My night in with the in-crowd

Brian Viner is a sophisticated chap, known to the right people, seen in the best places. But would he pass muster at St Martins Lane, London's trendy new hotel? Plus, right, Nonie Niesewand meets the owner, Ian Schrager
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Walking slap-bang into the fluorescent yellow revolving-door was perhaps not the classiest way to arrive at London's latest temple of chic, the Philippe Starck-designed St Martins Lane hotel. As humiliation goes, though, I at least fared better than the photographer on the pavement outside, who spotted Jason Statham, one of the stars of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, arriving for cocktails at the mega-trendy Light Bar. The snapper asked a passer-by to shift so that he could get a clear picture of Jason.

The passer-by obliged. Only later did the hapless snapper discover that the passer-by was Brad Pitt. Not yet a week old, the St Martins Lane - the first European venture by hip hotelier Ian Schrager, creator of the Royalton in New York, the Delano in Miami and the Mondrian in Los Angeles - is already rich in celebrity anecdote. Peter Stringfellow swung by on Friday evening, manfully striving to remain incognito by wearing a vivid red suit, and looking more than ever like a knackered old parakeet in vaguely human form.

He sat a couple of tables away from us in the bizarrely decorated Asia de Cuba restaurant, which has columns festooned with plant pots, photographs, ageing textbooks and general clutter, including the kind of ceramic palmistry hand that I last saw 20-odd years ago at one of my grandma's bring-and- buy sales. In answer to the obvious question - "what the hell is this all about?" - the sommelier whispered conspiratorially to us that Starck's decor is meant to evoke "a 1950s South African university campus canteen". My wife pretended to be underwhelmed. Not another flipping restaurant modelled on a 1950s South African university campus canteen. Her irony, which sailed majestically over the sommelier's head, raised a serious point. St Martins Lane - its lobby full of giant chess pieces, extravagant thrones, tables borne by Snow White's seven dwarves, and gold stools shaped like molars - is certainly different. But is it merely different for different's sake? More to the point, does London need it?

According to the British Tourist Authority, accommodation in the capital is hopelessly inadequate, so another 204 hotel rooms are definitely welcome. On the other hand, these are decidedly gimmicky rooms, all equipped with stage-lighting controls, enabling guests to suffuse their beds in colours from bordello pink to jaundice yellow. Hotelier Hector Pettit is all for them. "You could argue that there is only so much business to go round, but style-driven hotels create their own markets," he says. "The Metropolitan, which used to be a bog-standard five-star hotel called The Londonderry, has become a destination in its own right."

Of London's five or six seriously hip hotels, The Metropolitan, at Hyde Park Corner, is probably the seriously hippest. It is targeted unashamedly at the so-called five Ms - media, music, movies, modelling and money - and is the favourite haunt of Leonardo di Caprio when he is in town.

Leisure-industry marketing consultant Nigel Massey thinks St Martins Lane - and its forthcoming sister hotel just off Oxford Street, the Sanderson - will have to go some to rival the Met. "I don't think London has been holding its breath for Ian Schrager," he says. "Basically, the jury is still out. He will rely on hype and a following from trendies, but trendies don't fill hotel rooms, businessmen do." Massey adds that the Schrager name does not yet have the cachet here that it enjoys in America.

Whatever the Schrager-Starck concept at St Martins Lane is, exactly, it overwhelms you as soon as you walk through - or, in my case, into - the revolving yellow door. The first thing we noticed was the profusion of beautiful bellhops, grey- clad Adonises whose earpieces lend them a faintly sinister air, making them look like robotic bodyguards belonging to some evil, sex-mad siren bent on taking over the world. Appearances, of course, can be deceptive. Our bags were taken by Adam, a former model from Wakefield. "Ow do," he said.

Our room was minimalist white chic containing one token ethnic artefact, which caused my wife to worry that we have got the minimalist chic-ethnic artefact ratio badly wrong at home.

That's the trouble with staying at St Martins Lane - it quickly makes you realise how disastrously unhip you are in almost every department. For instance, I left my shoes outside the door overnight, having first arranged for the shoeshine boy to pick them up, yet they were still there the following morning, looking as scuffed and shabby as ever. This might have been shoddy service, except that the service, for the most part, was beyond reproach. More likely, the shoeshine boy refused to pick up my shoes on the basis that they were unfashionably pointy. I half-expected a note. "Sorry, sir, but we only clean trendy square-toed shoes, the ones that look as though you've been kicking a wall for 45 minutes."

