is the online portfolio and journal of Australian travel writer Nina Karnikowski.

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When Versace launched the world’s first fashion hotel, Palazzo Versace on the Gold Coast in 2000, it opened the doors to a radical new trend and business model for the luxury hospitality industry that took travelling in style to a whole new level.

Sunland, the group behind Palazzo Versace, was giving fashion designers the ability to go on the payroll of major hotel companies to create new brand experiences, where branded toiletries, tableware, restaurants and uniforms were all part of the deal. It gave fashion lovers the key to worlds created entirely by their favourite fashion designer, allowing them to come as close as possible to experiencing luxury through their eyes.

Other fashion brands soon followed. Four years later, the Bulgari Group created the first of its Bulgari Hotels and Resorts in Milan, as a joint venture with Ritz Carlton. Rezidor (the company behind Radisson) came next, with the first of its ever-expanding Missoni chain of hotels in Edinburgh in 2009 (there are 30 hotels open or in development), followed by Dubai-based Emaar Hospitality Group signing up Giorgio Armani for its chic 160-room Armani Hotel over nine floors in the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, in 2010. Other international style arbiters who have since extended their business operations into hospitality include Azzedine Alaia, Christian Lacroix, Oscar de la Renta, Ralph Lauren, Philip Treacy and Moschino.

This year’s long-awaited Versace Palazzo Dubai (now in its ninth year of construction), and more Missoni hotels in Mauritius, Turkey and South Africa, plus a fifth Bulgari Hotel in Shanghai in 2015, are the latest offerings.


Palazzo Versace had created a winning model. Initially, however, there was concern about whether consumers would be willing to pay top dollar for the experience. “[The House of Versace] was very concerned that they were going from a tangible experience to a non-tangible experience,” says Russell Durnell, general manager at Palazzo Versace. “People stay in the hotel and pay $700 a night; usually if you go into a Versace shop and pay $700 you come out with at least a shoe, rather than just a memory.”

As guests are aware of the pedigree of the Versace brand, Durnell says expectations have always been at a premium. “Because of the glamour and mystique of the Versace brand, when people come here their expectations are enormous. And if you don’t deliver? Oh dear. I think that’s been the secret of the success of this place; we have to work twice as hard as any other hotel to deliver that.”

What guests at fashion hotels are getting for their money, says Durnell, is the chance to live in a fantasy world created entirely by their favourite designer, as well as being assured of a top-notch quality and service that reflects that luxury brand. At Palazzo Versace, they get the acres of marble, the antique chandelier (a priceless gift from Gianni Versace, which was bought from the State Library in Milan), the iconic Medusa head on just about everything, including the Riedel crystal glasses and Rosenthal porcelain, and as much baroque bling as they can handle. It’s opulent, it’s decadent and, says Durnell, it’s all based on the homes of Gianni and Donatella Versace, meaning guests can be assured they’re truly living the brand.

Over in Milan at Maison Moschino (which is connected to the high-end hotel group Hotel Philosophy and where rooms start from about $300 a night), the fantasy level is taken up a notch, with guests sleeping in beds of rose petals, enormous ball gowns, beneath a canopy of trees, or in rooms inspired by Little Red Riding Hood or Alice in Wonderland.


Meanwhile, the Armani hotels, now also in Milan and with plans for properties in Marrakech and New York, feature a more sophisticated, neutral palette that’s perhaps more geared towards the business traveller.

This level of opulence is catering to today’s more sophisticated travel market, says Sirinate Meenakul, regional director of marketing and communications for Sofitel south-east Asia, which has collaborated with designers including Kenzo Takada, Christian Lacroix and Karl Lagerfeld across their Sofitel So hotels.

“Today’s travellers want it all, from the best amenities to the most exclusive privileges,” says Meenakul. “They’re looking for differentiated experiences, from luxury offerings to cutting-edge innovation and design.” She adds that working with iconic international designers not only provides this unique experience to guests, but also strengthens Sofitel So’s image as both a French brand and as a collection of design hotels that attract more revenue from local and international markets.

For the designers, getting involved in hotel design can showcase their entire brand, often with onsite boutiques doing a good trade in homewares and accessories. It also extends brand relevance outside the retail space.

Brand extension was the driving factor behind Diane von Furstenberg’s decision to design a penthouse at Hayman Island in the Whitsunday Islands in 2012, which followed on from the 20 rooms she designed at Claridge’s in Mayfair, London, in 2010.

“Diane is an incredibly clever marketer and business woman,” says Anna Guillan, executive general manager of sales and marketing at Hayman Island. “She wanted to take her designs beyond simply the wearable fashion into something which is so closely aligned to fashion, which is travel and tourism and hotels.” And, says Durnell, fashion designers branching into hotels gives them longevity because they’re timeless – not a seasonal thing.

With successful alliances between fashion brands and hotel chains, the more iconic and classic the design aesthetic, the better. “You couldn’t have an H&M hotel, for example,” says Durnell. “There’s nothing identifiable about it. That’s why Versace works well, because it’s a very strong image; you look at something and you know it’s Versace. It’s the same with Armani, it’s so recognisable.”

Even though Australia is the birthplace of the fashion hotel concept, we must head overseas for the ultimate fashion-hotel hit. “Australia’s hotel market is much smaller and has less volume than many of the European, American and Asian markets”, says Tourism Accommodation Australia’s Rodger Powell. “Therefore, it doesn’t attract the same level of high-spending travellers who would justify investment in such niche hotels.”

Changes in Asian travel patterns may encourage Australian hoteliers to consider a closer collaboration with fashion designers, he adds, because they resonate strongly in the Chinese, Japanese and other Asian markets.

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