These days, the must-have accessory for a fashion designer is not an oversized handbag or even an undersized supermodel muse, but a hotel. Not content with their creations dominating the high street, they want to shape our holidays, too.
And they're all at it, either working independently or lending their names to big players in the hospitality industry. Versace owns a hotel, designed by Donatella, below, on Australia's Gold Coast, and the bright colour-loving Italian fashion house of Missoni is set to open places this spring in Edinburgh and Kuwait. Moschino is due to throw open the doors of Maison Moschino in Milan this year, while Giorgio Armani already has branded hotels in several locations worldwide.
The list is increasing. Christian Lacroix's hand, if not name, is all over Le Petit Moulin, in Paris. Todd Oldham and Ralph Lauren have dramatically overhauled Art Deco places in Miami. The Gallery Hotel Art, in Florence, is owned and decked out by Salvatore Ferragamo. Oscar de la Renta, below right, has a collection of sumptuous rental villas in the Dominican Republic, and even the teen jeans brand Miss Sixty has a branded hotel in northern Italy.
So, what is it that drives a fashionista from needle and thread to bricks and mortar? For a start, a hotel is a business and there is perhaps no better place to display your brand to a new audience than the three-dimensional portfolio that is the hotel. This is certainly the case for designers who have chosen prominent cities such as Miami, Milan and New York as the venues for their hotel projects – far wider reaching than buying a centre-spread advertisement in Vogue.
But last month saw the launch of Uxua Casa, perhaps the most offbeat designer's hotel project so far, spearheaded by Wilbert Das, right, the creative director of Diesel. Das has chosen to open Uxua (say: oo-SHOO-ahh) in Bahia, Brazil, far from the crowds of Europe and North America's cities. This collection of nine colourfully converted fisherman's houses, set in the hilltop village of Trancoso, in the remote south of the Brazilian state of Bahia, could not be further from the high-profile urban settings preferred by your average designer hotelier.
This tiny village was previously known, if at all, for its growing community of hippies and barefoot artists. It certainly wouldn't have made the pages of Vanity Fair.
"I think one of the motivations is that fashion designers always work with aesthetics in the largest possible sense," says Das. "Not just in clothing but events, fashion shows, store design. But most things in fashion have a short lifespan. It's an ever-faster cycle, which has become incredibly frenetic. So, for some designers, there's an appeal in putting yourself into something that will endure beyond a season."
And there's certainly something timeless about Uxua, which displays none of the chrome and glass that screams "design" hotel and seems the opposite of any kind of brand extension. "I started out with an emphasis on recycled and organic materials, then invited local craftsmen to realise these things," explains Das. "These craftsmen included members of the nearby Pataxo Indian tribe. I was continually surprised at how resourceful they were, taking small inputs and then using their skills to make much more from it. So I have to say Uxua is a Trancoso project as much as a Wilbert Das one."
Uxua's collection of candy-coloured casas – including one extravagant tree house, entirely constructed from reclaimed wood – is set around the quadrado, a grassy town square that is a Unesco world heritage site. It has a simple church at one end and towering jackfruit trees all around. Although this is, bottom line, a luxury retreat (there is a spa and the pool is inlaid with aventurine gemstones), the place has a community vibe.
Das began renovating one house as a private studio workspace, which grew into a creative hideaway for friends. Eventually, the project became a hotel, which is now very much a part of the town's landscape, both physically and socially.
Das has provided language and literacy programmes for his local team and has recruited a neighbourhood doctor who uses a blend of traditional and modern remedies. He has taken over management of the neighbouring beach bar, converting an old boat into a rustic lounge area open to everyone. He has also created a beach volleyball and outdoor gym area carved from wood along with a wooden platform for capoeira (the traditional Brazilian form of dance which simulates fighting), to ensure the beach remains a local hub.
It's a world away from Das's first hotel project. As the creative director at Diesel, he contributed to the design of Hotel Pelican, the fashion label's tourist address in Miami. "I did enjoy working on the Pelican," he says, "especially giving every room a different personality and incorporating vintage and newly designed furniture, though at the time I had no specific goal to make a hotel one day myself."
There is a distinction between designers as hoteliers and designers who simply put their mark on hotels owned by someone else – the latter being the most common and least risky. Although, as Das's trajectory shows, the compulsion to go the whole nine yards is strong. And the distinction is ever more blurred as the recent pairing of SLS Hotels and the designer beloved of hoteliers, Philippe Starck, attests. Starck has recently signed himself into a 15-year exclusive contract to design SLS hotels in North America, tying his fortunes to the brand pretty tightly.
The fact that Uxua is far from the madding crowd might make it less prominent, but this is the very thing that will make it even more appealing to the kind of well-heeled, worldly traveller who likes to believe they are beyond brand but still can't resist a bit of name-dropping.
How to get there
Uxua Casa (00 55 73 3668 2277; uxuacasahotel.com) offers B&B from BRL640-1490 (£197-£460) per night. TAP Portugal (0845 601 0932; flytap.com) flies from Heathrow to Salvador in Bahia, via Lisbon, from around £750 return. Onward flights to Porto Seguro, about an hour's drive from Trancoso, are available from Brazilian airline TAM (020-8897 0005; tam.com.br) from £180 return. Cazenove & Loyd (020-7384 2332; cazloyd.com) offers a week – with five nights at Uxua, return flights and transfers – from £2,645 per person, based on two sharing.
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