My feelings of sartorial inadequacy were reinforced by some ultra-fashionable fellow guests, who proved conclusively that black is the new black. Until Peter Stringfellow arrived in his vermilion suit, my wife and I, in powder- blue and pink respectively, were the only diners in the Asia de Cuba restaurant not decked in black. Back in our room, to demonstrate at least some fin- de-millennium nous, I shelled out pounds 3.50 to rent the Massive Attack album Blue Lines for the night. Frankly I would have preferred The Definitive Simon & Garfunkel, but had a feeling that the intimidatingly sleek CD player might spit it out.

St Martins Lane is not really intended for those of us who wouldn't know the cutting edge of fashion if we sat on it. Which is not to say that the place is filled with the super-cool. One pudgy young American with a goatee and butterfly-wing sunglasses looked sensationally daft, but of course assumed himself to be sensationally stylish. And there were one or two punters in the Light Bar who were definitely less Hugh Grant than Russell Grant.

The staff, however, are uniformly gorgeous. Yet the Alexandra Bastedo- lookalike who brought us Margaritas assured us that all the waitresses had been hired for their "people skills". Oh yeah, we thought.

Will Schrager prosper over here? St Martins Lane certainly satisfies the old industry dictum about location, location, location. And I can vouch for the comfort of the beds and the quality of the grub. The Asia de Cuba restaurant, where Asian and Latin cooking are fused to dramatic effect, is bound to go down a storm with the see-and-be-seen set. So will the Light Bar, which boasts the best Margaritas I have tasted on this side of the Atlantic, served by the best-looking waitresses I have seen anywhere.

And let's not forget the lovely boys, who appear to have been hired as much for their engaging informality as for their pert buttocks. As I wandered though the lobby, past the molar-shaped gold stools, to pay my bill, a bellhop asked if I was about to check out. I told him I was. "Oh," he said. "Bummer."

St Martins Lane - "we don't use `the' or `Hotel'," the PR cautions - is so self-conscious it doesn't even have its name up outside. Or anywhere else for that matter, except on the match boxes which are rapidly becoming the most sought-after status symbol in London.

Designed by Philippe Starck, the 204-room hotel is the latest brainchild of Ian Schrager, the world's most talked-about hotelier. So far, it has cost pounds 52m - a great deal of money, but Schrager expects St Martins Lane to have paid for itself by the end of the first year. Most other hotels take three years. "If this doesn't make money, I can't be adventurous with others," he says. Schrager had been looking for years to bring designer- hotel chic to London, a city he considers to be severely under-bedded. "London still only has 40-45,000 hotel rooms," he exclaims, "whereas Orlando alone has 110,000, and LA has 130,000. In the Seventies, the UK government offered subsidies of pounds 1,000 a room to build more hotel rooms in London. Can you believe it?"

The Seventies was also when Schrager was leading a Jay MacInerney-style life in the fast lane, running New York's infamous Studio 54 and Palladium nightclubs. Then in 1984 he developed Morgans hotel in New York with the French designer, Andree Putman, in the style he calls "Home from Home".

With Philippe Starck he now has four American hits - New York's Royalton and Paramount hotels, Miami Beach's all-white Delano, and LA's Mondrian.

Schrager's idea that there is something for everyone, which is reflected in the varied styles of his hotels, is very egalitarian. "Sir Terence Conran is an inspiration to me and I want you to tell him that. He was the first to bring us the idea that good design was available for everybody. And he carried that message all around the world."

Now Schrager is developing what used to be London's Lumiere cinema (in the basement of St Martins Lane) with "Bob de Niro as state of the art screening rooms, a film bookstall with restaurant and bar". And his second London hotel with Philippe Starck, in the old Sandersons building in Berners Street in the West End, opens in few months' time.

Schrager himself always used to stay at Claridges when site-spotting in London, and while he has different aesthetic sensibilities he still admires Claridges' style. "Such an air of confidence, and with room service you get served one course at a time." So what was his brief to Starck ?

"We didn't have one. We sat about with another architect, Anda Andrei, and discussed what's in the ether, the buzz." This is the man who announced the birth of his first daughter with an architectural blueprint, and the second with a model card bearing the words "Gucci Gucci Gu".

It was Schrager who first broke out of the wall-to-wall beige uniformity of hotels to make them that new millennium thing, An Experience. The new hotel is no exception; at its core is the windowless Light Bar, modelled on a light-chamber installation by the American artist James Turrell. Four coffered ceilings, 18 metres overhead, create four different fluorescent light zones, intensely saturated red, purple, green or orange.

Perched on one of Starck's low, golden "molar" stools, Schrager sips a pounds 4 vegetable juice (pounds 3.50 for the juice, and 50p for the obligatory tip) while he explains his designer's extraordinary outlook: "What Philippe does is not a style. It touches someone, somewhere. So it never goes out of style the way that trendy things do. I call the look of this hotel freefall. Random theatre. Irreverent. Fun. You know what? I think he may be a genius."

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