MILAN, Italy (MainStreet) — In a crowded marketplace of international hotel chains it can often be little more than a name — a fashion name — that might oust even the most famous brands from the top slot. That's the case in Milan, which had no shortage of luxury hotels such as Four Seasons, Park Hyatt (H) and Baglioni but now have to compete also with such virtual synonyms for fashion and glamour as Armani and Bulgari.
Bulgari Hotel was one of the first designer hotels in Milan, and it was a wow of one at that: an 18th century palazzo floating in a dreamy garden of rolling, including nearly neon-green lawns and an elevated outdoor lounge with sexy decor and fichus trees as manicured as the patrons. Interiors live up to even the loftiest of architectural expectations with Zimbabwe black marble and zen undertones. But more interesting than the full-size Bulgari bath toiletries in guest rooms and Espa Spa is that that Bulgari is a joint venture between Bulgari S.p.A. and Marriott International (MAR), which also manages the Ritz-Carlton portfolio. (The collection also operates the revered Bulgari Bali Hotel in Indonesia and Bulgari Hotel London opening this spring, which could be a competition killer in the lead-up to the Olympics.)
Maison Martin Margiela brought its usual elegance to designing the interiors at La Maison Champs Elysees.
Newcomer Armani Hotel debuted last year, adding to the hipness quotient of Milano hospitality. Armani Hotel makes its home in a more urban location along via Manzoni, under a modern rooftop atrium that puts a fashionable hat on the building's historic masonry facade. Inside, Armani uses muted colors and signature furnishings, many available for purchase through his Armani Casa line. An Armani-branded eatery features a bold design statement of black-and-white marble floors under windows illuminated by the Milanese skyline. The first Armani Hotel is in Dubai; Armani Hotels & Resorts is actually a partnership between Armani and Dubai-based Emaar, which also developed the Burj Khalifa and Dubai Mall.
Those who prefer a little less corporate supervision can book into the Hotel Moschino Milan, which was born out of the Italian fashion house Moschino and the work of its lead designer, Rossella Jardini. Occupying a former 19th century rail station, the neoclassical structure feels as though it fell down one glamorous rabbit hole for its four floors and 65 guest rooms -- some of the most whimsically designed spaces you'll experience. Inspired by fairy tales and dreams, the hotel (managed by Italy's Hotelphilosophy Collection) has rooms mixing the occasional hanging poodle lamp with dress-shaped headboards and poster beds made of tree trunks. It is also home to an ever-changing eatery led by Michelin-star chef Moreno Cedroni and ART Spa that mixes modern art into an ethereal theme.
Away from Milan, the Ferragamo family opts not to put its name on the collection known as Lugarno Hotels, which operates such style-centric properties as the Continental in Florence and Portrait Suites in Rome. In addition to operating hotels, the Ferragamo Group manages a series of high-end apartments that offer voguish abodes for those looking for something bigger than just a hotel room. Less known, however, is the group's recent sea explorations, including the Scarlino Yacht Club and Residences, which brings the Ferragamo lifestyle to a permanent residential community and marina, as well as its Swan Sailing Yacht available for Aeolian and Balearic charters with breathtaking interiors by Florentine architect Michele Bonan.
Other designer names in the hotel milieu these days include Missoni Hotels, with a location in Edinburgh opened in 2009 and Kuwait the next year. The hotels are a collaboration between the Italian fashion label and The Rezidor Hotel Group, which also operates the brands Radisson Blu and Park Inn by Radisson. In Paris, designer Christian Lacroix is the inspiration behind boutique properties Hotel du Petit Moulin and Hotel le Bellechasse, while Maison Martin Margiela designed the interiors at nearby La Maison Champs Elysees.
Other designers opt to design singular specialty suites, including Vera Wang at Honolulu's Halekulani, Tomas Maier at the St. Regis Hotel Rome and Diane von Furstenberg, who debuted her own glamour pad inside London's Claridge's.
As for what's next in the fashion hotel arena, LVMH is rehabilitating Paris' former Samaritaine department store in what is reported to become the second installment of its Cheval Blanc brand born in wintery Courchevel. And although there's no plans to date, don't be surprised if Ralph Lauren (RL) pops onto the hotel map, given his comprehensive home lifestyle brand and real estate savvy. Michael Kors (KORS) is also one to watch, with fashion collections inspired by the designer's global travels and customers more than willing to follow in pursuit of the next fashion designer hotel.
Michael Martin is the managing editor of JetSetReport.com, a luxury travel and lifestyle guide based in Los Angeles and London. His work has appeared in InStyle, Blackbook, Elle, U.K.'s Red magazine and on ITV and the BBC.