Sky's the Limit
IT'S EASY TO SEE WHY DUBAI - a land of sun, sand and shopping - is developing a reputation as a playground for the rich and famous.
Piercing the blue sky of this emirate - one of seven that make up the United Arab Emirates (UAE) - are properties that take luxury living to a new level. Last October, 144 apartments went on sale there, and within a week more than half had sold at prices rumoured to be more than US$5 million - even though the new owners won't be able to move in until the end of this year.
'They were snapped up,' says Gabriella de Biase, media manager for the home furnishings line of the Italian luxury fashion house owned by Giorgio Armani. 'The buyers were crowding the showroom, waving cheques,' she says in Tokyo at the opening of the new Armani Ginza Tower.
These are no ordinary apartments, not even ordinary luxury apartments. In the first place, they are in the lower reaches, the 9th to 16th floor, of the Burj Tower, which, when completed, will be the world's tallest building at 189 storeys. More to the point these are Armani apartments, designed and furnished by the style guru. 'I think people are attracted by the prospect of living within the world's tallest building,' Armani tells Style.
The designer says he follows the same principles in interior design as he does for his clothes. 'Clothing should not overwhelm the character of the wearer and that is why my collections are simple and elegant. For interior design I follow the same philosophy - my furniture and furnishings are intended to provide beautiful pieces which do not shout for attention.'
Armani and other fashion houses are moving rapidly into other lines, such as furnishing, spas and property. In the not too distant future, you will be able to leave your Armani apartment in Dubai, fly on an Armani jetliner to Hong Kong, relax at an Armani Spa, and fly to Tokyo where you can stay in an Armani brand hotel, never having to leave the warm embrace of your favourite designer.
But Armani is not alone in this trend. Versace is building the Palazzo Versace in Dubai, patterned, it is said, on its Milan establishment and its first overseas palazzo on Australia's Gold Coast. The Italian jewellery giant Bulgari has also opened branded hotels in Milan and Bali.
Each house has its own distinctive style, reflected in the furnishings and decor. Versace is better known for its rich baroque, mini-Versailles Palace-style, heavy on marble and gilt with plaster angels and cherubs in the corners, while Armani favours straight lines and darker colours and his home furnishings have an almost Zen-like appearance.
One floor of the Armani Ginza Tower, which opened on November 7 in the heart of Tokyo's most fashionable shopping district, is given over to the Armani Casa line of home furnishings. It is not exactly a showroom for the Burj apartments; it is designed with the Japanese in mind. But it exudes the same ambience.
There are two bedrooms - 'his and hers' - which reflects Armani's belief that husband and wife need their own space. Each bedroom has its own double bed that dominates the room. The only things missing in the Tokyo set are the ensemble bathrooms, kitchen and balcony. Reports say that each Armani Burj bedroom, naturally, will have its own ensemble bathroom with a pale marble floor.
The man's room is darker, with muted shades of grey. The bed faces an entertainment system with a state-of-the-art flat-screen television. The woman's bedroom is bathed in pale colours with a modernistic vanity.
Sofas in the small living space are one-armed, reflecting the Euro modernist look. The ensemble exudes elegance and serenity, with all furnishings selected by Armani himself. In the Burj, customers are limited to choosing from four colour schemes.
The new Armani Ginza Tower is reflective of what is transforming the world of high fashion. Whereas Japanese used to buy their Bulgari watches and Hermes handbags in boutiques, the fashion houses are now hiring expensive architects and designing their own free-standing buildings, putting their stamp on a small piece of Ginza real estate.
The 12-storey Armani Ginza Tower, designed by Massimiliano and Doriana Fuksas, boasts an exclusive spa (Armani's first), Italian restaurant and a floor devoted to its Armani Casa line of home furnishings.
French designer Hermes started the trend in Tokyo in 2001 when it opened its Ginza tower with its glass-cube motif. Last year Gucci opened its Ginza store, the company's first stand-alone architectural creation. 'We wanted it to be the most luxurious Gucci store in the world,' says chief executive Mark Lee.
A few blocks away is another Italian fashion heavyweight. The Bulgari Ginza store, which opened in November, is the world's largest store devoted to Italian jewellery.
Giorgio Armani doesn't have to look very far to find the competition. Next door to his new building is one devoted to Dior. The Gucci tower is across the street, and the Hermes store is a block down the street.
Armani says that while he hopes his new tower will be profitable, it is really serving as a 'lighthouse' for Armani. 'It has an echo for Armani around the world.'
That can be said for a lot of enterprises in the Ginza. Their owners tolerate a certain amount of loss in order to have the prestige of their Ginza establishments rub off on their more prosaic, though more profitable, establishments out of the chic downtown.
But the Italian fashion giants aren't the only ones with Ginza outlets. Apple Computer opened its first Asian store there in 2003. Barneys New York took over three floors of the Kojun Building, site of Tokyo's first social club, and Abercrombie & Fitch plans to open its first Asian store on the Ginza by next year.
Not all of these companies plan to open their own free-standing stores, but it is significant that they are setting up in Tokyo. China may be growing at breakneck speed and developing a taste for luxury, but it is still to Japan and specifically to the Ginza, not Nanjing Road in Shanghai or even Central in Hong Kong, that the foreign companies open their first Asian stores.
As for Armani, he says he is not sure where he will open Asia's first Armani hotel, but Hong Kong is a candidate. 'Hong Kong, Shanghai and Tokyo are all candidates and all meet the criteria for my programme of hotel and resort development: to open in the world's most exciting and vibrant cities.'