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The designer Jasper Conran has a look ??? chin dipped, tight pout, side-glance, eyebrow aloft ??? which, along with a “hmmm”, he deploys when he hears anything in questionable taste. He uses it with withering precision when, as we sit in the January sun in his new hotel in Morocco, I disclose that London is so cold I’ve been wearing tights under my jeans. “My goodness,” he declares. “What denier?” But it’s also there for the “upsets” of Brexit and the US election (although Donald Trump reduces him sotto voce to one dramatic word: “bigot”).
His riad, on the other hand, is a cathedral to good taste – a converted 19th-century palace called L’Hotel Marrakech. Five suites of four-posters swathed in a total of nearly a mile of white voile along with baths of trough-shaped tadelakt plaster are all set around a quadrangle of orange trees and a pretty tiled fountain.
The place radiates the sort of 1930s decadence once found in Tangiers. This is in part because of the private-house feel, but also the simple elegance, the pinks and greens, the oil paintings of maharajas as well as Conran’s insistence that you can drink rose for breakfast if you feel so inclined or smoke by the fire in the bar while listening to Duke Ellington on a hidden radio.
There’s a touch of Brideshead Revisited’s Sebastian Flyte about Conran, too. He has ridiculously boyish looks ??? even at 57, with his blondish-grey hair combed to one side and a preppy jersey loose over the shoulders ??? and an air of camp mischief, not to mention the complicated childhood at the hands of Sir Terence and Shirley Conran (questions about whom earn me the look).
What is decidedly un-foppish is his drive. He has wanted to be a hotelier “since the age of eight: it was a toss-up between clothes or hotels”. Clothes initially won: Jasper Conran became a household name in his early 20s as the favourite designer of Diana, Princess of Wales (“None of the big sailor collars, mind. I would like to disclaim those”). The relationship was close, “although she nearly bankrupted me ??? I was making couture at wholesale”.
Later he diversified into china and glass, designing for Wedgwood and Waterford. More recently he produced lines for Debenhams (a favourite were his ??45 “bottom-boosting” jeans), as well as fragrance and books.
Then two years ago he returned to his early ambition (while continuing to design clothes), “to see if I had the aptitude”, he says. “I thought I’d see whether I could do it, whether I’m able, whether I can make it into a business.”
“I’ve loved Marrakech since I first came here in 1984 and harboured this idea that I’d buy a riad.” No small task, given there are already 1200 operating in the city.
Conran and members of his loyal team spent months trawling the narrow passageways of the medina looking for the perfect place. “I looked at about 60 riads. Pretty exhausting.” He chose this building, tucked in deep and hidden behind a studded fortress door, because it had more depth than the average riad and “good bones”.
The herringbone-tiled passageways are lantern-lit and staircases seemingly coil away in all directions. My room, the Casablanca, has an original high, painted, wooden ceiling and a terrace checker-boarded with chocolate-brown zellige tiling.
But Conran’s touch is everywhere: from the massive orange and pink carpet in the sitting room (“made by very well-paid Berbers, judging by how much it cost”) to the green painted passageways (a colour he mixed himself), the art, the rare lamps and the floor-to-ceiling crittall steel-framed windows that have a deco feel. The bed linens are bought in the market (and the bed is wonderfully high and hard and sprawl-out big).
“I did it by instinct, really. I didn’t map it out. I sort of arrived at it. It was really good fun. Hotels bring together what I like doing best: food, textiles, interiors, gardens. I get to have fun with all the things that I like.”
It’s probably no coincidence that the timing of his decision to become a hotelier coincided with his fallout from his father’s furniture design empire. After giving the fleet of Conran Shops a much-needed overhaul, he read an interview in which Sir Terence made disparaging remarks about his ability. The next day he resigned. Not that he will discuss this – “at all”. (He gives me the look.)
Happily, they are back on good terms and the entire family descended on Conran’s riad for New Year’s Eve. His siblings share his strong creative flair (his older brother Sebastian is a designer and academic; Tom is a restaurateur and Sophie has her own crockery collection for Portmeirion) and are “very, very close”. Is that because of their shared experience of Sir Terence?
“I have two very interesting, fascinating, extraordinary parents who are who they are,” he says with a knowing laugh. “They are omnipresent. I absolutely take my hat off to both of them for their achievements and extraordinariness. I’ve always tried to plough my own way in life and it’s not easy to be the child of two very successful people. Because you wonder how you’re going to come out from under their yoke. And sometimes those two very successful people like to remind you, even into their late 80s, of how very successful they are.” Fortunately he can call up his siblings, in dire times. He mimics picking the phone up: ” ‘Oh my God, can you believe it?’ And so that connection is always there.”
