With Liberty and Luxury for All

Luxury is big business these days, and not just because the world of the rich is more prosperous and populous than ever. The rest of us are also becoming avid consumers of goods and services that were once exclusive to the super-wealthy. Obviously your definition of “luxury” depends on where you reside on the economic food chain—there’s a difference, for instance, between a Dior T-shirt purchased at an outlet and an invitation to a Dior couture show. For some folks luxury might be a pair of Godiva truffles, nestled in a tiny gold box and purchased on a whim at Southdale; for others, a $4,000-a-night, two-story hotel penthouse with a baby grand piano.

Such lodgings are now available in downtown Minneapolis, at the brand-new Hotel Ivy, ballyhooed as the Twin Cities’ first five-star luxury hotel. The saga of the tiny Ivy Tower is by now familiar: Long vacant, the 1930 landmark was destined for a meeting with the wrecking ball, but saved at the last minute by savvy developers. They made the idiosyncratic, vaguely Moorish building the centerpiece of a complex that includes a 136-room hotel, a 17,000-square-foot spa and fitness center, and ninety-two condominiums, almost all of which, remarkably, have sold.

Curious about what exactly it means to be the Cities’ first five-star luxury hotel (and what that coveted and somewhat mysterious designation signifies), I interviewed the Ivy’s general manager, Alister Glen, who graciously made time while in the midst of hiring staff and other harried preparations for the opening last month. The Ivy is part of Starwood Hotels and Resorts’s “Luxury Collection,” a franchise of fifty-some hotels and resorts around the world. (Starwood also owns the Westin, W, and Sheraton chains, among others.) Despite this pedigree, Glen made it clear that the Hotel Ivy would appeal “to all spectrums of the market”—that is, it would even welcome those who indulge in discount Dior and Godiva two-packs.

“I don’t want people to feel like ‘We’re going to have to mortgage our house to even go in there,’ ” he said. “Is it luxurious? Yes. Does it have the kind of rooms and feel that we haven’t seen in Minneapolis? Yes. But are we setting it up to be a bunch of snooty people with attitude? No. No matter who walks through that door, they’ll be treated like they’re staying in the hotel. Maybe you won’t be able to stay in a hotel room, but you’ll definitely be able to have a drink in the bar or a cup of coffee in the lounge.”

Glen’s open-arms approach gets at a tricky aspect of peddling “luxury” in the current market. You can’t be snooty and uptight—or perhaps, more to the point, you can’t afford to be. Thus the emergence of terms like “casual luxe” and “universally likable luxury”; the latter was used last year in a Wall Street Journal article about an ad campaign for Lincoln, the idea being to establish Ford’s high-end automobiles as an “approachable brand” distinct from “old world” luxury or “money-is-everything” luxury.

Why be so adamantly democratic about luxury? One thing to consider is how much of the wealth among the upper-income elite is newly minted, and how many of its holders will eschew old standards of luxury—say, the Saint Paul Hotel—and defect to the Hotel Ivy.

Another, perhaps more important factor to consider: the rest of us. Those who aren’t wealthy can ride along, to some degree, on the coattails of those who are. In “The Snob Within,” an article that appeared last year in the Boston Globe, Don Aucoin noted the original definition of “snob”: one who aspires to membership in a class above his own. In our growing fondness for five-dollar coffees, one-hundred-dollar facials, and thousand dollar “it” bags, he observed that middle-class people are taking cues from the rich instead of fomenting class war against them. As the income gap grows ever larger, it’s as if some of the middle class—or many, really—are looking to make the leap to the expanding yet still tiny ranks of the elite.

However unlikely their chances of success in that endeavor, these strivers make for a huge market, and in an era of growth-at-all-costs global capitalism, why wouldn’t purveyors of luxury seek to exploit them? Hotels, for instance, generate considerable revenue outside of renting rooms; to maximize profits the Hotel Ivy needs to welcome locals for coffee, cocktails, or a spare-no-expense dinner. Its spa needs loyal customers, as do its meeting and banquet facilities—especially as it’s moving into an increasingly crowded “new luxury” market that includes the Graves 601 and the Chambers, and later this year, the W Minneapolis at the Foshay.

As luxury-for-all goes, high-end hotels are distinct from goods like couture, cars, or mansions. A hotel is a place where you can experience a posh lifestyle without a long-term investment of cash. Regular folks will be tolerated—or even, as Glen insists, welcomed. “New luxury” hotels are one of a dwindling number of places that serve both the rich and those who enjoy rubbing elbows with them. Elite night clubs used to have the same function: In the heyday of Studio 54, street kids and hustlers could mingle with socialites, as long as they were good-looking, enterprising, or just plain interesting (even freakish). But as a recent story in New York magazine complained, with VIP everything and de rigueur “bottle service,” the top nightclubs have become the exclusive province of rich kids with platinum cards and assholes partying on expense accounts.

Glen is an affable, thirtyish native of South Africa, and prior to coming onboard at the Ivy he was a manager at Barnsley Gardens, a luxury resort outside Atlanta. I noticed during our interview that he was wearing a Polo sweater—a perfect “new luxury” symbol. It’s well-known that Ralph Lauren grew up Jewish in the Bronx—which perhaps made him the perfect interpreter of wealthy WASP lifestyles. The designer is a great pretender, and so are his legions of fans around the globe, whether they buy Polo as part of “the ultimate retail experience” at the Rhinelander Mansion flagship on Madison Avenue or forage for it in a bin at Costco.

Pages: 1 2