Inside Vermelho, Christian Louboutin’s new hotel
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Say the name Louboutin and people think shoes. They might also think Sex and the City, the show that helped catapult the designer into fame’s mesospheric levels – or maybe, given his predilection for stiletto shapes, vertiginous heights and ultra-feminine (occasionally leaning to bondage) details, just plain sex. But play this fashion word-association game with anyone who has followed the wider arc of Louboutin’s career and you’ll get quite a different set of responses: artisanship; artists’ collaborations; cosmetics; clever, provocative exhibitions. And, maybe most enthusiastically, interiors.
Louboutin’s talent for crafting a supremely tasteful room isn’t a secret. Given how many of his homes have been published in glossy design magazines, those who admire his skill as an interior designer are clearly pretty numerous. They also likely know about his penchant for seeking out the craftspeople who keep old traditions alive around the world, and for collecting decorative arts of both haute and humble provenance – a huge, heterogeneous catalogue of pieces that mix wittily and joyously in the various residences he keeps, from Paris to Luxor.
To them, it may not come as a surprise that the man who made the scarlet sole a universal semaphore for va-va-voom has decided to turn his hand to hospitality – and done it in a place he considers one of his homes. This is how I find myself sitting at the bar of Vermelho, Louboutin’s 13-room hotel in the coastal Portuguese village of Melides, which soft opens this month, and fully on 1 April. Louboutin himself is unable to be there when I visit (a series of delays have resulted in a few reschedulings), but there is no mistaking his presence in every one of its ebullient spaces. The hotel’s three levels, forming a loose angle around a garden created by landscape designer Louis Benech, a friend of Louboutin’s, are full of handpainted murals and richly inlaid wood floors, north African and European antiques, extravagant fabrics and workaday Portuguese stone. And everywhere, custom-designed tiles and ceramics from across the Iberian peninsula.
No two rooms are identical and each showcases at least one singular delight, whether a baldachin bed worthy of a Farnese cardinal or a whimsical rattan table in the shape of a capering monkey. The colours are fearless – a palette to swoon over, with judicious but unmissable deployments of vermilion, that signature Louboutin hue (vermelho means red in Portuguese).
Half-French, half-Egyptian, wholly nomadic by dint of his career and that endless curiosity about the world’s aesthetic cultures, Louboutin first came to Comporta, Melides’s more frequented neighbour to the north, in the late ’80s. He bought a house there a couple of years later. “Back then it was a sort of heaven,” he says. “No people, no [artificial] lights, the sun all day.” But around 15 years ago, “I could feel it was going to become what it basically has, which is an overdeveloped, not as beautiful place. I found I was less happy there.” He discovered Melides by literal accident: driving back from a visit to a local A&E, mesmerised by the beauty of its lagoon, he ran his car into the road’s sand shoulder, where it got stuck – just outside the village, which he instantly fell for. “Melides was like what Comporta was at the beginning,” he says – quiet, authentic, untrammelled, though not without its own small society of worldly denizens. He made a few local calls: if anyone heard of anything property-wise, they were to let him know. Two days later, a modest house on the lagoon unexpectedly went on the market; it became his first residence here and, later, his atelier (he now lives in a larger compound next door).
In 2019, he purchased another small house on a largeish plot in the centre of the village, with the idea to open a restaurant. The town’s mayor suggested he might think a bit bigger, pointing out that there was enough land to consider creating a hotel. Vermelho’s reception area now sits on that house’s old footprint. “Owning a hotel is a very specific fantasy, no?” he says. “A lot of people want to have one. It’s your place, but the guests probably don’t know that, so you can be anonymous. I like that idea; I like to feel responsible for something beautiful, but in a distanced way.”
Beyond this, however, Louboutin faced the project with “no preconceived ideas and no clue”. Though he had already flirted with the notion of doing hospitality, “I’d obviously never designed a hotel. I’m fortunate to have a lot of friends I stay with in a lot of different places, so my aesthetic doesn’t come from a hotel world. And I only know designing homes.” But he had a good start, in the form of a magasin’s worth of antiques, objets and curiosities amassed over his decades of wanderings – many of which, he says, effortlessly found their niche somewhere in the hotel.
His other secret weapons have been his friends. Vermelho’s architect, Madalena Caiado, is the sister of Louboutin’s Portuguese lawyer; Louboutin has known her since she was a child and she restored his house in Lisbon. “She had given me a beautiful book about old Portuguese buildings, and I thought, ‘Whoever knows I would like this book is the exact architect I’m looking for.’”