Today, he’s here with his assistant, Jake Barrett, who has worked with him for 15 years, and the improbably good-looking Luca Ravera, an Italian who runs the riad and is dubbed The Night Manager by everybody in tribute to Tom Hiddleston’s improbably good-looking character in the TV series (which Conran made him watch). Tonight Pierre Berge, co-founder of Yves Saint Laurent, is coming to dinner and everyone’s excited. The hotel’s clientele has included designers, music industry players and Voguettes.
We eat three different types of tagine on the rooftop terrace, with Conran refusing bread because “no one over the age of 35 can eat bread without bloating”. His husband, Oisin Byrne, 32, a sweet and softly spoken artist from Dublin, joins us for lunch, and we discuss the idea of Conran getting an Irish passport to circumvent the effects of Brexit.
Both Conran’s parents were at his wedding to Byrne. It took place first at Chelsea Register Office before “the Full Monty” at his Dorset home, Wardour Castle. The grooms wore white tie for dinner, he says, and “my mother wore pink. And feathers”.
Ructions between Conran and his mother (one paper reported they didn’t speak between 2002 and 2015) have been “very overplayed”, he says. “Mostly because I won’t react. We’re family. These things happen in families. And I just think pfffff. We see each other. She comes to stay. She came to my wedding.”
He’s close to his stepmothers, too. When I ask which is his favourite (his mother was the second of Sir Terence’s four wives), he says, archly, “I’m blessed: all three are wonderful”.
Conran was about 23 when his mother’s racy bonk-buster Lace came out ??? “You remember the goldfish don’t you Charlotte?” he teases.
“Everyone does. Clever, my mother. I know the backstory and, well, I can just say that it’s not, in my opinion, a work of fiction. But I’m saving that story for a later date when we’re not talking about hotels.”
Anyway, the 23-year-old Conran was far too precocious to be shocked. He’d not long returned from New York, where he attended Parsons Art College (aged 15) and witnessed the birth of Studio 54.
“I saw the whole thing from conception. I went out with Truman Capote and Andy Warhol. Actually I wish I’d read Truman Capote then. I saw him as this absolutely sozzled person gurgling everywhere. If I’d only known what beautiful writing he was capable of I wouldn’t have been so scornful. Well I wouldn’t have been scornful at all; I would have been adulatory.”
Of Warhol, Conran says: “He wasn’t a laugh a minute is all I can say. To my young eyes he was a bit dull. But we now know he wasn’t really dull. He was just dull to be with.”
He says he drank orange juice and watched sex on the dance floor. “They didn’t get me drunk and I wasn’t interfered with, if that’s what you were going to ask. But I did see a lot. Your eyes were out on stalks because they weren’t holding back on the dance floor. The world was changing at that point; things were busting out. All sorts of walls were being broken down.”
Will this be in his memoirs? “Yes, that could be an interesting read, I admit it,” he giggles. He is keen to emphasise that his was not an overtly “monied” childhood; he saw his parents work. “I grew up knowing I need to be in control of my life, rather than having to ask [for money], yes.”
Was it hard to be both creative and good at business? “I worked out something simple very early,” he says. “If my clothes didn’t sell, then I was going to be out of business very quickly and what was I going to do then? So I had to be good at business. When people say, ‘Oh creatives are not made like that’, I say, ‘Well come on! Who is?’ Teach yourself. Being creative is a luxury. Being able to do the thing that you love is a luxury, not a God-given right. And you know sometimes you have to sacrifice part of your creativity. If you want to pay your staff, you have to have sold that jacket.
“I have seen lots of wonderful, fantastic creative people go by the wayside because they didn’t think that they had to involve themselves in the realities of life.”
The realities have paid off. As well as his business here (which he is expanding, and he hopes to open a chain of hotels), he has a beautiful 16th-century holiday home in Lindos, Greece, as well as his country retreat in Dorset. “I did think to myself: did you just do this riad because you wanted to buy another house? I had a bit of soul-searching and I think the answer is probably yes. I’m turning hospitality into something that pays for me.
“I am very, very lucky. I do work that I love.” He adds: “Shall we go and have a lovely drink on the terrace?” It’s at least half past 11 in the morning – why not?
– Austral Scope
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.