Gordon Campbell Gray is a man on a mission: to smarten up the nation's hotels. And he's not alone. But as Britain gets overrun with modish places to stay, will there be enough chic guests to go round?
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EVEN THE HARD hat looks dapper. Set at a jaunty angle on Gordon Camp-bell Gray's longish silver hair, the white plastic helmet could be a fashion accessory. It is a necessary form of protection as we wander through the building site that is One Aldwych, stepping over exposed wiring and climbing dusty concrete steps.

Inveresk House, as it used to be known, was built in 1907 as the headquarters of the Morning Post newspaper, at a time when such offices were grand monuments to ideas and information. These days they only erect palaces like this for the sets of Tim Burton films. We are on a balcony overlooking the hall in which classified advertisements were once taken. Designed by Mewes & Davis, the architects responsible for the Ritz, it has tall windows framed with wooden panelling; outside, theatregoers hurry towards the Strand to take their seats.

"Over there will be a fabulous centrepiece," says Gordon Campbell Gray, pointing down across the echoing space to what will be the lobby of his new hotel when it opens in May. "A tower of 50 amaryllis, perhaps, or a pear tree in blossom that we bring in for a week and then replace with something else."

Guests will be met by the gaze of a massive stone head of Dionysus, god of wine and chaos. The lifts will have glass walls, illuminated by fibre optics - sunshine yellow in the morning and blue in the evening. Details obsess the owner and designer of this hotel, as he steps through scaffolding (taking care not to get dust on his bright orange cord trousers from Milan) and waves a hand towards the corridor. "Here there will be a table with a long, flat vase that may just be filled with walnuts, and the next day it may be filled with greengages."

This man's motto is "stealth wealth" - the unostentatious display of extreme (and extremely expensive) taste. He is one of a parade of aesthetes who are coming to London to build hotels in their own images, providing a form of fashionable food and lodging that is new to the capital. As costly as the Ritz or the Savoy, they will chuck out the chintz in favour of contemporary art and the sharpest modern design.

A couple have already opened, ahead of the field, but it takes time for new fashions to come through where buildings - and particularly hotels - are concerned. The developments are mainly confined to London, where Sir Terence Conran and the avant-garde architect and furniture-maker Philippe Starck are among those finalising plans for the interiors of hotels due to open in the next few years. Like One Aldwych, theirs will involve gutting impressive old buildings and filling them with modish interiors. More than a dozen other prestige developments will fit into this category, offering the same levels of luxury and service as traditional Five Stars but with an attitude that is idiosyncratic and fresh.

They will change London, by bringing weekend visitors - with their demands for restaurants and entertainment - and a certain chic to areas that previously lacked both. Mayfair and Bayswater could be rivalled by Holborn and Liverpool Street once these hotels arrive. But who will want to stay in them?

Judging by the experience of New York, where the first such establishments were built - and where they were first called "boutique" hotels - the answer is film stars, models and wealthy business people with a taste for design. Anyone with upwards of pounds 200 to spare will be able to spend the night surrounded by beautiful things (and no doubt be insulted by a beautiful porter, who will act like you're messing up his imaginary film set).

Gordon Campbell Gray ran a designer hotel in Long Island before returning to Britain three years ago, intending to import the New York fashion to this country. Asked what will make One Aldwych different from other expensive establishments, he talks about fruit. "It is the details that are important," he repeats. Every-thing about this small but elegant Scotsman is just so, from the velvet edging on his Hermes jacket to his precisely modulated tones. "When I was in Milan, in a suite at the Four Seasons that would have cost pounds 700 a night, they gave me the usual fruit-basket. Over the weekend it got messed up as I ate a bit at a time. It just became tragic by the end. You want to put it in the bin. There wasn't a flower in the suite, not even one rose in a bud vase, which is probably my most hated thing in the world. It's so corporate. When you're a private company and you're doing it yourself you can just make that difference, if you want it to be right."

What Campbell Gray means is that One Aldwych, like all boutique hotels, will pursue high style in meticulous detail. Pineapples are passe, champagne and chocolates are naff. "I would rather come back and have a plate that has four ready-to-eat white peaches; next day cherries; next day, whatever. At least I'd feel they cared."

