From Runways to Room Service

The grand finale of the Christian Lacroix fashion show celebrating the 20th anniversary of the designer’s couture house was a wedding gown cut out of a precious patchwork of brocade and damask, its exuberant floral motifs forming a sparkling tapestry flecked with gold. The veil was held in place by an oversize tiara—a replica of the gilded crown worn by the Portuguese Madonna of Fatima. Two days later, on July 5, 2007, the extravagant gown made the front page of the conservative French daily Le Monde. In France, Lacroix’s unabated capacity for excess still makes news.

But as the models were strutting down the runway, another Lacroix production was being staged nearby, this one attracting no media attention—at least not yet. On a narrow street behind the Musée d’Orsay, dozens of carpenters, painters, electricians, and floor finishers were frantically putting the last touches on the Bellechasse, a 34-room four-star hotel scheduled to open two weeks hence. Fanciful and quirky, the hotel is the latest example of Lacroix’s hospitality work, a growing sideline that includes the celebrated 2005 Petit Moulin, in Paris’s Marais district, and the posh new cabins of the TGV high-speed trains, which look and feel like the lounge of a boutique hotel. In all these projects, Lacroix indulges his notoriously baroque taste by layering visual narratives, often making reference to the folk arts and theatrical heritage of his native Provence.

“I am not a traditional couturier: I don’t cut dresses,” says the designer, who at 56 considers himself more art director than dressmaker. “What I do is create outfits that convey moods, memories, desires. Likewise, the hotels I design are conduits for dreams.” As far as he is concerned, the only difference between the feel of a garment and that of a room is scale. And sure enough, the decor he put together for the Bellechasse is as over-the-top as his famous pouf dresses and bejeweled bustiers. In a mere 13,000 square feet, there are no less than 80 types of fabric, 20 tile motifs, 10 carpet patterns, 7 totally different color schemes, and nearly 50 original giant Lacroix collages used as ceiling- or wall-coverings. Sometimes as many as 10 deliberately mismatched textures, historical motifs, and patterns are crammed together in a single room.

“Lacroix’s early detractors accused him of dabbling too much outside fashion,” says Olivier Saillard, curator of the upcoming 20th-anniversary retrospective at the Musée de la Mode et du Textile, in Paris. He compares Lacroix to Fornasetti, the Italian artist whose personal vocabulary of forms went beyond his particular craft. Indeed, hospitality design is not Lacroix’s only digression. His other well-publicized projects include a tramway for the city of Montpellier, home products for a mail-order catalog, uniforms for Air France and SNCF railroad employees, costumes and scenery for major theat­rical productions, plus countless exhibitions and books. Saillard thinks it makes sense for a fashion designer to venture into fields traditionally reserved for architects, furniture designers, or graphic artists. “Contemporary design investigates ephemeral values,” he says. “It is less classical, less timeless than it used to be. Good designers are no longer strangers to fashion trends.”

This much is certain: one must “wear” a Lacroix interior the same way one would don one of his couture creations or theatrical costumes—with attitude. It is difficult to imagine, for example, a tourist venturing inside the Bellechasse sporting a velour tracksuit. With its explicit theatrical references, the place compels you to dress the part. As soon as you step inside the small lobby you are, the decor suggests, on a stage. Pompeian-inspired murals feature actors wearing antique masks. The red velvet lounge chairs and black-lacquer side tables would not be out of place at the opera. Concealed in the wings, so to speak, are the stairs, the elevator bank, and the reception desk. At the back of the lobby, behind glass doors, a split-level sunken courtyard with a walled-in mezzanine terrace acts as a secondary stage.

Lacroix used a backstage metaphor for the maze of guest rooms occupying the Bellechasse’s seven floors. The property consists of two small contiguous nineteenth-century houses that were gutted to maximize the available square-footage. Working in concert with architects Jean-Luc Bras and Emmanuèle Thisy and interior designer Anne Bruguière Peyroux, he devised a labyrinthine floor plan of curvy hallways snaking around odd-shaped rooms, each with a unique theme. Appointed with large upholstered furniture cobbled together as if by chance, the guest rooms have the makeshift feel of theatrical dressing rooms. In some instances the bathtub is a few feet from the bed; in others a shower is tucked behind a screen or hidden in an alcove. The interior volumes are simple—no moldings, cornices, nooks, or crannies—but the flat surfaces form intricate puzzles with oversize decorative motifs printed on large canvas pasted on walls or ceilings. “Lacroix creates a complex universe,” Bruguière Peyroux says. “When you step inside a room, there is a lot of visual information to take in. The floor plan is efficient, the bathroom fixtures contemporary, the window treatments minimal, but the decor is rich, demanding, exciting.”

