The new genre of hoteliers turned designers

A scent or a swimsuit, a pillow or a party dress: the charismatic custodians of some of the world’s most revered hotels are crossing over into retail success, taking a piece of the dream far afield

As a young woman, Carla Paravicini Sersale – who, with her late father-in-law Franco and husband Antonio, has made Le Sirenuse in Positano one of the most storied hotels in the world – never imagined herself a hotelier. Nor, for that matter, had she foreseen that the words “fashion designer” would feature on her CV. “I remember some time after Antonio and I were married, Franco [with whom Sersale was very close] said: ‘You can look after the boutique!’ I thought to myself, ‘Are they serious?’ I mean, I graduated with a degree in criminology,” she says, laughing. But in the years since, Emporio Sirenuse has under her aegis become one of southern Italy’s most known, and loved, style destinations – an extravagantly tiled repository of beachwear, delicate jewellery, Venetian mouthblown glassware, one-off accessories and a signature fragrance line, situated just across Via Cristoforo Colombo from the hotel. “I learnt a lot from the sales team in the beginning,” Sersale demurs modestly, presented with that description. “To tell the truth, I’m not sure I was ever interested in fashion – but then, you learn everything in life.”

Il Pellicano creative director Marie-Louise Sciò (right) and JJ Martin in La DoubleJ silk dresses, £665, inspired by the hotel’s beach club towels (below)
Il Pellicano creative director Marie-Louise Sciò (right) and JJ Martin in La DoubleJ silk dresses, £665, inspired by the hotel’s beach club towels (below)
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In 2012, Sersale paid what would prove to be a serendipitous visit to her niece, Viola Parrocchetti, who was living in Mumbai and designing a small womenswear collection from locally produced textiles. “I ended up staying for two months; I loved it,” she recalls. She also found inspiration, enlisting artisans to produce embroidered pillows – “I’ve always been inspired by Uzbek suzanis; Franco lived in Tehran for several years, and had a collection of them” – that ended up artfully placed around the hotel’s Champagne & Oyster Bar. They were hits with the clientele, and became a mainstay in the boutique. So she kept going: the first Emporio Sirenuse Positano resort collection (from €156), a mix of joyfully printed kaftans, dresses, blouses, sarongs, swimwear and some bang-on-trend short shorts, debuted the following year. Not long after, the collection came onto the radar of Linda Fargo, the famously discerning senior vice president of fashion for Bergdorf Goodman in New York: “Robert Burke [founder of Robert Burke Associates, and Bergdorf’s former senior vice president of fashion and public relations] called me from Capri to say he was coming to lunch, and bringing Linda,” recalls Sersale. “So we spent some time together. Then when I went to New York with a few pieces, she came to see them – and brought three of her buyers, who picked up the whole collection.” Sersale’s designs have been stocked at Bergdorf’s since; last summer she created a capsule collection exclusively for the department store. (She had already created two exclusive kaftans for J Crew – “they ordered 1,200 of them, which was an enormous number for us,” Sersale says.) These days, Sersale’s designs are found in Manhattan concept store Kirna Zabête, Aerin Lauder’s eponymous boutiques in the Hamptons and Palm Beach, Harvey Nichols in Dubai, several resort boutiques across the world and on Matchesfashion.com.

Olympia Le-Tan bag, €1,400, exclusively designed for Il Pellicano’s 50th anniversary
Olympia Le-Tan bag, €1,400, exclusively designed for Il Pellicano’s 50th anniversary
Tuscany's iconic Il Pellicano
Tuscany's iconic Il Pellicano

Sersale is one of a very small number of hoteliers who’ve translated the ineffable appeal of a hotel – whether that’s contained in a scent, a colour or texture, or even a memory – into product lines. Fewer still have seen those designs or products become crossover successes – sought after, and sold, internationally and on their own merit – independent of the hotels themselves. Most of these places have something the bigger companies (some of which aspire to tell style stories in more conventional ways; witness Rosewood’s recent ad campaign, featuring Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing, for example) usually don’t. They are cynosures of a particular lifestyle, in the true, rather than the commodified, sense of that term – perhaps combining elements of continental glamour and nostalgia, or instead evincing a certain boho wanderlust. But however it manifests, it’s invariably a reflection of that owner herself.