THERE IS A man in New York who says that hotel lobbies are the nightclubs of the Nineties - and he should know. Ian Schrager owns the coolest hotels in that city, places like Morgans and the Royalton that are built around lobby bars where the in-crowd go to be seen (and are often pathetically grateful to be allowed in). Now he has an eye on London, as do his many imitators.

In the late Seventies, Schrager was joint owner of Studio 54, the archetypal American discotheque, where the Beautiful People of the day like Grace Jones and Bianca Jagger came to dance. Unfortunately so did the tax man, who raided Studio 54 in 1980 and found millions of dollars stashed away around the building. Schrager and his business partner Steve Rubell were sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison for tax evasion, a spell of enforced contemplation that enabled them to plan a hotel empire.

When Rubell died from an Aids-related illness in 1989, the hyperactive Schrager took over as frontman for their business, built on concepts like "hotel as theatre", "lobby socialising" and the boutique hotel as an intimate establishment offering personal service and luxury "in an atmosphere of timeless elegance".

Schrager's creative partner is the Post-Modern Parisian Philippe Starck, who moved from designing furniture for President Mitterand to buildings in France, Japan and Mexico. Together they conceived the Royalton and the Paramount in New York, the Delano in Miami and the Mondrian in LA.

Now Schrager is in the process of formalising a joint venture with the British property group Burford. They have won planning permission for a 200-bed hotel above the old Lumiere cinema in St Martin's Lane, near Tra-falgar Square, and are applying to convert Sanderson House, a Grade II-listed former paint factory close to Oxford Circus. Both feature huge atriums and preserved original features, but detailed plans for the rooms are being kept quiet. A spokeswoman for Schrager said that "initial deconstruction" work had started, but no drawings or architectural plans were being made public, and there was no opening date. With a coyness characteristic of her industry, she could not even confirm how many hotels Schrager was ultimately planning to build here.

His inspiration for the boutique hotel concept was Blakes, the small Kensington establishment opened by Anouska Hempel in the 1970s. She launched a second hotel in 1996 - and modestly named it The Hempel - but that was also on an intimate scale. The first person to emulate Schrager in London was Christina Ong.

Mrs Ong knows about money, and fashion. She is the daughter of one multi- millionaire and married to another. Hers is the name on the leaseholds of at least half of Bond Street's designer stores, and she owns the UK franchise rights to clothes by Donna Karan and DKNY, Prada, Miu Miu and Armani. Together with her husband, Ong Beng Seng, she owns stakes in health clubs, cinemas, restaurants like Planet Hollywood and the Hard Rock Cafe, and dealerships that specialise in prestige cars like Ferraris and Jaguars.

In 1991 the Ongs opened the Halkin, a 41-room hotel in Belgravia where the staff wear uniforms by Giorgio Armani. But the Metropolitan on Park Lane, unveiled in February last year, was the first in the new wave of London hotels that will pursue boutique ideals in grander buildings. It is a major development, with 155 rooms, on a prime site, and there is a restaurant (Nobu) and a drinking den (the Met Bar) to be seen in. Staff wear black Donna Karan outfits, and designers hold private views in their bedrooms over London Fashion Week.

Such drop-dead trendiness might get customers pleading with the door staff when you first open, but the trick is to make them come back after the fuss has died down, says David Bailey, a City analyst specialising in the hotel trade. "The danger with being themed is that you give yourself a limited shelf life. It may be about Cool Britannia for them at the moment, but they could easily be old hat tomorrow, in which case those projects that are based on a fashionable ethos may well be old hat as well." If the new hotels can provide good service in desirable locations, their bubble should not burst.

London is what's known in the tourist trade as "a strong destination", as most people who visit Britain, or even Europe, will want to come to the capital at some point. "Over the last 20 years hotel occupancy ran at up to 77 per cent and that compared very favourably with other places," says Bailey. "Even during a bad year such as when the Gulf War was on, it only fell to the mid-60s. Since we emerged from the recession the average has been over 80 per cent, which has reinvigorated the appetite for investment."

