In the summer of 2014 a Swiss venture capitalist by the name of Michael Roesli checked into the Mandarin Oriental while visiting his fiance in Kuala Lumpur for the first time. Surveying his room in what was one of the Malaysian capital’s top luxury hotel, the disappointment in his voice was palpable.
The Four Seasons Kuala Lumpur officially opened on 18 Nov 18 in a gala celebration attended by royals and illuminated with fireworks
‘I know this is probably the cheapest Mandarin Oriental in the world but I certainly did not expect to see this old and tired room. The bits are all falling apart and the design is just severely dated. And with one of the highest room rate of the city, I still had to pay for wifi!’
What Roesli had described was once the luxury hospitality symbol of a new Malaysia - a 5-star address raised next to the gleaming twin towers that have since the time of their inception become the icon of modern Malaysia and the definitive sight of its capital. Over the span of the next twenty years the towers stood their ground in a landscape that had changed little. For a while there was some hype around the KL Sentral strip but developments on the whole were perceptibly muted in a region that had surged dramatically; Bangkok continued to boom despite 2 political coups and Singapore had its Marina Bay blueprint methodically and triumphantly brought to life.
In 2018 however, all eyes are on Kuala Lumpur once more. A spate of new developments previously announced all opened in rapid succession, from last December’s Sofitel Damansara’s quiet launch to the big bang sounded by Four Seasons Kuala Lumpur’s official opening gala on 18 Nov 18 that was attended by no less than 2 sultans and some of the country’s most prominent titled glitterati. Currently the tallest hotel/residential building in Kuala Lumpur at 65 floors, Four Seasons Place was a project almost two decades in the making.
Bar Trigona at Four Seasons KL is the city’s watering hole du jour frequented by the rich and the thirsty
David Ban, the reclusive Singaporean tycoon who is a director of Venus Assets Sdb Bhd that owns and developed the Four Seasons Place comprising hotel, service apartments, retail space and luxury residences, sheds light on the process that led to the fruition of the project.
‘We acquired the land in 2003 and didn’t make any plans for it until we are quite sure the time is right. Given the fundamentals of Malaysia’s economy in recent years, we feel that now is the right time to set things in motion. Kuala Lumpur is entering its new age and there is a rising demand for something taller and more spectacular, like a hotel and residence of this (Four Seasons KL) calibre. As Kuala Lumpur is also a springboard to some of the most beautiful destinations in the region, we are also hopeful that tourist arrivals to the city will increase significantly. ’
Reclusive tycoon David Ban photographed at the Executive Lounge of Four Seasons KL that comes with a veranda dripping with views
The impressive project, now a looming presence over the skyline of the capital, was spearheaded by billionaire hotelier Ong Beng Seng who owns the controlling stake whilst Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah of Selangor and entertainment and hospitality mogul Tan Sri Syed Yusof Syed Nasir are his local partners. The fourth shareholder is the youthful looking Ban, who at 74 described the gym as his ‘only heavy lifting these days’’. The residences are currently setting the benchmark prices for private residences in the city and a 2700 sq ft loft will set one back by RM9.3 million.
‘Obviously we feel that Kuala Lumpur currently has great potential for the luxury lifestyle market. Besides hotels and residences, we have also brought in famous lifestyle concepts that we feel will do very well in KL. We opened Nobu seeing that the demand for fine dining has increased significantly in the city. We have also opened Atlas, a gourmet grocer at Four Seasons Place because we feel the demand for quality produce is on the rise and this is the right time to enter the market. Like all other business deals, timing is everything.’
Leekaja, a Korean conceptual hairdressing salon newly opened at Four Seasons Place in Kuala Lumpur
Another hotelier who shares Ban’s optimism on Kuala Lumpur’s economic upturn is Marcus Engel, CEO of Urban Resorts Concept which operates the famed Puli Hotel in Shanghai. Engel was in Kuala Lumpur to see to the soft launch of The Ruma, the latest luxury hotel to open its doors in Kuala Lumpur on 30 Nov this year.
The Ruma, a luxury designer hotel newly opened in Kuala Lumpur
‘We currently operate 3 hotels in China and The Ruma is our first property out of the mainland. All our hotels embody the cultural heritage of their host city and I am particularly proud that The Ruma is set to be the shiny hospitality emblem of Malaysia now that it has finally opened. Although there is much competition around the same neighbourhood, I believe we have raised our bar high enough and have faith that we will be well received by our target clientele group - discerning world travellers who appreciate sublime designs and impeccable service orientation.’
