Born in Brussels in 1955, Jean-Michel Gathy developed a wanderlust at an early age. “I have always been fascinated by maps,” he says. “When I was seven, my mother would give me money for milk. But instead of buying milk, I saved it and bought maps. Atlases. At that time, there were 168 countries in the world, and every week, I would study one – Liberia or Japan, for example – and learn everything about it: mountains, rivers, cities, wheat production, etc etc. And at the end of the week, I’d test myself.”
By the age of nine, Gathy was organising family holidays, planning routes around places of interest in Europe. “I had to do it well,” he says, “so as not to look stupid in front of my brother and sisters.”
As well as a zest for travel, Gathy had a flair for languages. He learnt his near-fluent English during a year spent in Pennsylvania, adding it to a clutch of European languages – his native French and Dutch, plus Spanish and a little Italian – all of which helped smooth the path to his success.
After graduating and working in Belgium for three years, he and his Belgian wife (since divorced) spent a year backpacking around the world. “It was 1981. We went to Indonesia, stayed four months in China – which was completely extraordinary, because it had just opened up to independent travellers. My ex-wife adored it and decided to study Chinese.” They went on to settle in Hong Kong.
Gathy spent a brief period working for an architectural practice. Being an employee was not a happy experience, however, and he decided to start his own company. “Everyone spoke English. And suddenly, there was this cosmopolitan person – and, you know, I was a bit of a socialite – so I found myself approached by luxury goods companies to design their shops. Names like Cartier, Rolex, Ralph Lauren, Lacoste … I had 60 projects in my first year. Sixty!”
From boutique interiors, he progressed to building the upmarket hotels for which he is now known, designing for groups such as Aman Resorts, Banyan Tree, Mandarin Oriental, Chedi and One&Only.
In 1992 Gathy moved to Malaysia where – after 10 years, three children and four offices of his own – the marriage unravelled, and his family returned to Brussels. He remarried and today lives on a leafy hillside 9km from the centre of Kuala Lumpur, in a 12,000 sq ft house with a garden and pool, which he shares with his second wife, Anita, their nine-year-old son, Keanu, and eight staff.
“Of all the places where I had stayed in Asia – Hong Kong, Indonesia, Thailand – Malaysia was my favourite,” he says. “I adored Hong Kong, but it was so expensive to live there. And there is a fantastic racial mix in Malaysia: Malays, Chinese, Indians and Eurasian – so when you are a foreigner, like me, you don’t feel like an alien. The people, the police – everyone is so friendly and welcoming. And the legal code, administration system, schools – they are British. You feel safe here.”
The cultural mix is reflected in the food Gathy enjoys, and in the plethora of restaurants he likes to frequent, such as Zipangu, “the best Japanese in town”, or Marini’s on 57, “a lifestyle restaurant and bar on the 57th floor of the building”. In Malaysia, he says, people go out more than in Belgium, and tend to entertain at restaurants. “Belgians are more introverted: they like to stay home more, with their family, by the fireplace, reading, etc – it is more cosy. Whereas in KL [Kuala Lumpur], people are more casual and open, more extrovert – they go out more, eat out on terraces and in the garden. Neither is better or worse – it’s just a reflection of the different weather.”
Although he misses “Belgium’s beautiful old towns, such as Bruges and Ghent, and the old villages of the Ardennes”, Gathy is in thrall to the natural beauty of his adopted country. “KL is set at the bottom of a line of mountains rising 2,000 metres to primary rainforest. There are fantastic parks and trails; I love going to these places,” he says. When not enjoying a weekend in Langkawi (where he stays at the Datai), he goes to the east coast. “It’s the most authentic part of Malaysia. You have very traditional villages of fishermen, and a very attractive rural environment. And the east coast has several beautiful islands, perfect for weekends.”
Surprisingly perhaps – given his uncompromising standards – Gathy did not build his own home. “In fact, until three years ago, we rented,” he says. “You know what they say in French – a cobbler always wears the worst shoes. But I completely redesigned the house. As my wife says, it would have been cheaper to build it from nothing.”
Gathy’s home is imbued with a Zen-like calm. This stands in marked contrast to the man himself, who emits the energy of a whirlwind. His speech is rapid and ebullient. “I absolutely love shopping. I have a taste for beautiful things,” he says, turning to his art collection. “You know, I have about 300 pieces of sculpture – not all necessarily expensive – and Chagalls, Picassos, Boteros.” In fact, his house, unlike the proverbial cobbler’s shoes, is a sleek and polished creation designed as if to enhance his art. “You have never seen a collection like it,” he says. “It is completely eclectic – from a 9th-century Burmese Buddha to photography by Gérard Rancinan.”
Gathy’s life-long passion for different cultures is not only manifest in his catholic choice of art. He travels about 220 days a year for work, enabling him to mix business with pleasure, and giving free rein to his sense of the genius loci. Last year, nine Gathy-designed hotels opened around the world, including Mexico, Venice, Oman and Shanghai. “I spend time getting to know the place. If I am not inspired by the location, or the company, if it’s not a sexy project, I won’t accept,” he says. “The design concept and philosophy are entirely mine. And I’m a maniac for detail. There is reference to the local culture in the architecture, fabric, in a nuance – but never imitation. And there is always a contemporary quirk.”
If there is one dream that Gathy has yet to fulfil, it is to have a little place in a village in the Alps somewhere. “I love to ski; I love the snow, the cold,” he says. “Yes, that’s what I miss about Europe: the cold. The cold, and my family back in Belgium.”
Gathy’s verdict …
● British-based legal, administration and education systems
● Beautiful scenery and beaches
● Too many public holidays – Malaysia has the most in the world
● Frequent rainfall
What you can buy for …
$100,000 A bungalow on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur
$1m A semi-detached, 2,000 sq ft house closer to the city
$5m A beautiful penthouse within 5km of the centre