Three Designers, Three Milan Hotels
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IN Italy, where fashion designers are modern Medicis, nightclubs are named after Roberto Cavalli; restaurants designed by Giorgio Armani and Dolce & Gabbana; museums dedicated to Gucci and Ferragamo; and theaters -- used only a few days a year for their runway shows -- built by Gucci, Armani, Prada and Versace.
Despite the country's economic woes, its designers are in a mode of Renaissance-like expansion, and nowhere is this on finer display than in their latest fixation: hotels. Modeled after the images of their designers and popping up in cities around the world, recent entries include a Hotel Missoni in Edinburgh, where the bedspreads are printed with vivid stripes, and a much-fussed-over Armani Hotel that opened this winter in Milan, in a modern glass-walled structure erected atop an austere building from the 1930s. These join established designer-innkeepers like Versace, Bulgari and Ferragamo.
For fashion lovers, such hotels offer the opportunity to submit fully to the designers' visions -- not only to wear the clothes, but also to live, at least for one night, with their beds, sheets and bathrobes, just as Giorgio or Donatella intended. This is what you are buying anyway: the chance to dream in their worlds, literally.
During a recent Fashion Week in Milan, I set out to see how the experience of checking in with a designer compares with that of shopping in their stores. One similarity was obvious from the start: The hotels are expensive. (The rates tend to be higher during peak periods.) Booking the least expensive rooms through Expedia in mid-January, I wound up paying $861.17 a night at the Armani; $746.75 at the Bulgari Hotel; and an average of $342.09 at the comparatively budget-friendly Maison Moschino, another designer hotel in Milan that opened in 2010.
Armani Hotel Milano
When the cab pulled up to the Armani Hotel, on the edge of the central fashion district, I began to feel that uncomfortable sensation of being sized up by a salesperson trying to determine my credit score. The building, which takes up an entire block, contains within its bone-white Fascist-era walls what could be described as an Armani shopping mall, with a bookstore, a chocolate shop and a branch of Nobu, along with a range of Mr. Armani's clothing collections. It is not a friendly looking facade, but it is beautiful in its stark blacks and whites punctuated by curtains of live bamboo. The hotel occupies the upper floors, with a gym, a spa and a small pool on the top floor overlooking the city.
An enthusiastic woman in a pantsuit dashed out of a side entrance and introduced herself as a "lifestyle manager," a term I fear the Armani employees use rather loosely, since the services she offered, as she escorted me to the reception on the seventh floor, sounded more in line with a concierge than a therapist. When the doors opened, I reconsidered. On a bright January morning, the view through the floor-to-ceiling windows of sunlight tickling the spires of the Duomo was reflected in the polished white marble floor, brighter than the gates of heaven. Perhaps I needed the help of a "lifestyle manager," or maybe of St. Peter, if I were ever going to fit in. The design throughout is a marvelously detailed expression of Mr. Armani's aesthetic (clean, tasteful, textural, expensive) as forward looking as the future once seemed in "Gattaca." Very few plebian artifacts like door handles or light switches are permitted in the land of Armani, where the curtains, the climate and even the "do not disturb" button are operated by a motion-sensitive remote control and the rooms are accessed by swiping a card key across a monitor more sensitive than a retinal scan. When it changes color, you push the door open. Closing it from the outside, however, requires a fairly acrobatic pull.
The large rooms are outfitted with sleek furniture from the designer's Armani Casa home collection in a masculine palette of grays and beiges; the comforters, with a matte finish that to the touch feels like freshly mown grass, are fitted precisely to the bed on all sides. The rooms are full of small and wondrous surprises: a coffee machine with Armani espresso blends; a walk-in closet; a pillow menu; a flat-screen television that pops up from a console at the foot of the bed; toiletries that smell of frankincense (a prime element of Mr. Armani's fragrances); bathrooms with separate cabins dividing the rain shower from the toilet from the tub; and towels that give the sensation of diving into a pile of white bunnies. Better than all this, the Q-Tips. Mr. Armani's are six inches long, with black stems, making for incredibly chic aural hygiene.
