Wednesday, May 4, 2011

André Balazs: The king of America

David Usborne profiled André Balazs, the hotel tycoon, for the Independent, a tabloid format British Newspaper that is seen as left-leaning, (although is not politically affiliated,) in November 2006.

Balazs, 49 years old, with a penchant for Prada, Uma Thurman (his then girlfriend - now courtney love) and 'handsome good looks', is the son of hungarian immigrants who settled in Cambridge, MA, where his father taught at Harvard Medical School. Balazs pursued an Ivy league education in Humanities at Cornell, followed by a post-grad course in Journalism and business at Columbia University in NYC. After founding a sucessful Biotech company, Biomatrix, with his father.

In 1984 Balazs moved to the bright lights of NYC into the then-warehouse-district of Soho. Stumbling into hospitality when he was invited to invest in Manhattan nightclub MK, the impresario invested in a string of restaurants, moving into the more challenging realm of hotels with his acquisition of the iconic hollywood Chateau Marmont. Fallen into disrepair, the hotel had housed legends such as greta garbo, Clark gable, F Scott Fitzgerald, Marilyn Monroe, Howard Hughes, Vivien Leigh, Jim morrison and Josh Belushi (Several of whom almost died there). The challenge was to overhaul the chateau, "from top to bottom" whilst maintaining its mythology, 'authenticity' and mystique. As Balazs notes...

"Now people go in and say, 'Oh, isn't this amazing, isn't it a genius thing that they've kept it all?' But frankly there isn't a surface there that is original. A lot of it is creating a fantasy that everything feels just authentic and just right."

The relationship with a hotel is 'deeply personal' and so a very delicate business to manage. Balazs notes that the experience can range...

"from the deeply personal moments, to the public moments, the business moments and the friendship moments. It means trying to provide every kind of nuanced space and thinking about how to provide the best environments for each of those activities to unfold. That's what fascinates me. It is not just allowing them to unfold but stimulating their unfolding."

The flagship of the hotels under Balazs's ownership would be the Mercer, a 75 room former warehouse in the SoHo district of Manhattan. With an intimate, library-like atmosphere, in a romanesque revival building, the Mercer offers "loft style living" and the "sense of whimsy and overt sexiness. The NYT says "If god is in the details, then someone at the Mercer is a true believer."

Whimsical references in his hotels aren't as impulsive and unplanned as they may seem... "a scantily clad model prone in a vitrine behind the front desk - is actually meant to pay homage to atime when the neighbourhood was the territory of street-walkers and voyeurs." Each hotel is taken on as an individual project with it's own geographical, cultural and historical context, with Balazs noting

"One of the few luxuries left is travel," he explains. "And the aspect of travel that is luxurious is not the movement, but the being there. So I think that one of the things that most matters and will matter increasingly is that when you are in some place you actually feel like you are there, that the 'there' is very different from whence you came. When you're in London, you should feel like you're in London. That unleashes a whole creative process. There should be no confusion whatever between London and New York or even between SoHo and Wall Street. What has been fun for me about this is that we have always looked at this as not just what city or what neighbourhood you're in, but even what building."

His reputation is such that, in a residential project in the Jean Nouvel building, the appartments put on sale sold out in two days (only two left available) without Balazs spending a dollar on advertising. Word of mouth support covered all distribution, and some of the units cost as much as $15m. Balazs has been successful at branding himself- creating an association with quality and superior design- establishing himself as a tastemaker. And he is meticulous- a bathroom wall must be the right size to take the tiles he has chosen, so none of them has to be cut. "That would spoil everything."

His next big residential project is William Beaver House, the first new from-the-ground-up luxury residential tower in the financial district near Wall Street. The project will offer more than 300 apartments to buyers with $2m or more to spare, and Balazs hopes to capture some of the "urbanness" and "grit" (the authenticity of the lower manhattan neighborhood) and revitalise the area, that becomes abandoned when the financial workers leave. Osborne recounts:

He has built into William Beaver an array of public spaces, from a 24-hour restaurant, to be overseen by Giorgio Deluca of Dean & Deluca fame, to a screening room and night club, spa areas, squash court, small dog park and even a Jacuzzi with a glass bottom directly above the main entrance. He agrees that once the place is ready in 2008 it will offer almost as many leisure opportunities as a cruise ship. When I suggest that all that is missing is an ice rink, he cries, "Damn it. You don't mind if I take that idea do you?"

In terms of hotels, Balazs' long held dream is to build a Hotel-Spa in his father's homeland, to rival the fabled Hotel Gellert in Budapest, home to a complex of subterannean spas. From his 'budget' hotels such as QT (now the room mate grace) to The Standard in South Beach, Balazs has always emphasised the quality of the spas in his hotels.

His most recent plans at time of writing? Fortress house on Savile row. he planned on turning it into one of london's most luxurious hotels, with 80 rooms. the latest news?

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