Destinations

High jewellery, handbags & hotels

As Bulgari prepares to debut its London hotel, Maria Shollenbarger examines the latest developments in the relationship between luxury-goods brands and hospitality.

February 05 2012
Maria Shollenbarger

Francesco Trapani, president of the watches and jewellery division of the luxury conglomerate LVMH and, as of February, former chief executive of Bulgari, trusts that you will enjoy your stay in London.

These were, of course, not his exact words when we met earlier in the winter to discuss the opening of the Bulgari Hotel Knightsbridge, which is scheduled for the end of May. At that point, if all goes as forecast, there will be a legion of staff on hand to express these sentiments on his, and Bulgari’s, behalf. They will do so in a stunning building at the corner of Knightsbridge Green, designed by Antonio Citterio of Antonio Citterio Patricia Viel & Partners – the first new-build luxury hotel in London in 40 years. It will house 85 rooms and suites, also designed by Citterio, showcasing hand workmanship and exquisite materials, with fabrics, silver, marble and rare tropical woods rendered beautiful by Italian artisans.

There will also be a spa with 12 treatment rooms and a full-service fitness centre; a mosaic-lined 25m lap pool, with an adjacent vitality pool finished entirely in gold-leaf glass tiles; a 47-seat cinema; a ballroom and three private dining rooms; and an 80-cover Italian restaurant. So far, so standard luxury hotel, you say? Consider that all of this will be underground, laid out over a full five subterranean floors (the guest rooms and suites will be above ground); consider also that the ballroom, on the third floor down, boasts a domed ceiling in which two 2.5m-diameter solid silver chandeliers, created by Bulgari silversmiths, are suspended.

Artisanal craftsmanship; the finest raw materials; innovative design; state-of-the-art engineering (no small feat, that dome-and-chandeliers-underground business): these are elements that aim to reflect Bulgari’s core values as much as they do Citterio’s talent – which is precisely the point. As the chief executive who spearheaded his company’s foray into the luxury hospitality sector in 2001 but has overseen just two hotel openings in the intervening 11 years (the Bulgari Milano in 2004, and the all-villa Bulgari Bali resort in 2006), Trapani is aware of the expectations that attend such an ambitious project in such a high-profile destination; and he understands the importance of a debut that is on pitch-perfect brand message.

These are interesting times – as much in the Confucian as the literal sense, some in the industry might say – for a luxury brand to be forging ahead on the hospitality front. Powerful new spending classes in emerging markets are united, as the numbers bear out (and by all appearances in defiance of the 2008 crash), in a seemingly insatiable demand for luxury products; their respective definitions of what luxury is, however, do not always square.

Meanwhile, the boundaries between art, fashion and design have been blurring to thrilling, and lucrative, effect for years (having been acquired in March of last year by LVMH for €4.3bn, Bulgari itself is now well positioned to capitalise on fortuitous synergies). It stands to reason, then, that hospitality would have found its way into this mix.

But high-end travel itself has undergone a sea change, with the wealthy increasingly foregoing conspicuous luxury in favour of the experiential: people, places, cultures and occasions with a deeper significance, or a compelling narrative. How to reconcile diverging definitions of luxury with demands for meaning beyond material beauty – and provide excellent hotel service to boot? And all while keeping one’s eyes on the real prize, which is to make a hotel that enhances one’s own, non-hotel-brand equity?

Because that has always been the purpose of Bulgari hotels. It isn’t to generate profit; in 2011 the company’s hotels and resorts division brought in just 1.6 per cent of total revenue, and this was fine by its management. “What’s important to understand is that this is a public relations initiative above all,” says Trapani. “The interest is not to do a lot of hotels; quite the opposite. We are extremely demanding; we decline a lot of invitations. They [our hotels] have to be really inspiring. London is one of the most competitive markets in the world; it doesn’t really need another luxury hotel. So what we did had to be exceptional.”

Bulgari’s peers in the hotel business have come at the endeavour in different ways. Leonardo Ferragamo’s Lungarno Collection, for instance, isn’t technically branded “Ferragamo” at all. It has a 16-year record of success in owning and operating a clutch of chic, well-run boutique properties in Florence and Rome with a USP of sleek elegance. With the exception of Portrait Suites, the 14-suite Rome hotel that is something of a paean to Salvatore Ferragamo himself, you don’t see the Ferragamo logo around you; you just know you’re in a great-looking little hotel with warm, very competent service.

