For the fashion crowd, word of yet another hotel from a big designer brand might be expected to elicit the kind of withering yawn reserved for the criminally passé. Not so the new hotel project from Maison Martin Margiela in Paris. While the brand doesn’t have the global fame of Versace or Armani, both of which have opened hotels, its niche position is part of its appeal. This is a fashion insider’s fashion label, with the kind of stylistic trademarks that can leave those not in the know feeling baffled.
In more than 20 years since the label was founded, its creations have ranged from the wittily decorative to the deconstructed. It has made coats made from Christmas tinsel and paper towels, put shoulder pads on the outside of clothes and turned a leather butcher’s apron into an evening dress.
Behind the label’s unique vision was founder Martin Margiela, an elusive Belgian who avoided being interviewed or photographed and didn’t bow after his shows. However, a few years ago he left his own label, which was bought by holding group Only The Brave in 2002, and it’s now designed by a team. Since then the brand has become more commercial, branching out into fragrance and interior design. Purists say the clothes aren’t the same without Margiela himself but a sense of surrealism, wit and the avant-garde remains.
A major difference between this project and, say, the new Moschino hotel in Milan or the colourful Missoni hotel in Edinburgh, is that Maison Martin Margiela hasn’t opened its own dedicated hotel. Instead, appropriately for a fashion project, it’s a collaboration: it has redesigned 17 of the 57 rooms in the Hotel La Maison Champs-Elysées. The hotel sits in a glamorous location behind Paris’s famous luxury shopping street Avenue Montaigne, home to Dior and Chanel, which I found to be just far enough away from the mass-market clamour of the Champs-Elysées.
The defining decorative technique is trompe l’oeil. Nothing is what it seems and as my stay progresses, I find myself questioning every mirror, door handle or adornment, with an Alice in Wonderland-like curiosity or, perhaps, suspicion. “Maison Martin Margiela has created a dramatic world where reality and make-believe seem to blend,” says the house, which issues its utterances namelessly, like the Wizard of Oz, since there is no one design figurehead. Several of the rooms feature wallpaper printed with black-and-white photos of walls and fittings in a late 19th-century style, which recalls the type of interiors synonymous with grand old Parisian hotels. In the lobby, brushed steel lamps illuminate the type of faded outlines left by paintings, rather than paintings themselves, giving a ghostly impression. Black, white and grey carpets printed with wood panelling or the patterns of classical French ceiling design also have a slightly eerie effect, modern yet with the nostalgic patina of an old black-and-white photo.
In addition to trickery, there’s some downright weirdness, not least in the “Closet of Rarities” suite. One of seven suites, it has black walls and floorboards, the better to show off a giant glass cabinet full of bizarre objets d’art that look like they should belong to an eccentric Victorian inventor. There’s a sculpture made from oyster shells, an oversized snow dome, playing card house, and a candle shaped like a hand, all of which are for sale.
This is the best suite, along with the “Golden Salon”, which has wallpaper made from photos of the gilded reception room in the more traditional part of the hotel. But there’s a big gap between the suites and the “Deluxe Couture” rooms. When I was shown to my chambre (one of the latter), I was baffled by how unremarkable it was, with its cream walls, plain cotton curtains and clinical, white-tiled bathroom. Was its plain (but not plain enough to be minimalist) quality an ironic joke, a pastiche of a standard room in a standard hotel? Gradually, I tuned into more visual tricks – what appeared to be a rug on the floor was actually printed on to the carpet, and the impression of light streaming into the room was, in fact, created by square patches of paler paint on the white wall – but I wasn’t convinced that they transformed the room into something special, despite a Mac linked to a giant screen and very comfy bed. One wall was covered in plywood, hiding cupboards and the bathroom door. “Plywood is fashionable,” said my boyfriend. Fashion explains a lot.
The hotel’s other motif is the white fabric in which sofas and chairs come wrapped. They resemble the cotton toiles that designers use to cut suit patterns, as well as dust covers, which adds to the sense that the hotel has been abandoned, left undisturbed by humans, let alone tourists. In the dining room, canvas-wrapped chairs are perched on invisible metal poles so that they seem to float above the floor, as if there’s a poltergeist present.
In Margiela boutiques, instead of a glossy carrier bag, purchases are taken away in white canvas sacks, and the staff in the design studios wear white coats that resemble lab coats. Before arriving at the hotel I was hoping the staff would be similarly dressed, facilitating endless jokes about “the men in white coats” coming to take my plate/coat/luggage away but, alas, they wear typical porter’s and concierge’s uniforms.
Staff are helpful and polite, particularly in the restaurant that serves simple seasonal French cooking. There is a small bar but the hotel could benefit from a larger one if it wants to be a place for the city’s beau monde to drink champagne while drinking in each other’s impeccable appearances.
What the hotel does have is a cigar room, with black walls and leather club armchairs. These are a growing trend in Paris, allowed despite the smoking ban. The hotel just isn’t allowed to publicise it.
The smoking room will leave guests divided, no doubt, as will Margiela’s quirky vision. This isn’t a gold-taps, swagged curtains, toile de jouy wallpaper vision of Parisian luxury. It’s not for fashionistas who worship at the altar of logos, blow-dries and Sex and the City. It’s a cool, conceptual play on illusion; which is what, at its heart, fashion is really all about.
Carola Long is the FT’s deputy style editor