Couture comforts

There seems to be a new trend ripening among hotel fruit bowls. The smarter the establishment, the more obscure the collection of exotic fruits waiting in the suite on arrival.

At the late Gianni Versace’s newly remodelled villa in Miami, now under new ownership and rebranded The Villa by Barton G, this trend is racked up dramatically. Instead of fruit in my room, I am faced by a chocolate fountain served with candies in shades of South Beach pastel and hot pink. After about five minutes, the sickly-sweet smell becomes overpowering. Only later do I discover my enemy isn’t the chocolate but an essential oil that has been pumped into the air-conditioning system. The scent has been selected by Barton G Weiss, who early last year turned the villa into a hotel, with a different fragrance wafting in each of the 10 guestrooms. I am told that this is because the suites have different characters, just as they did when Madonna, Elton John and Versace’s extended family used this as their Miami home from home.

But I must not allow this weird olfactory welcome to distract from the fact this is the designer’s old home – and I am sleeping on a 10ft x 9ft custom-made bed for which Weiss has commissioned vast embroidered Frette sheets. The mink and cashmere throw is only the start of it; I have nine pillows to prop me up in bed for breakfast. Notes from my butler are sealed with gold wax, and the bathroom amenities are, well, profligate. In such environs, you cannot help but feel the prima donna.

And then there are the flashbulbs. From the balcony of the Venus Suite, I watch visitors pause outside the security-guarded gates to take pictures of the very spot where, in 1997, Versace was shot as he returned from a morning walk on Ocean Drive. Tour buses discharge their occupants on the pavement while at night, flashes flicker behind my curtains – even at 3am. My butler, Gregory, says this is the most photographed house in the US after the White House. He may well be right.

In hospitality terms, this is no regular “fashion hotel” but the equivalent of a rare 1960s Courrèges dress: vintage couture. It differs from the main trend of the past decade – the big-brand roll-out of collaborations between fashion and luxury hotel companies – because The Villa by Barton G was originally conceived as the private home of a fashion designer, rather than as a brand extension. Missoni, for example, has hotels in Scotland and Kuwait, with Oman, Brazil and Turkey to come, all operated by the Rezidor hotel group; Armani (with Emaar Hotels) has a flagship hotel in the Burj Khalifa, Dubai, and another being built in Milan; Versace itself has the Palazzo Versace on Australia’s Gold Coast and another nearing completion in Dubai (both with property developer the Sunland Group).

Keen to distinguish his property from such enterprises, Weiss has hired residential butlers rather than hotel staff to instil a more personal tone. In this, The Villa has more in common with intimate fashion properties such as 3 Rooms, Azzedine Alaïa's high-end B&B on rue du Moussy in Paris, and Christian Lacroix's Hotel du Petit Moulin in the city’s Marais district.

Versace more or less defined Ocean Drive’s 1990s renaissance, this house (the building dates from the 1930s) being to South Beach as Michelangelo's “David” is to Florence. The designer’s multimillion dollar art collection may have moved on, but the handmade detailing seems as exquisite as when Versace originally conceived it, from the Thousand Mosaic Pool to the hardware re-dipped in 24-carat gold. On the face of it, the numbers don’t quite make sense (Weiss paid $750 for a pink and gold Versace teapot, for example). But then they never did, Versace reportedly spending $130m on the decoration of the beach-facing house, which he owned from 1992 until his death. But like a £20,000 piece of couture that’s worn once and still retains its value, the Villa is a priceless experience, with the kind of provenance other fashion hotels could only dream of.

“I always had a soft spot for this place,” says Weiss, a Philadelphia-born party organiser who in 2009 leased the villa (following Versace’s death, the house had been sold into private hands, run as a members’ club and party venue before Weiss gained control and started investing in its restoration). Weiss is not, I notice, wearing any Versace: “I tried to squeeze into the jeans, and never did. I tried the studs and opulence but it was never me.” Really? Weiss, a one-time professional figure skater, as well as Broadway costume and set designer, seems not only in trim physical shape but also shares something of the extravagant style of the villa’s original owner. He owns, for example, three chimpanzees, one orang-utan, five giraffes and a zebra.

At his Miami restaurant, Barton G The Restaurant, duck is served in a duck decoy, swordfish with a sword, and steak with a 5ft fork. With the villa, Weiss may have dropped some of the theatrical wit of his restaurant endeavours but he hasn’t tempered his commitment. “I brought in marble specialists and upholsterers, as well as the mural artists who had first worked under Gianni,” says Weiss. “I don’t care what people say about me, just that they get more than they expect from anything I do.”

In sheer panache, as well as nuts-and-bolts service, Weiss delivers. Some things aren’t perfect but the aesthetics are true to Versace without degenerating into pastiche. When I overhear a fellow diner admit that the food wasn’t that good but they were glad they came, I agree. Because unless you pay the $795 room rate, dinner or afternoon tea is the only way you get access to this extraordinary place.

“Gianni has to have all the credit for making this place what it is today,” says Weiss, whom one can’t help liking for his commitment to the villa. “It’s a not a profit centre, it’s a cost centre,” he concedes. Although his is not a fashion background, he has understood the industry’s fantastical core, and how, like theatre, it can transport you to another place. “This villa takes you out of the craziness of South Beach, and you are in your own world. You are living a fantasy.” Call me shallow but that’s very much the same feeling as wearing a piece of the very best vintage couture.

Doubles at The Villa by Barton G ( start at $795

Read more on Palazzo Versace in Dubai

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