The disparity between clean volumes and busy surfaces is what gives the Bellechasse its character. It is unlike Lacroix’s other hotel, the Petit Moulin, whose lavish interiors took full advantage of the building’s seventeenth-­century architectural heritage, celebrating its old stairway, rustic beams, ancient flooring, and quaint storefront facade. In contrast, the Bellechasse has a contemporary edge more attuned to the tastes of the left-bank intellectuals who live nearby. An art historian at heart (he studied to be a museum curator), Lacroix is an astute observer of styles. “I drew my inspiration from the history and atmosphere of the neighborhood,” he says. The Bellechasse’s sophisticated hodgepodge of motifs includes Tarot cards, wrestling masks, Islamic ceramics, Victorian decoupages, antique astronomy charts, and Renaissance architecture. “Lacroix is image-bulimic,” Saillard says. “He tears pictures from magazines all the time and stacks them in piles all over his studio. You should see his scrapbooks! They explain his work.”

“What interests me most,” Lacroix says, “is to explore images in the minds of people using what I design. The theme I chose for the Bellechasse is ‘travel within travel’ because I want the place to be an exotic destination for people who’ve seen it all.” Tourists, he believes, are nomads drifting from discovery to discovery. Thus he designs hotels for them that feel like operatic gypsy camps with rooms as exotic as the inside of a caravan. “I was born in Arles—home to the Gipsy Kings and to gypsy culture,” Lacroix says. “It is also home to other itinerants, like circus people and traveling actors, in the tradition of troubadours and minstrels. I have no gypsy blood, but I did grow up around these folks. I was nourished by this atmosphere of travel, drama, and gypsy glamour.”

Suggesting luxury even in coach class, Lacroix’s design for the insides of the TGV high-speed trains is in character with that exotic vagabond spirit. “For me traveling is going through the looking glass, whether it’s a painting, a photograph, a text,” Lacroix explains. “When in a train or hotel room, I travel inside my head.” The sleek interiors he created for the railcars evoke a twentieth-century tale of travel, the aerodynamic craze of the glamorous 1940s, when kettles, adding machines, and tape dispensers looked like streamlined locomotives. But thanks to a high-octane color scheme that includes neon red, bright purple, and acid green, there is nothing nostalgic about the curvaceous shape of the seats or the fluid profile of the fixtures. Vincent Créance, CEO of MBD Design, the industrial-design firm that hired Lacroix in 2002 to collaborate on the TGV competition, explains that his creative process, though based on imagery rooted in whimsy, was in fact technologically sound. “Lacroix started with words, poetic travel words,” he says. “We quickly recognized the literary quality of his brief as a source of inspiration. Then—and that was the defining moment—he introduced his idea for the chairs by showing us the image of an egg on top of a vertebra.”

Lacroix knew that he was taking a chance by presenting such an unusual visual metaphor. “I was surprised that the engineers at MBD did not send me home the day I showed up at their office with my vertebra and my egg,” he says. But the industrial designers kept their composure. “First it looked like an obscure reference,” Créance concedes, “but when you study it closely, you realize that everything is in it conceptually. The armchairs of the TGV are egg-shaped cocoons propped on spinelike columns where all the ‘nerves’ are housed: the wires, the individual light fixtures, the seat numbers, the cup holder, the trash bin, the electrical outlet, and the tilting mechanism.” Along with the seating system, Lacroix contributed novel ideas for making the train more hotel-like, such as more restful diner cars, family nooks, mini office spaces, and chat bars. “I like to think of people looking at the high-speed train as it zooms across the landscape in a colorful blur. I design trains the same way I design couture garments—for the spectacle they create.”

But not everyone appreciates this penchant for the spectacular, which often sacrifices practicality. Whereas a couture gown is trotted out only on special occasions, the interiors of these hotels and trains, which are subject to daily wear and tear, may prove difficult and costly to maintain. Though Lacroix’s clients publicly embrace his convoluted creative process, in private they worry about mundane details such as stains and scratches. “In a million years we would never have suggested purple chairs for the TGV,” Créance says. “For one thing, it’s too fragile a color. But Lacroix said ‘purple,’ and no one challenged him. He is the genius—that’s why we hired him.” Bruguière Peyroux, who was the go-between for Lacroix and the Bellechasse hotel owners, argues that this is the Faustian bargain hospitality entrepreneurs make when hiring Lacroix. “It was understood from the beginning that there would be a price to pay for the originality of Mr. Lacroix’s scheme—and I am not talking about the cost of building,” she says. “Caring for all the different materials once the hotel is open will require dedication.”

Lacroix, however, sees an upside to these demands wherein there is no escaping his elitist mentality: as in the fastidious world of couture, where one is expected to fuss over details, having to take greater care of a place makes for a more personalized atmosphere. “I am fascinated by limitations,” he says. “It amuses me to overcome them and create something more gratifying as a result. As a child I used to put on a show in my head to change the world to my liking. Today I see my work as creating opportunities for people to escape from the ordinary.”

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