Belfonti Capital Partners, LLC

 

Nests Imperial or Fashionably Feathered

Cover story - New York Times - House & Home

By RUTH LA FERLA
Source: The New York Times - February 2, 2006
Read story on the New York Times website >>>

A RIBBON of runway bisects a spacious lobby wing at 20 Pine Street in the financial district, extending some 45 feet down the length of the room, up a rear wall and across the ceiling. Made of glass and lighted from within, it is a near replica of the runway at Giorgio Armani's headquarters in Milan, a copy calculated to suggest the building's lofty fashion lineage.

The runway, designed by Armani/Casa, the interior design arm of the Armani empire, is the centerpiece not of a fashion showroom but of an 8,000-square-foot sales office for the building, a condominium conversion with 409 units that will go on sale this month. Armani/Casa designed both the public spaces and the apartments in the Zen-rigorous Armani aesthetic, with massive clean-lined furnishings and earth and fog colors that wash like a tide over the public spaces.

The same muted luxury pervades the sales brochures and advertisements, which could pass for pages in fashion bibles like W and Men's Vogue, where the ads will appear next month. Even the property's full name, "20 Pine Street: The Collection," is meant to evoke fashion.

A spokesman for Mr. Armani in New York said he had no connection with the condo project and had not been consulted on its design. But that hasn't stopped Michael Shvo, a marketer working with Leviev Boymelgreen, the developer, from invoking his name at every turn.

"It's very comforting for the buyer to know he is part of a long-lasting, long-sustaining brand," Mr. Shvo said. "Right now, using the marketing techniques of the fashion world is the perceived way you can get into people's pockets." Those words are likely to resonate with prospective buyers – for whom real estate has already acquired a bit of fashion's gloss – all the more as New York Fashion Week gets under way tomorrow. In recent years developers have tried to woo buyers with high-end appliances like Viking stoves and Sub-Zero refrigerators, or with the kinds of amenities – yoga centers, concierge services, media lounges – found at boutique hotels. In some cases they have used celebrity designers like Jean Nouvel or Philippe Starck to apply their touch (and, more important, their cachet).

At 485 Fifth Avenue, the fashion designer Peter Som lent his name and a pattern from one of his spring dresses.

At 485 Fifth Avenue, the fashion designer Peter Som lent his name and a pattern from one of his spring dresses.

Now, with a glut of luxury housing and more units nearing completion, developers and marketers are turning to the seductive power of luxury fashion branding not to sell Fendi bags or Louboutin pumps but as a canny bit of showmanship to promote high-end properties. "We're trying everything we can to sell units, pushing every lever that we have," said Michael Belfonti of Belfonti Capital Partners, LLC, the developer of 485 Fifth Avenue, a 104-unit condo conversion near Bryant Park, where two-bedroom apartments will have an asking price of $2.2 million when they go on sale next week. Louise Sunshine, emeritus chairwoman of the Sunshine Group, a Manhattan real estate brokerage, is credited as the first to use the fashion lexicon to market luxury apartments. She describes apartments by the architect Peter Marino at 170 East End Avenue, near 87th Street, as "Couture Homes" and those at Cipriani Club Residences at 55 Wall Street as "prêt-à-porter," or ready-to-wear.

Other developers are enlisting seasoned fashion publicists, photographers and models, and replacing conventional real estate brochures with slick magazines and coffee-table books. "There is no reason," Mr. Shvo said, "that in our industry today we not look as good as a Prada ad."

Mr. Belfonti, along with the newly merged Corcoran Sunshine Marketing Group, which is handling sales at 485 Fifth Avenue, has hired Harrison & Shriftman, a sought-after fashion event planner, to supply a list of fashion insiders to invite to parties promoting the property. To sprinkle a little more glitter dust on the building, he engaged Assouline, a French publisher known for its fashion photography, to produce a coffee-table book for an estimated $35,000, to be used in place of a conventional brochure as a giveaway to brokers and prospective buyers.

The book offers moody shots of the runway models Ines Rivero and Matt Duffy (both stars in Dolce & Gabbana ad campaigns), posing dreamy-eyed at Midtown locations like Bergdorf Goodman and Bryant Park. In one photograph Mr. Duffy, dressed as a banker leaving for work before dawn, crosses paths in an elevator with Ms. Rivero, playing a fine-boned socialite returning home after a long night out.