The chain’s success drives continued growth; last June, it added its first resort, the Marina di Scarlino Yacht Club & Residences, on the Tuscan coast, to its portfolio. Donatella Versace was another early adopter; unlike the Lungarno properties, however, her Palazzo Versace on Australia’s Gold Coast, which opened in 2000, flaunts a floor-to-ceiling Versace ethos of more, bigger, richer. (Another Palazzo Versace, which includes a hotel, spa and 169 residential units, is set to open in Dubai’s Culture Village, but Enshaa, the Sharjah-based developer that bought out the Dubai project in October, declined to commit to a completion date.)

In 2004, just after the opening of the Bulgari Milano, Trapani asserted in the pages of the Financial Times that his competitors “won’t have such a place. Maybe at some point, but not for years.” Those years have passed, and others have entered the fray.

Giorgio Armani, who in 2004 reportedly declared that he would have 10 branded hotels by the dawn of this decade, finally opened his first in 2010, in Dubai’s Burj Khalifa tower. A second, 95-room hotel debuted in Milan last November, above the Armani store on the Via Manzoni. As with Versace (though clearly, in execution, a million stylistic miles away), Armani hotels are a manifestation of the fashion designer’s supremely recognisable aesthetic; all the furnishings, down to the last greige wool-cashmere throw, are designed for the hotels by Armani himself.

In March 2010, the house of Moschino opened Maison Moschino in Milan, a one-off, self-described “design” hotel that seems to reflect its namesake designer’s sheer zaniness. Missoni launched its first branded hotel in Edinburgh in 2009, and followed in early 2011 with another in Kuwait; both manifest the Missoni collections, fashion and home, with the signature zig-zags and stripes printed on everything from walls to espresso cups. At Armani there is a Marrakech deal on the table and talk of further expansion to New York and Egypt, while Missoni’s plans include resorts in Oman and Brazil.

Some of the traditional hotel brands, meanwhile, have begun courting fashion and luxury houses, eager to benefit from the cachet the names lend them. St Regis has established signature-suite partnerships with Bottega Veneta and, in the autumn of last year, Dior; the 1,700sq ft Dior suite at the St Regis New York is inspired by its original Avenue Montaigne headquarters. Claridge’s debuted a handful of suites designed by Diane von Furstenberg in 2010; and the same year, W Hotels and Retreats, Starwood’s urban hotel brand, instituted a fashion director position, intended to create synergies with emerging and established names in luxury (the first to hold the post was Amanda Ross, a former fashion editor at US Harper’s Bazaar).

The most interesting news, however, turns established ideas (such as they are) of how these hotels function a bit on their head. In May 2011, LVMH announced that it would invest around €450m to renovate the former headquarters of Paris department store La Samaritaine, which it had acquired in 2001, with the intention of turning the Seine-facing building into a luxury hotel, with interiors to be designed by Peter Marino, under its Cheval Blanc brand. (The premier Bordeaux estate Cheval Blanc was purchased by Group Arnault, the family holding of LVMH chairman Bernard Arnault, in 1998; in 2006 Arnault gave the name to Cheval Blanc Courchevel, the exclusive Trois Vallées chalet hotel that he also owns.) Furthermore, LVMH intends to open several other hotels under the Cheval Blanc name – private-island resorts in Egypt, Oman and the Maldives, and reportedly (though LVMH declined to confirm) another on the Pacific coast of Mexico.

Effectively, LVMH has created a discrete hotel brand, like any other under the conglomerate umbrella, and is brilliantly positioned to leverage them all. The spas can be Givenchy or Guerlain; the resort boutiques can sell Pucci bikinis and Fendi wedges; the in-suite bars can feature Ruinart and Moët-Hennessy, Terrazas de los Andes and Cloudy Bay; and all of it will constitute synergy.

“Luxury hospitality is considered by Bernard Arnault and LVMH to be a natural extension for the group,” says Olivier Lefebvre, LVMH director of hotel activities. “We have a recognised track record in developing creative projects, and in real estate development. We also, through our diversity of brands, have arguably the best and most intimate, top-down understanding of our clients’ needs.”

As with the Bulgari model, there are outside investors for every project; unlike Bulgari, however (which is managed under a brand licence contract with Bulgari and an affiliation agreement with the Marriott group), Cheval Blanc will be 100 per cent LVMH conceived, executed and operated: “The group has total control,” says Lefebvre.

Bulgari is also owned by LVMH. The acquisition last March doubtless affected other aspects of brand management – notably, new chief executive Michael Burke, who moves from LVMH stablemate Fendi to replace Trapani this month – but its hotels and resorts division wasn’t one of them. “It will be exactly the same process; Bulgari is pursuing the identical strategy it had before,” Trapani says, then allows: “If you like, the number of projects being considered is perhaps a bit higher than it was in the past, but this is also because it [the Bulgari hotels division] is more known, and more credible.”

