutely moneyed district has long been a mecca to a particularly well-heeled breed of globetrotter. It provides a good strategic complement to the brand’s more far-flung ventures.

“Normally the five-star hotels in London are very traditional,” says Francesco Trapani, Bulgari’s CEO. “Ours takes a very contemporary approach in terms of style and service. It is the first luxury London hotel to be built from scratch in 40 years.”

With a long heritage as a silversmith, Bulgari had plenty of inspiration to draw upon. “Silver is the dominant theme of the interior design,” says Trapani. “It expresses understated, poised elegance in line with the style of the other Bulgari hotels. We have also used some antique pieces as inspiration for the textiles and furniture.”

Timelessness is the watchword, and with good reason. The central paradox of a ‘fashion’ hotel is that, while fashions dip in and out of style, no hotel can afford a large-scale refurbishment with each new autumn/winter collection. Designers need to ensure they are creating a look that does not date – glancing back to the past and teasing out the elements that are likely to appeal far into the future.

The new Armani Hotel Milano, for instance, which opened in November 2011, boasts a highly restrained aesthetic. “I have concentrated all my efforts on delivering my personal vision within a precisely defined ambience of total comfort,” explained Giorgio Armani at the launch. Devised to reflect the rationalist architecture of the 1930s exterior, the rooms indicate a passion for order and carefully apportioned space.

This sense of timelessness is perhaps harder to obtain if a brand is known for its eccentricity. In the case of Moschino, for example, the label connotes a certain irreverence that does not translate well to ‘classic’ design.

Its hotel offering has therefore gone the other way altogether. With each of its rooms based on a dream (‘life is a bed of roses’, ‘sleeping in a ball gown’, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’) it plunges guests down a rabbit hole of fantasy. Managed by HotelPhilosophy and opened in 2010, the Maison Moschino is an extravagantly playful take on fashion branding.

Deluxe delights

Overall, the picture is clear: with the trend having spawned so many design philosophies, fashion hotels are impossible to pigeonhole. Each is a world unto its own, suffused with all the originality you would expect from a fashion house.

Were you to pick a single defining trait, however, it might well be their customer-oriented conception of luxury. Within each of these hotels, the brand identity is seen to emerge from the guests’ experience as much as from the workmanship.

The Palazzo Versace, for instance, quite explicitly offers experiential packages. “It is not just an accommodation offering,” says Durnell. “We provide gourmet Italian picnics, and private poolside cabanas, positioning the hotel as an aspirational luxury product.”

Meanwhile, the Maison Moschino aims to make visitors feel as if they’re caught in a fairytale. Armani Hotel employs lifestyle managers, whose job it is to fulfil guests’ every need. Bulgari offers a level of service that Trapani says “defies description” – the only way to conceptualise it is to experience it for yourself. The emphasis is upon creating an atmosphere of genuine warmth. As Rossella Jardini of the Maison Moschino says: “When I enter, I feel as if I’m at home.”

Over time, as more fashion hotels open and others close, their long-term viability will become apparent. Will they merely prove a fad, or will their business template provide an enduring model for our age? It is perhaps too soon still to tell, but early signs seem highly promising.


This feature appears in a special supplement of Hotel Management International (Winter 2012/13)

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