I am probably the only journalist who was invited to the opening of the world’s first Armani Hotel, located in Dubai’s soaring Burj Khalifa who wasn’t told that the event had been moved from the 21st to the 27th of April, because of the volcanic eruption in Iceland.
So, dressed in my crispest summer linens — I was living in Dubai at the time and by April it is already 80-odd degrees in the shade — I arrived at the driveway that leads through the impressively geometric landscaping and energetic ranks of water jets, only to be met with polite puzzlement at the security gate.
Unsure of what to do, the guards ushered me through to reception where Ahmad, one of the hotel’s “lifestyle managers” (every guest gets one), and Candice D’Souza, the senior manager of marketing communications at Armani Hotels and Resorts, tried to ensure — over exquisitely presented espressos — that the mix-up didn’t leave me feeling disgruntled.
It didn’t. Turning up before the hotel was fully open gave me the opportunity to appreciate the airy atrium in peace. Sofas abound. The palette is one of chocolate browns, charcoal grays, blacks, beiges and tans — a welcome relief after the coruscating light of Dubai. And the space is dominated by an installation of abstract arches that I was told is Mr. Armani’s homage to traditional local architecture (they’re more Mamluke than Arabian Peninsula, but never mind).
As I left, Candice said she was looking forward to the opening the following week. I was, too. For a city that’s grown used to spectacular openings and exclusive launches on a weekly basis, Dubai’s calendar, so far this year, has been fairly empty.
Five years in the making, repeatedly delayed by financial and then natural disaster, the city’s most hotly anticipated hotel finally opened last week. At the event, the atrium was crowded with well-dressed journalists, camera crews and assorted hand-shakers, along with Armani Hotel staff and representatives of Emaar, the construction consortium responsible for the hotel, the Burj Khalifa and, indeed, the entire $20 billion development in which we all stood.
Financially speaking, Emaar hasn’t fared as badly as its former nemesis, Nakheel. The developers of the Palm Island and the slowly eroding islands of The World, Nakheel racked up $20 billion of the $26 billion debt accrued by its holding company, Dubai World. In comparison, Emaar owes a paltry $2.21 billion, half of which matures this year. Nevertheless, it was difficult to dismiss the impression that at least some of their delight this evening was relief at having something nice to talk about for a change.
Once the tour began, we shuffled past the assorted Armani concessions in the lobby — the minimalist bouquets at Armani Fiore, the Cubist candies at Armani Dolce and the glittering purses and jewelry of the Armani Privé collection — and into the depths of a dark, dramatic night club.
A dozen or so circular, backlit onyx booths provided the seating. Then it was on to Ristorante, where Tuscany dominates the menu; Peck, Armani’s version of the 125-year-old deli in Milan; the Japanese restaurant Hashi; and Amal, which is dedicated to the cuisines of India.
We were whisked past the library, the spa and the pool, and were told that no, the top-end suites on the 38th and 39th floors were not on our itinerary. “No time,” panted Michel Susini, the lifestyle manager leading our tour. “We mustn’t be late for Mr. Armani.”
Instead, there was one room on show with hordes of people waiting to give it a once over. And it was on the fifth floor that the first hints of disappointment sunk in. The sleek, silvery Burj Khalifa may be the world’s tallest building but its innards are surprisingly cramped. I’m only 5 feet 6 inches tall, but the corridor ceiling felt oppressively low and the walls so close that passing another guest will count in some cultures as an intimate experience.
Adding to the claustrophobia, everything is decked out in dark wood. There are no door handles and the doorbells and room numbers are set flush into the walls. It’s sleek and it’s smooth, but the over-riding impression is more of a walk-in closet than a hotel corridor.
Finally, we entered the Ambassador Suite. It’s one of the more expensive rooms, located on the corner of one of Burj’s three wings. The color-scheme was suitably subdued. The walls were all curved, concealing cupboards and closets and a plasma television. It was a clever, almost Japanese, use of a surprisingly small and expensive space. The sole moment of drama was provided by the floor-to-ceiling views of the surrounding neighborhood and the world’s largest dancing fountain.
Mr. Susini’s determination that we make the press conference on time proved worthwhile. Little of any import was said, but we were treated to the sight of a sprightly Mr. Armani, dressed like he had just walked off a yacht, engaging in a extended love-in with Mohammad Alabbar, the chairman of Emaar.
One of the four big movers to be shaken out of their positions during a palace-orchestrated “restructuring” last November, Mr. Alabbar lost his post on the board of the government-owned Investment Corporation of Dubai, and for a while it was rumored that he was essentially under house arrest.
We heard how much respect both men have for one another. Mr. Armani praised Mr. Alabbar’s vision. A visibly star-struck Mr. Alabbar thanked Mr. Armani for his trust and friendship. Especially his trust. The usual professions of gratitude and praise for the ruler of Dubai were conspicuously absent.
And that, essentially, was that. The press lunch at Ristorante was lovely. The evening fashion show, the dinner at Hashi and the after-party at Privé were all very enjoyable, but the fizz came principally from the prosecco. Beyoncé, Victoria Beckham and Megan Fox were rumored to be attending, and at one point during the evening’s showing of the Armani Spring/Summer 2010 collection, there was a moment when it briefly seemed that Pedro Almodovar was in the audience. But it turned out it wasn’t him.
Compared with the $25-million opening party for Sol Kerzner’s Palm Atlantis in November 2008 — the event to which almost every celebrity alive was invited and which marked the city’s high tide — the Armani opening, like the décor, was minimal. And it was not, in the end, the moment that Team Dubai hoped would erase the schadenfreude that accompanied their city’s fall from grace. But perhaps it’s just too soon for that.
Originally published in the New York Times blog
Photo © Armani Dubai