MILAN, Italy (CNN/Money) -
The center of the fashion universe these days just might be the bar at the Bulgari Hotel, located steps away from Milan's most glamorous retailing district.
The room is as gorgeous and chic as the people who have flocked there since it opened in May. It is cutting-edge trendy, just like the notion of jewelry maker Bulgari (or Bvlgari, if you prefer the designer's retro-Roman spelling) affixing its name to a hotel.
The Rome-based firm is the latest venerable luxury goods company to expand its brand to lodging. But while Bulgari may be this year's hot young thing, there's always another model about to strut down the catwalk.
In fact, the list of prominent fashion houses rushing into hotels reads like a Who's Who of the rag trade: Armani, Ferragamo, Versace, Cerruti, Camper and others have entered the business or plan to do so.
None of the designers actually runs the hotels. For that, they rely on partners with lodging expertise. But to varying degrees, the fashion houses exert control over the look and feel of the properties.
Bulgari's partner, for example, is Ritz-Carlton. But you won't see the Ritz name anywhere in the hotel, and employees are instructed not to mention it. The idea is to emphasize Bulgari style, not necessarily Ritz service.
This can lead to glitches. When the Milan property opened, Bulgari was charged with creating the marketing materials. They were sleek, but it took the Ritz people to notice an error so basic it would flunk any hotel-management trainee: there was no mention of the address or a phone number for reservations.
Armani ups the ante
In February, Giorgio Armani announced he would build 14 hotels by the decade's end, "bringing the Armani philosophy of design and style to hotels," according to a statement.
The joint venture with Emaar Properties (the biggest developer in the Middle East) may cost $1 billion by its completion. The first hotel will be in Dubai, followed by Milan, London, Paris, New York, Tokyo, and Shanghai. Besides city hotels, the collection eventually will include four resorts.
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Bulgari's second project is a resort, too. It is set to open next year on Bali, the Indonesian island playground. Another five or six are planned, in such places as New York, Paris and London, as well as Miami and Los Angeles. Bulgari and Ritz-Carlton are investing about $70 million each.
The Ferragamo family -- best known for soft, lustrous leather -- owns four hotels in and around its hometown of Florence. The most recent is the Continentale, which opened in January 2003.
Perhaps the family's most expansive project is the renovation of il Borro, a medieval village in the hills near Arezzo. The property includes a palazzo and a dozen or so other buildings, which have been re-habbed into a resort.
Meanwhile, Spain's Fluxá family is developing a hotel near the Barcelona headquarters of Camper, its footwear company. Casa Camper is set to open in a few months.
Donatella Versace, the queen of gaudy garb, has her name on the Palazzo Versace on Australia's Gold Coast. Still, there's no Versace lodging empire. The Palazzo opened in 2000, but no additional projects have come since.
If Australia seems a bit far to travel, there's always the Caribbean. Mariuccia Mandelli, the Italian designer known as Krizia, opened the K Bar Club, an exclusive (read: expensive) resort on the island of Barbuda, in the West Indies.
Finding the proper balance
The eternal quest in luxury businesses is to find ways to extend a brand without diminishing its exclusivity. Stick too closely to your knitting, and you wither from lack of growth. Try too many things and you end up selling plastic housewares at Wal-Mart.
So far, the designer-hoteliers have been careful to stress the stylistic allure of their new properties. At the Bulgari, that means teak interiors and soundproof doors weighing 250 pounds, not to mention the ability to order any jewel in the company's catalogue from room service.
At the Palazzo Versace, "brand equity" translates into a resort that reflects the designer's flashy image perfectly, all gold edges and glitz. Similarly, Krizia's beach hotel makes lavish use of signature colors from the designer's ready-to-wear collections.
Given how fleeting fashions are, it's anyone's guess whether all these new hotels will make sense over the longer term. But for now, the designer hotel is in vogue.
The Good Life is a weekly column that chronicles products, people and trends in luxury consumer goods, travel, and fine food and drink. Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org.