Alas, jet lag and disillusionment collided with a strong sense of buyer's remorse at 3 a.m. That was when I noticed the illuminated control panels on each side of the bed, and a third by the closet, which included a master switch that could turn off every light in the room, save for that of the control panel itself. Since I was in a state of semiconsciousness, the thought of calling my lifestyle manager did not occur.
The hotel is aware of the problem, I was told that morning upon checkout, but the issue seems to be finding a solution that fits within Mr. Armani's rigorous aesthetic. Might I suggest duct tape? It comes in black.
Armani Hotel Milano, Via Manzoni 31; (39-02) 8883-8381; milan.armanihotels.com.
The Maison Moschino
The Maison Moschino became my base of operation for four days of fashion shows, not because I am partial to the house's eccentric and playful designs, but because it was the least expensive. (Moschino is a younger-skewing label with a diffusion sub-brand called Cheap and Chic, so you can imagine the crowd.) It is in a former railway house near 10 Corso Como, the city's premium designer emporium, but close to little else. Its exterior, with a broad outdoor patio, resembles Miami Beach in its heyday. The lobby is small, white and efficient, but charmingly decorated with paper lanterns in the shapes of animals (chickens, French poodles, sheep) floating from the ceiling like clouds.
There are several different room designs throughout the hotel, including a tribute to the Mad Hatter and a suite with a wall of painted shoe boxes, but the least expensive, and most basic, is called "sleeping in a ballgown." The headboard looks like the bodice of a red velvet gown on a hanger, the "skirt" of which flows down to become the comforter.
Franco Moschino, the late founder of the design house, was known for his wit (he once designed a send-up of a Chanel suit with the words "This is a Waist of Money" embroidered at the waist, and affixed real cutlery to a dinner jacket). The twisted humor of the Moschino brand lives on here, which means at times the experience can feel like going to a Gallagher show without knowing to avoid the front rows.
My room, so compact it had no desk or dresser or even closet beyond the wall-mounted rack (a problem if you are a business traveler), reeked so strongly of lilies and artificial roses that I inquired if housekeeping could please refrain from spritzing whatever it was. When I returned to the room, I discovered a large aerosol can of the offending Neutrajet air freshener and a note that said, "This is a gift for you!" Not my size.
The Maison Moschino; Viale Monte Grappa 12; (39-02) 2900-9858; maisonmoschino.com.
For real luxury, until Armani's arrival, the Bulgari, which opened in 2004 in partnership with the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, held bragging rights among Milanese hotels for its jewel-like setting next to a centuries-old botanical garden. As a treat, I spent my last night in Milan there.
The Zen-like room was so large you could walk in a circle from the foyer to the bedroom to the bath to the toilet back to the foyer, and I was delighted to live out a Bulgari fantasy that has been tormenting me ever since Sharon Stone, in 1994, said that she practically bathed in the company's signature Thé Vert fragrance, which does smell a little like green tea. Next to the tub ("black Zimbabwe marble complemented with soft Navona travertine," per the room guide) were Bulgari-scented bath gels, soaps, three small scented candles and, I discovered upon returning to the room that evening, a sealed thermos of actual green tea. Try that, Ms. Stone, and you'll never want to get out of the tub.
Unlike her, however, the Bulgari is starting to show its age. The floors are getting a little creaky and the ornamental vases outside each room, filled with what appeared to be large cinnamon sticks, were covered with a layer of dust. In the peaceful lobby, glass bell jars filled with old-fashioned candies, which guests can raid at their leisure, are a nice touch, but it struck me as funny to find a jar of candy, as well, in the small gym downstairs.
At the Armani gym, there is a perfect display of bottled water, green apples and a variety of nuts. But at the Bulgari, I had no trouble sleeping.
The Bulgari; Via Privata Fratelli Gabba 7b; (39-02)805-8051; bulgarihotels.com.
First Published February 19, 2012 12:00 am