W – the 23rd letter in the Roman alphabet, or a hospitality anomaly? This single letter has come to stand for a concept that has become commonly known as the "lifestyle hotel". But What does W mean? The concept was plucked from the middle of the Starwood name 13 years ago to conceive a new brand for the international hotel operator, created squarely with Manhattan in mind.
W New York opened on Lexington Avenue in 1998, pitched tentatively between the mid-scale and luxury end of the market, but found its roots in modern luxury (what we now call "lifestyle"). This wasn't anything new – Ian Schrager had redefined upscale hotels with the Morgans group some 15 years earlier; at the time that W Lexington opened, he dominated the Manhattan hotel scene. But never before had a business-minded global hotel chain ventured into a territory that made fashion and music its raison d'être.
Fashion is fleeting, but W has so far managed to keep up with the trends by dovetailing with local style-makers; the chain has been a New York Fashion Week sponsor for 14 years. But it doesn't push the envelope too far – although each hotel has its own character and flair, they are all part of an identifiable brand. And therein lies the key to its success; such success indeed that by 2001, New York City had three Ws in its confines. The brand steamed ahead to other US cities and then crossed borders into Mexico and Canada, finally coming to Europe in 2008 with W Istanbul.
On Valentine's Day this year, it opened its 40th hotel in Leicester Square, the first in the UK. Anyone familiar with this part of the West End will likely shudder at the location, but W's bombast has foundations. The hotel is part of a multimillion pound regeneration of the capital's entertainment hub, which will transform a once seedy corner into a European-style piazza, and it is setting the benchmark high, with a seven-storey building wrapped in a glass sheet that sparkles with coloured LED lights at night and has its own screening room.
The centre of the square will remain hidden until next summer. More imminently, the M&M (as in the sweets) flagship store will take up residence on the ground floor of the hotel – fashion-forward or faux pas? Time will tell.
While the retail site might give an uncertain first impression, the picture inside the hotel is more exclusive. Let's start with an opening party back in March that pulled in Kate Moss, Jade Jagger and "The Ws" – a band comprised of Roger Daltrey, Mick Jones and Zac Starkey. For anyone that didn't get an invitation, a feeling of exclusivity can be obtained merely from the lift lobby that takes you up to the first-floor reception: men in black uniforms mutter into earpieces in the glitter-ball bedecked space. It's gimmicky, but this is the cornerstone of W's success: your dream of a glamorous lifestyle is fulfilled as soon as you enter the door...
Things improve though, first with Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Spice Market restaurant – a decadent affair where you eat Holly Golightly-styled renditions of Asian street food (laksa with foam, lobster pad thai) underneath a ceiling of lights made to look like up-turned woks. And in Wyld (left), the blood-red bar behind the lobby conceived by the Ignite Group, which is also responsible for society favourite Boujis.
The W is part of Westminster council's £18m ongoing regeneration of Leicester Square. The hotel sits on the site of the former Swiss Centre, and as part of the redevelopment the tourist-drawing glockenspiel and canton tree are being reinstalled outside. However, the square remains pretty down-at-heel; bear neighbours include a gentleman's club and souvenir shop. Standards will shift up a gear now that the St John Hotel has at last opened next door.
Rooms are based on a studio concept where bathroom and bedroom co-habit. The prices rise with the floor numbers, but the street noise remains; even my fifth-floor "fabulous" room succumbed to the sounds of Soho well into the early hours.
The interior design is flaunted as a "contemporary expression of British culture" and, true to form, a member of Girls Aloud paraded past me to the bar on my visit. But the "duality of an Englishman" sub-theme is more subtle. In the rooms, there's a cushion on the bed embroidered with punks, city suits and an Amy Winehouse-esque character, plus a stack of glossy books on Polaroids and quirky British festivals. A sleek bar unit purveys the rock'n'roll lifestyle theme too, with a display of cocktail shaker and martini glasses and a bar stocked with high-end spirits – but no mixers. Meanwhile, the creamy hues, shimmery tactile fabrics, ergonomic fittings and mirrored panels feel firmly part of the W hallmark. It seems that fashion only goes so far – this is a hotel for those who like their accommodation with razzmatazz, but still recognisably part of a global chain.
W London, Leicester Square, 10 Wardour Street, London W1D 6QF (020-7758 1000; wlondon.co.uk)
Double rooms start at £347, room only.