Since there is no formal registration system for hotel rooms it is difficult to know how many there are in London, but the figure is thought to be around 95,000. In 1995, analysts estimated that an extra 10,000 would be needed by the turn of the century. By February this year, 2,200 had been built, while another 4,000 were under construction and the opening of 7,000 more was thought probable.

London already had a good stock and variety of hotels, so investors had to look for new niche markets. At one extreme, an increasing number of budget hotels are being built in former office blocks. The more interesting empty buildings are being bought up by people like Schrager and Campbell Gray, who realised on his return to London - at the height of BritPop and BritArt - that hoteliers there were behind the times. "Restaurants had become groovy, the art world was going great guns, the fashion world was upbeat - and the hotels were still churning out chintz curtains and matching bedspreads. They were renovating and spending millions, but they were just putting in air-conditioning and upgrading bathrooms. Their restaurants had become mausoleums."

EVERY ROOM in One Aldwych will contain a piece of art bought personally by the owner. "This is a very famous Anglo-Ghanaian artist," says Camp- bell Gray, holding out one of a collection of unframed paintings. What is the artist's name? "Erm ..."

He's that famous, then? "Well I just know because of some people ... I'm just trying to think of the right name. Isn't that awful?"

This is time to be vulgar, and ask how much Campbell Gray has spent furnishing his hotel. "I'd rather not talk about money. There may be something in your room that cost pounds 200, there may be something that cost considerably more. I'd hate the guest to know the value of the art."

How about an overall budget for the hotel, then? "I'd rather not do that too. The perception of all these millions makes people think, `Oh my God, I could never afford to go there, it sounds so expensive.' In fact the budget is exactly what it takes to produce a hotel to charge the room rates we're charging, and we're not that outrageous. We'd rather not discuss what it's cost. It's a bit personal." Later, he lets slip a figure in excess of pounds 30 million.

So where does the money come from? "We're a private company and there are three of us in it. I'm the only one who will ever be seen - the other two are invisible. They will never be named. There's no mystery. They just are British and they don't want to have any publicity. And they're fabulous."

Campbell Gray decided to become a hotelier at 17, after lunch with his parents at "a hideous hotel, with hideous design and hideous food". Things were so much nicer in his own home, he thought - so why not let other people have the benefit of his taste?

His career was interrupted by television footage of the plight of children in Bangladesh during the early Seven-ties. "I rang up Save the Children and within six weeks I was there. Then I took charge of the project. Then I went to Morocco to run a school for handicapped children. Then I went to Nicaragua to set up orphanages after 15,000 people were killed in an earthquake there."

He was married in Nicaragua, but later divorced. After five years with the charity he became ill and was ordered home, disillusioned. "I realised after a month that nobody gave a fig about my tales, which were the most dramatic things I had ever experienced in my life. That shocked me. I realised that if I really wanted to resolve the problem the only solution was to go into politics. To be quite honest, at 28, I just didn't think I had the stomach for it."

Instead he persuaded a bank to help him purchase an old hotel called the Dorchester in Woodstock, gutted the building and reopened it in 1982 as The Feathers. His first London hotel was the Draycott in Chelsea. Both were discreet, expensive and old-fashioned, and he sold them to pay for a similar hotel in the Hamptons, New York.

Two decades after Bangladesh, inhabiting an entirely different world filled with luxury, Campbell Gray has not resolved the "Presbyterian guilt" and other personal issues raised by his time with Save the Children. Some- how he has managed to convert them into an aesthetic, as "one of the reasons I have this allergy for anything that's ridiculous or pretentious". His taste (which is what people will be paying for when they book into One Aldwych) changed in New York. "There's a moment when you pare back. You don't want three bronze horses on a table, you maybe want one."

Before he goes on, you must understand that Campbell Gray claims his flat in the West End is as cluttered as any other (although one suspects the groaning shelves are not from Ikea). It is an overnight fantasy of order and style that he is selling, along with his rivals. "My dream room is a Modigliani, a bronze horse and white sofa. That would be my Zen ultimate."