SEASONED JET-SETTERS AND jaded travel writers – a tough crowd to please – often dismiss so-called fashion hotels. After all, no matter how well versed in luxury the style houses of Milan and Paris may be, delivering the top-notch service and unforgettable experience that are synonymous with five-star properties is better left to the experts, much in the same way that the starlets and celebutantes who dabble in fashion should stick to their day jobs.
On a recent trip to Milan, however, I had the opportunity to stay at the recently opened Armani Hotel, located just opposite Via Montenapoleone on one of the city's toniest thoroughfares, Via Manzoni. As I was in town for men's fashion week, my stay was bookended by not one but two Armani shows: one for the Emporio Armani line and the other for the high-end Giorgio Armani collection, making this a full immersion into all things Armani.
The A-shaped 1930s-era, fascist-style building that houses the hotel is a temple to the maestro of Italian fashion. The hotel occupies most of the eight-floor palazzo, while the ground floors are devoted to the designer's various lines and brand extensions. Besides the requisite fashion boutiques that dot the space – everything from Armani Junior to EA7, its performance wear, Armani Jeans and Armani Collezioni – you can also outfit your gadgets with quirky and stylish accoutrements at Armani iStuff, grab a box of chocolates at Armani Dolci, browse coffee-table books and art tomes at Armani Libri, and adorn your abode with the artful floral arrangements of Armani Fiori. In other words, this massive block in Milan's shopping district is the Italian equivalent of Hong Kong's Chater House – albeit on steroids – and a great example of what a global lifestyle company worth its salt can accomplish.
There's only a handful of fashion houses that can claim to be all-encompassing lifestyle universes (Ralph Lauren, on the other side of the Atlantic, also comes to mind), and it's only brands such as these that should attempt the challenging task of giving a shot to the extremely competitive hospitality business – as most of these labels are quick to discover, opening a hotel is a far cry from unveiling a luxury shop in the chic enclave of a European capital. But if a house manages to pull it off, the rewards can be immense. After all, there's no better way to capture the essence of a company and to project its image to the outside world than with a hotel.
Armani Hotel Milano is in stark contrast to the other five-star bastions of luxury in Italy's fashion capital. Frequent visitors to the city are likely to be familiar with the stately rooms of the Principe di Savoia or the frescoed suites of Four Seasons Hotel Milano, hotels that exude a kind of grandeur and old-world glamour that's a throwback to long-gone eras.
At Armani, you won't find a happening lobby throbbing with fashion types sipping cocktails (cue to anyone who's ever stayed at the Principe during fashion week) or the ornate chandeliers and leafy courtyard of the nearby Four Seasons. On the contrary, its entrance is a small space with a semi-hidden lounge and two lifts that whisk you in no time to the seventh floor, where the reception, the Armani Ristorante and Bamboo Bar are also located (the rooms and suites are on the floors below, which can only be reached by a separate lift, the only inconvenience in an otherwise flawless stay).
Although the developer behind the hotel is UAE-based Emaar Properties, which after Dubai and Milan will soon unveil a Marrakesh outpost, Giorgio Armani himself was in charge of every single detail of its design. The less-is-more approach of the famously perfectionist designer – known for painstaking attention to detail and a sleek aesthetic – is evident in every corner of the place. Some may find it minimalist to a fault, but the soothing monochrome palette of the interior, coupled with the suffused lights and sanctuary-like surrounds, make this spot a rarity in Milan, where the word “luxury” often equates to “excess” and “opulence”.
Milan gets a bad rap as an industrial wasteland that comes to life only five times a year (for its four fashion weeks and its prestigious Salone Internazionale del Mobile furniture fair) and is often unfairly compared with its more beautiful cousins such as Venice, Rome or Florence. Yet the city is also a centre of innovative and modern design, of which the Armani Hotel is a fine example. As is to be expected from the man who clad the world in “greige”, every shade of grey – from charcoal to taupe – permeates the palette, and even the marble doors of the rooms and suites have a greyish sheen, almost blending with the walls in the silent hallways.
Everything in the hotel – from the treats in the mini bar (all free) to the amenities in the shower or the velvet slippers that await at your bedside every evening – bears Armani's stamp (make sure to nourish your scalp with the branded conditioner, a new-found discovery that naturally became a souvenir of my stay). The suites, some of them with balconies and views of the Duomo (and its perennial scaffolding), are so sleek and pristine that on my second day there, instead of taking a pre-dinner shower in the huge bathroom and ruin its spa-like atmosphere, I opted instead to take a dip in the warm pool on the eighth floor and then use the spa and shower facilities next door, which include a sauna and peaceful relaxation areas.
The polite and good-looking staff, clad from head to toe in monochrome Armani (high marks especially go to the men's garb), were a pleasure to deal with. Even more unforgettable, however, were the unusual turndown treats that in the short span of three days featured two chocolate brownies accompanied by a tiny jar of strawberry jam, two mini sandwiches with fresh tomatoes and bresaola, and (hard to believe, but true) a small portion of French fries with ketchup, all served on polished black trays. These gourmet midnight snacks are examples of the fine cuisine served both at the Armani Ristorante and the Bamboo Bar, a great spot for people watching, especially before dinner, when the chic set of Milan congregates for an aperitivo.
Contrary to the common view that fashion folk subsist on a diet of canapés and champagne, this “fashion hotel” doesn't leave you hungry, though when looking at the lithe and stylishly attired clientele, from local celebrities to footballers with their model companions, you do feel like making a dash to the eighth floor and hitting the gym.
As I checked out and made my way to the street level in the mirrored-wall lift (the better to admire one's impeccable outfit and figure), a fellow Italian leaving the restaurant asked whether the strong perfume of incense that pervades the hotel (and reminded her of the one used in Catholic churches) also enveloped the rooms. Although it hadn't struck me before, I nodded in agreement, realising that even the silky lotions on the marble vanity in the bathroom exuded an intense whiff that transported me to the communions of my childhood. As I'd just worshipped at the sacred altar of Armani, in the country that without any hint of irony calls him the king of Milan, it could hardly have been more appropriate.