"Today everyone is trying to ally themselves with the greatest style and fashion brand," said Chhaya Bhanti, the executive vice president of Assouline. "The confluence of fashion designer and architect is the next amenity."

To lure young buyers willing to pay large sums to live inside a designer brand Mr. Belfonti hired Peter Som, a New York fashion designer admired for his polished but youthful aesthetic. "You can't ignore that the world's eyes are on fashion," Mr. Som said. "Fashion is something people have been conditioned to look at from a younger and younger age."

Working with Handel Architects, a New York firm, Mr. Som designed the building's lobby and lounge, along with assorted details of the apartments. The lace patterns he paraded on the spring 2006 runway have found their way onto a carved metal staircase in the lobby, and a mosaic pattern in the bathroom is styled after one of his crystal-patterned evening dresses. Mr. Som also selected some of the furnishings, as well as the pinstriped fabric and ostrich skin upholstery for the settees and chairs in the lobby lounge.

So far prospective buyers are responsive, up to a point. Richard Penna, a Connecticut hairstylist who is considering buying a one-bedroom at 485 Fifth Avenue, said he was not particularly impressed that Mr. Som designed the interiors, but was swayed nonetheless by the building's stylish image. Its association with fashion "is going to attract people with certain qualities I like," he said: "People a little bit on the edge that love fashion and the excitement that fashion creates."

Next Wednesday night, when Mr. Som will show his fall 2006 collection in the Bryant Park tents, Corcoran will play up the building's fashion connection with a party at the 485 Fifth Avenue sales office, alternating projected images of the apartments with photographs and video clips of Mr. Som's spring and fall collections. Harrison & Shriftman provided the guest list, culled from patrons and friends of the designer, including Aerin Lauder; it also provided the event's hosts, the socialite Amanda Hearst and the actress Sarah Wynter.

As transparent as such ploys may be, real estate insiders say they may help set the properties apart. "At any of these high-end developments, in order to achieve big numbers you have to establish an identity in any way, shape or form," said Peter Moore, an architect and developer in New York.

Whatever the tactics, developers may simply be dressing up ordinary buildings with designer smoke and mirrors. "The same-old same-old is getting built," said André Balazs, the hotelier and developer. "It's so much easier to do what you always do," he added, and then appropriate the glamour of an industry like fashion as a promotional afterthought.

In some cases, Mr. Balazs said, the marketing may overshadow the development, and "the image will be way more sophisticated than the product that gets delivered."

Some developers seem as intent on exploiting celebrity connections as on playing up the building's features. Giuseppe Cipriani, a partner with the Witkoff Group in the Cipriani Club Residences, a condominium and private club in the former Regent Hotel, where apartments have been selling since November, invoked the glamour of his family name. His grandfather Arrigo Cipriani, the owner of Harry's Bar in Venice, famously entertained Elizabeth Taylor, Noël Coward and the Aga Kahn, whose photos appear in the Cipriani sales brochure along with a poster-size image of Naomi Campbell, who lives in the building and is identified in a caption as a "club member."

The fashion game is also being played in cities like Miami, Palm Beach and Las Vegas, where second-home developments are booming. A couple of years ago Guy Shoshan, 33, the owner of a moving company, was on the fence about buying an apartment at Le Meridien Sunny Isles Beach, a condo-hotel development in Miami Beach, until he attended a party and fashion show given by the developer, Fortune International Realty, with Tous, a Spanish jeweler.

"The party impressed me," Mr. Shoshan recalled. "It was a very high quality of people. It put me in a mood to buy." In the mood, he bought a one-bedroom apartment for $275,000.

Over the past year Andrea Greenberg, the vice president for marketing at Fortune International, a developer in Miami, lured 600 to 1,000 prospective clients to receptions for Jade Residences at Brickell, an oceanfront condo tower in Miami, by offering them a chance to hobnob with representatives of prominent fashion designers and merchants, including Ferragamo, Missoni, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue.

"In the old days you could throw an opening in a sales center, and everyone would come," Ms. Greenberg said. "Nowadays there is so much development that we know there needs to be some hook to the event."

Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times - A room in the building at 20 Pine Street, Armani/Casa

A room in the building at 20 Pine Street, Armani/Casa, pictured in a sales brochure, has an oak table and cabinets, all by Armani/Casa. Photo credit: Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times