Il Pellicano bath wash, shampoo and body lotion, €22 each
Il Pellicano bath wash, shampoo and body lotion, €22 each
Le Sirenuse Positano’s Carla Sersale
Le Sirenuse Positano’s Carla Sersale

Thus, by extension, so are the beautiful things that bear the hotel’s name. “If I could package Marie-Louise herself, I would,” declares JJ Martin, the California-born, Milan-based powerhouse behind fashion and homeware brand La DoubleJ. She’s talking about Marie-Louise Sciò, the vice president and creative director of Tuscany’s Il Pellicano, in whose boutique Martin installed summer pop-ups in 2016 and 2017. (“Those 50 hotel rooms are your absolute target customer, your dream demographic,” Martin said.) Martin had already named a dress in one of her collections “Dinner at the Pellicano” – a design that she then, collaborating with Sciò, executed in a bold yellow-and-white-striped silk (£665), identical to the towels at the Pellicano’s beach club, and complimented with a nylon clutch (£100). The micro-collection was sold at the Pellicano’s boutique, but also on La DoubleJ’s website (which is shopped by fashion and vintage enthusiasts from Seoul to Santa Monica to London) and in the Bergdorf Goodman catalogue. “When I started working at the hotel [with her father Roberto Sciò], I realised this, the hotel world, is quite closed,” says Sciò. “One way to open it was through our boutique; it was an opportunity to do something different. Many friends who come to stay, like JJ, are designers, so it happened in a very organic manner.”

Emporio Sirenuse cotton voile shirt, €167, and cotton/silk dress, €543
Emporio Sirenuse cotton voile shirt, €167, and cotton/silk dress, €543
Emporio Sirenuse silk pillow, €272. Carlo Moretti glass bowl, €115, stocked by the hotel
Emporio Sirenuse silk pillow, €272. Carlo Moretti glass bowl, €115, stocked by the hotel

“La DoubleJ focuses on unique, amazing heritage Italian brands. The Pellicano is absolutely that,” affirms Martin. “But there was no marketing-and-merchandising plan; it really was two friends hanging out, having fun ideas.”

Emporio Sirenuse silk pillows feature throughout Le Sirenuse hotel
Emporio Sirenuse silk pillows feature throughout Le Sirenuse hotel
Emporio Sirenuse Lycra bathing suit, €220, and polyamide swim shorts, €156
Emporio Sirenuse Lycra bathing suit, €220, and polyamide swim shorts, €156

Back in 1985, Kit Kemp launched the now 10-strong Firmdale collection of hotels in London and New York with her husband Tim. Kemp is a design autodidact – extraordinary, when you consider the Kemp/Firmdale style has become one of the most singular in British design. During decades in which a zen-minimalist colourway limited mostly to creams, bisques and beiges dominated hotel style, Kemp suffused her hotels’ interiors with wild colour and pattern, the country-house-with-a-twist aesthetic showcasing saturated hues of fuchsia, vermilion, lime and turquoise. Recent forays into artistic collaboration, with the likes of Chelsea Textiles, Christopher Farr, Anthropologie and Wedgwood, gratified those who wanted a piece of Firmdale’s magical multicolour world in their own homes. Now, admirers have a far more comprehensive choice, in the form of Shop Kit Kemp, the brand’s online retail emporium, which launched at the end of last year and features, among other things, an exclusive (and semi-customisable) furniture line (£950) , as well as pillows and duvets (from £90), table lamps (£650) and even patchwork toys (£40) . “I think it [the demand] is about all the colour,” Kemp says. “It’s captured people’s imaginations. And they want their homes to have a personal, bespoke feel, which is what we’ve been plugging away with in our hotels – that idea of creating a homey feel – for a long, long time. And the thing everybody else has is exactly what our clients don’t want in their homes.”