Carolina Irving, the Elle Decor and Vogue Living editor, and textiles designer (a Melides neighbour of Louboutin’s for years), lent her vast knowledge of historic fabric designs and contemporary collections. Patricia Medina, a Seville-based former antiques dealer, restorer of historic palaces and design consultant, connected Louboutin to some of Spain’s top artisan woodcarvers, metalsmiths and ceramics producers. The stunning doors to each room – two-inch-thick American ash, hand-worked into geometric Baroque-inspired patterns – came from Seville, as did the heavy pewter handles, inlaid with delicate enamel motifs in white and (naturally) vermilion. The Jasper-effect tiles in my suite, their splatterings of teal radiating a nacreous glow, are the result of extensive experimentation. Each suite has its own unique tile design, incorporated into parquet floors, covering walls, or adorning the shallow alcoves behind headboards. The rooms at garden level are decorated with antique ones, sourced from across Spain and Portugal.
“From the very beginning, we’ve done every single piece to custom specifications,” Medina tells me, whether metal, wood or ceramic. “I didn’t realise until last month, when I actually sat down to review all the work of 18 months, what an enormous breadth it was.” The apotheosis of this has to be the bar, a monolith that combines a base of green Indian Giada marble with ornate hammered-silver panelling in the style of baroque church altars, made by fifth-generation ecclesiastical metalsmiths in Seville (Medina recalls with a laugh their initial bemusement as she and Louboutin described the very non-ecclesiastical venue in which it would feature).
Elsewhere, Vermehlo pays homage to Louboutin’s Egyptian heritage: in the massage suite, the walls are covered in alabaster from Luxor, backlit to cast a soft caramel glow. Greece and Paris both get a look-in on the top floor, where a one-bedroom apartment and double room can be connected to create a private residence: one of the floors reproduces one found in the Hôtel de la Marine, on Place de la Concorde, while artist Konstantin Kakanias, another regular collaborator, has painted the walls in undulating fronds and decorative motifs. The bedroom’s coffered ceiling features dense repeats of the five-pointed star that represents the night sky in the tombs of the Valley of the Kings. And the exquisite trompe-l’oeil shell “mirrors” and decorative frescoes in the main hotel corridor are the work of François Roux, who restored the ceilings in Louboutin’s Lisbon house.
The blending of styles, references and eras speaks to this extraordinarily nuanced collective eye. “We all connect with a certain language” is how Louboutin explains the group effort’s success. “I need that when I work with people. You share references; it’s really like a language, and makes things much more fluid.” Also: Louboutin, Irving and Medina are not Portuguese. “If you’re not from the country, you have a different perspective. You see and discover things that people from that country take for granted or maybe miss in their details.” He notes that not all of Vermelho’s chimneys, for instance, are functional – a reflection both of Portuguese tradition and of Louboutin’s own taste. “I was always saying to Madalena, ‘More chimneys!’ And she said, ‘We don’t need them!’ But they’re beautiful. They’re not connected to any purpose, they’re just pretty.”
The kitchen in the restaurant, Xtian, was only fully installed the day before my arrival, but already the food is exceptional: tender octopus salad, braised sardines, grouper in a traditional razor-clam sauce, lamb chops with migas chimichurri. Just as impressively, everyone hit their marks on what was effectively a rehearsal night. “Yes, it’s very agreeable,” Louboutin says. “That comes to a degree from the Portuguese way of life; people are friendly and easy-going, the pace is slower. But it’s also the professionalism of Arnaud and Marugal,” he adds, meaning Arnaud Laporte Weywada, co-CEO of Marugal, the hotel-management company he chose to operate Vermelho. Marugal’s properties in Spain and France – among them Mallorca’s Cap Rocat, Urso in Madrid and Relais de Chambord in Loir-et-Cher – are known for the same easeful but polished service. “I really didn’t want it to feel different to when I’m in my house,” Louboutin continues. “It needed to be an extension in some way of how my friends and I live in Portugal. So if that ambience [works], it’s also because I understood that Marugal would make it the way it needed to be.”
There are plans for two more Vermelho hotels nearby. One, a repurposed two-star property Louboutin has bought that overlooks the lagoon, will feature the interior designs of Olivia Putman, daughter of legendary French decorator Andrée; it’s slated to open in 2024. The other, on a piece of land Louboutin recently acquired in the pine woods, is yet to be built.
And as to whether Melides will retain the unaffected charm that Louboutin fell for? In truth, it’s no secret either. The cognoscenti have been forsaking Comporta for Melides’s shaggier, less look-at-me environs for some time. Developers are prospecting, and new-build, high-end villas slowly but inexorably appearing in the pines. For now, however, it’s still a sweet spot, in both senses of the term – albeit one with a red-hot new place to stay.
vermelhohotel.com; double rooms from €380