The Ruma currently houses some of Kuala Lumpur’s most expensive rooms which come with complimentary mini-bar stocked with designer sodas and 24 hours check-in, check-out service. Its opening capped a year of remarkable growth in a destination not generally known as a tourist spot; besides Four Seasons and The Ruma, W KL, Banyan Tree KL and Alila Bangsar have all opened in rapid succession in this year alone.
Views from Vertigo @ Banyan Tree Kuala Lumpur, one of the latest luxury hotels to open in Kuala Lumpur this year
Ong Ai Leng, a well-known Malaysian actress and entrepreneur, is optimistic, but not overly jubilant with the current accelerated growth of her hometown.
‘Kuala Lumpur has to catch up with the other big fashionable cities in Asia and this year it has done very well. But with developments come inflation and I am not entirely sure if the local market is ready for the sky-high prices that come with the new establishments.’
Actress and entrepreneur Ong Ai Leng photographed at Villa Samadhi KL
Ong, a seasoned performer in Singapore and Malaysia for close to 2 decades, also owns and operates an events company that caters to the social functions and entertainment needs of extremely high net worth individuals in the region.
‘There are very rich people in Malaysia for sure and a lot of the wealth is parked in Kuala Lumpur but these days even local businesses are all competing with the global players. Internet shopping has changed the game for all brick and mortar businesses and it will be an uphill task for KL to compete on these levels. In terms of fashion I feel that the local style brigade is ready for something more now. Folks in this city are adventurous dressers and the retail scene here is progressively vibrant, to say the least.’
While luxury hotels are sprouting up all over the city, Kuala Lumpur is definitely not impervious to the retail downturn that has hit the region. Luxury brands, the billion dollar industry that has shaped the gilded existence of the CRA sets, are now cautious with expansions but seem to have retained optimism in the Malaysian capital. More private and fashion events are now taking place in Kuala Lumpur as luxury retailers enthusiastically courts the local crowd. Farah Khan, founder and president of the Melium Group, is a veteran player in KL’s luxury retail scene. Originally from Singapore, she relocated to Kuala Lumpur in 1989 and hasn’t looked back since.
‘I think I always saw and understood the potential of Kuala Lumpur, from the very beginning. KL certainly lived up to expectations, it’s a thriving city with infrastructure that supports commerce, culture and development. The expansion from when the Group started has been phenomenal; world class malls house the many diverse luxury standalone boutiques Melium presents, from TOD’S, Roger Vivier, Max Mara, MCM and Givenchy, to a host of exclusively curated labels, Alaia and Victoria Beckham to name some. The luxury retail scene in KL today certainly holds its own against its counterparts in Bangkok, HK and Singapore.’
Khan is also the creative director of her own couture label that was recently presented at London’s prestigious Halcyon Gallery. The Melium Group will celebrate its 30th milestone next year with continuous plans over the horizon for more expansion in the city.
The Farah Khan Maitres de l’Art Couture Collection and limited edition Andy Warhol bomber jackets debuted at a private exhibition in London’s Halcyon Gallery before making an entrance at Kuala Lumpur Fashion Week 2018 at Pavilion KL Fashion Week 2018
‘Couture is very much a niche market and our clientele is international.’
Malaysia’s most famous international designer is arguably Jimmy Choo, a diminutive gentleman with a grand presence who started his own eponymous in London in 1996 and gifted the world with luxury heels and pumps that sell for well over $500 a pair. We met and photographed Choo at the Carcosa Seri Negara, the same location used for the filming of Crazy Rich Asians’ Tyersall Park scenes. Choo, dressed impeccably by Lord’s Tailor, a Malaysian brand of bespoke suits that was also featured in the movie, was attending a cultural event showcasing Malaysian (Kelantan) silverwork and was characteristically swarmed by adoring local fans.
Jimmy Choo in a sharp suit by Lord’s Tailor photographed at Carcosa Seri Negara
‘There are of course limitations to attaining success as a designer if one is to stay in Malaysia, especially back in those years when I started designing. Today the sky is the limit and I feel talented young Malaysians have more chances to spread their wings given the realities of this age.’
Based in London but constantly a presence in his hometown, Choo had his hands full these days working on a wedding label with his nephew as well as dressing the soles of celebrities like Aaron Kwok during his recent concert in Hong Kong. He is still designing bespoke handcrafted shoes for his glitterati clientele, local and international, under another eponymous label 周仰杰 . A pair of shoes can cost up to $10,000.
‘Although the big spenders of Malaysia tend to be discreet and do not boast about their wealth on social media, this is a very rich country not just in terms of money but also history, culture and resources. Malaysia is my home and I am always happy to promote it. The scene here is constantly growing and as developments heat up in Kuala Lumpur, so will the luxury market. I am hopeful that we are on the right path now.’