Firmdale Hotels co-founders Kit and Tim Kemp
Firmdale Hotels co-founders Kit and Tim Kemp
Kit Kemp Willow sofa, £8,000
Kit Kemp Willow sofa, £8,000

Or, they want their homes to look – or smell – like their travel fantasies. Francesca Bonato and Nicolas Malleville have over the course of more than 15 years crafted one of the more idiosyncratic names in the world of hospitality. Coqui Coqui is much more than the sum of its bricks-and-mortar parts – a scattering of boutiques and residences across French Polynesia and the Mexican states of Yucatán and Quintana Roo, which together evince an unerring eye for quality antiques, brocante and artisanship, assembled beautifully inside some prime examples of colonial Spanish architecture. It’s also a perfume and lifestyle brand, born more or less contemporaneously with the hospitality one – what Bonato calls a “crazy” idea to open a bed and breakfast in Tulum (that property closed in 2016), though four others remain on the site of Malleville’s own beach pad. The hospitality expansion has been haphazard and happy – a small boutique here, a one-room residence in a 16th-century palace there. It put Bonato and Malleville on the map across Mayan Mexico, but it’s their exotic, opulently packaged fragrance line ($125) that has more recently made Coqui Coqui a commodity as far afield as Japan (where it’s carried at Isetan and Ginza Six), New York (at Barneys and Ron Herman) and Los Angeles (at The Line) – as well as in Denmark, the Netherlands, Sydney and even on Net-a-Porter. A few years ago, Bonato partnered with Mexican designer Jacopo Janniello Ravagnan to create a full-blown product line, called Hacienda Montaecristo, which is available in Coqui Coqui stores in Mexico. In idea and execution, it aimed (not unlike the hotels) to be the apotheosis of local, with every item fabricated by artisans from materials sourced in Mexico. The fringed hammocks (MXN$7,500), handwoven from cotton or suede and stretched between palms on the beach at the Tulum house back in the days of its inception, are much in demand; the natural-fibre Jipi sombreros (from MXN$3,100), produced in collaboration with local hatmakers, are similarly popular, as are the aged-suede travel satchels (from MXN$5,400), modelled after the ones Malleville’s grandparents travelled with. 

Kit Kemp Handle chair, £950, and acrylic and wood Rocket table lamp, £650
Kit Kemp Handle chair, £950, and acrylic and wood Rocket table lamp, £650
Rik Rak by Kit Kemp Lavender Eucalyptus hand wash, £20, and hand lotion, £22
Rik Rak by Kit Kemp Lavender Eucalyptus hand wash, £20, and hand lotion, £22

What makes the Coqui Coqui enterprise interesting is its credibly organic expansion: developments, whether of hospitality or product, have always been small (if not micro) in scale, and largely driven by whims on the founders’ parts rather than by revenue. Hence their latest assay – certainly not, in business terms, an intuitive one: a move to Bora Bora, occasioned by a long-standing dream on Malleville’s part (he is the primary fragrance enthusiast of the two) to explore the rare and exotic flora of the South Pacific. The result is that in a few months’ time there will be another unique boho-fabulous residence infused with the colours and materials of the South Pacific, the first Coqui Coqui hospitality offering outside of Mexico. But such is the cachet of the lifestyle brand that, this time, the progression is inverted: first came the fragrance (currently only available on Bora Bora and at Coqui Coqui sites in Mexico, but shortly to be distributed worldwide); then the shop (opened in summer 2017); and only then, the hospitality (sometime early next year). “The possibility to explore new domains has always been the thing that drives it,” says Bonato, meaning both the room in the Mexican palace and the fragrance bottle on the Manhattan boutique shelf, manifestations of the same dream – her own, and her client’s. “Coqui Coqui is a lifestyle – it’s our lifestyle.”

Coqui Coqui founders Francesca Bonato and Nicolas Malleville
Coqui Coqui founders Francesca Bonato and Nicolas Malleville
Coqui Coqui hideaway, in Mexico, with suede Bolsa Business bag, $8,000
Coqui Coqui hideaway, in Mexico, with suede Bolsa Business bag, $8,000

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