How Bulgari distinguishes itself in any putative category of luxury goods-branded hotels is that it is positioned uniquely to leverage its brand in high-end travel’s new world order, where, along with über-exclusivity, what matter most are heritage and narrative. Bulgari produces exquisite jewels, watches and accessories, not fashion; and until recently it did so as a family-owned firm. These facts betoken a fundamentally different DNA code: it is the nature of fashion to be finite; it is the nature of fine jewels and watches to become heirlooms, made of the rarest and most expensive materials. As such, it is also their nature to cost easily 10 times (or, in the case of Bulgari’s high-jewellery collections, a hundred times) what ready-to-wear does.

“To appreciate what [Bulgari is] doing as a brand, you have to understand heritage,” says Trapani. “It is more daring, more creative, not so much for those who follow; historically it puts semi-precious stones with hard gems, for instance. To want to buy a Bulgari [design], you have to be more self-aware. It’s a different thing from, say, a Cartier. So already with Bulgari’s core business, it serves the more sophisticated end of all those target markets. The people who will be interested [in the London hotel] are automatically those clients.”

They demand the best; the Bulgari London conspires to deliver, and to Londoners as well as guests. This takes the form of a discreet bar with its own entrance off Kensington Green, and a restaurant that promises to serve excellent contemporary Italian cuisine – rather conspicuously, in this day and age, not under the aegis of a famous chef (“[Bulgari doesn’t] have any one designer who is the face of the brand,” notes Trapani; “the excellence is the result of the work of a legion of people,” so likewise with the restaurant). It will also take the form of restricted membership to the fitness centre and spa for non-hotel guests; the spa will be run by Espa, while the fitness programmes will be overseen by James Duigan, founder of the cult-following Chelsea fitness and nutrition system Bodyism.

Elsewhere, the hotel is subtly but affirmedly different from the other Bulgari properties. “The luxury concept is, of course, completely different now,” says Citterio, who has been lead architect on all three hotels. “Our client has probably been to Milan and Bali, they don’t want another version of the same hotel; and they can’t have one, because it’s not part of the DNA of this concept, or this brand. In London, we wanted the idea of a contemporary grand hôtel. The person who buys Bulgari is a contemporary person, who sees a contemporary object of immediately obvious quality, which is also timeless – it could be five, or 50 years old. That is not so easy to conceive.”

Nor is it easy to translate into bricks and mortar. Or in this case, pili-nut wood, hand-loomed silks, solid silver, and marble quarried in Pakistan and China, among other costly materials. So the branding at the Bulgari London is very much in the details. The rooms are contemporary, executed in muted tones, understated, skewing somewhat masculine. One must look closely to note that all the marble and wood panels have been hand-matched; or that the wood has been hand-finished with 10 coats of varnish to achieve an incredible burnished shine, which also happens to be nearly as tough as metal.

Quiet, but striking, archival references take the place of overt product placement: the heavy pewter-coloured embroidered silk used for curtains and headboards boasts a broad, vaguely baroque motif; it is, in fact, a vintage Bulgari brooch, the design abstracted and reproduced by hand by Italian weavers. The solid silver lamp bases are inspired by a candlestick from the Bulgari archives. In each room, the minibar is housed in a gorgeous hand-worked leather trunk, after another archival design. In the one-bedroom suites, antiques from Bulgari collections – exquisite limited-edition or one-off pieces – are incorporated into the décor.

The restaurant, bar and lounge are more extravagant manifestations of this. “In the public part, there’s meant to be a bit of theatre,” says Citterio. The ground-floor bar showcase is a single, 10m-long piece of polished steel, shaped by artisanal hands in Italy into an oval. A sweeping staircase leads from the bar down into the double-height restaurant; and tracing the descent of the bannister is a mesh screen printed with drawings of Bulgari’s 1930s jewellery. In the lobby, a line of vitrines will display silver pieces from the Bulgari collection and high-jewellery pieces. Citterio’s whimsical description of these as a “huge decorative necklace” belies the overt commercial purpose they serve; but they are seemingly the only place in the hotel where this is true.

In mid-winter, some of the public spaces were still being completed; sections of glass and stone, wood and silver were being ferried about. These disparate elements will ultimately fit together as precisely fashioned, communicating something more than the sum of their inanimate parts. When the hotel opens in April, you will have to go out of your way to find Bulgari jewels, watches or accessories, but the Bulgari story, if you look closely, will be everywhere; and the brand’s job will be done.

See also

Bulgari