The Man Behind Aman
Meet Vladislav Doronin, who currently leads one of the most premium hotel brands in the world.
It’s no small thing to work with Kengo Kuma. The architect has, among other things, recently designed Japan National Stadium, one of the main venues for the now delayed 2020 Summer Olympics. Vladislav Doronin commissioned him to design a skincare bottle. It might seem too insignificant to matter, but it speaks to the Aman chairman and CEO’s ability to wave his hand and suddenly be working with one of the biggest architects in the world, even for something as mundane as the packaging of a branded body mist. But for Doronin these details—from the bottle’s curved shape to its soft, vein-like patterns—are all important.
His go-to list of architects has taken time to grow—adding names since his days developing commercial and residential real estate in Moscow in the 1990s. “I had to convince the mayor and the city planners to let me bring in foreign architects,” he says. “It was a bit controversial. They didn’t want it. I told them, ‘I’m not going to build for the moment. We can learn from the western architects’ process.’ ”
Doronin’s introduction to Aman, the five-star-hotel chain that he would helm years later, happened even earlier, as a consumer, when he checked in to the very first Aman, the Amanpuri—its name translates to “place of peace” from Sanskrit—in Phuket, Thailand. He became infatuated.
Aman resorts distinguish themselves by their limited number of rooms—at Amanpuri, for example, there are only 40 villas, and it feels like even fewer—in remote, largely untouched locales. Service offerings are impeccable and indulgent; there’s now an Aman private jet that guests can charter at their leisure. The design aesthetic leans toward serene minimalism, and immersive wellness programs can be tailored to the individual. The brand’s devotees, or “Aman junkies”, stay exclusively at Aman locations for these reasons. Some even make it a goal to visit every single location—no small feat, as today there are 32 in 20 countries.
Doronin counted himself an Aman junkie from then on and made a concerted effort to stay at one, even if it meant travelling hours out of his way. But it wasn’t until many years later that he made a bid to acquire Aman. The time in between was spent working on Capital Group, his real-estate development firm, which oversaw the construction of more than 70 buildings and helped to create Moscow’s business district. Buying Aman would give Doronin the keys to a brand he personally revered and, perhaps even more importantly, help him expand his burgeoning real-estate portfolio into international markets. But a peaceful transfer of power it was not.
Doronin purchased Aman from its founder, Adrian Zecha, for approx. $470 million in 2014 as part of a joint venture with entrepreneur Omar Amanat. Boardroom disputes quickly broke out: Doronin accused Amanat of committing fraud when negotiating their partnership and forced him to sell his shares; Amanat claimed that Doronin illegally seized them. When Zecha subsequently stepped down—some reports say he was pushed—Doronin crowned himself CEO. That conclusion didn’t sit well with all parties involved, and it wasn’t until two years later that the high-profile lawsuit was settled. When asked about this contentious executive change, Doronin pauses—and you can almost hear the public-relations coaching in the background—then says, simply, “I am the chairman and CEO of Aman.”
Now, four years after the verdict, the smoke has largely cleared, but much has changed for Aman. (Zecha is off reimagining the ryokan concept in Japan as part of his new brand, Azumi, and Amanat was found guilty in 2017 of defrauding start-up investors.) Long-time collaborators have taken notice. “It’s mostly commercial and food and beverage changes,” says architect Jean-Michel Gathy, who has designed 12 resorts for the brand since 1989. “Adrian was a man who didn’t really believe in that. Vlad is the opposite. He wants to make money and be a bit more aggressive commercially. He believes in more rooms. The 20 or 30 that Adrian liked is not enough. He wants 40 or 50.”
As proof, take Aman New York, which will open in autumn 2021. On paper, it seems like the antithesis to all that the typical Aman junkie values: instead of some far-flung outpost, it’s located smack in the middle of Manhattan; rather than 30 rooms, it has 83. Architecturally, it’s hardly the minimalist teak façade that the brand is commonly associated with. Doronin dropped approx. $624 million on floors four through 26 of the Crown Building, a 26-storey tower at 57th Street and Fifth Avenue that reeks of Gilded Age grandeur. Completed in 1921, it was designed by Warren and Wetmore, the same architects who built Grand Central Terminal. Over the years the building has primarily housed interior-design showrooms and corporate offices; MoMA opened its first gallery there before it moved to 53rd Street in 1939.
Aman New York was Gathy’s first assignment from the new CEO, and the drastic change of pace was immediately apparent. “Adrian would say, ‘Jean-Michel, you design. You know better than me.’ He would never make a comment,” the architect notes. “Vlad, no. He comments on everything. He’s extremely analytical. He will comment on the wood, the fabric, the number of seats, the plates. Everything. It’s an expensive building. He has to make sure he makes money.”
Part of the return-on-investment strategy has to do with branded residences. Doronin has been especially bullish on implementing these, and Aman New York will be the first batch in the US and in a major city. The timing, though, isn’t exactly advantageous. “It’s coming online at a particularly challenging point in the market,” says appraiser Jonathan Miller, president and CEO of real-estate consulting firm Miller Samuel. Aside from the urban flight to the Hamptons, New York real estate has other challenges at the high-net-worth level. “We’re still waking up from the Covid-19 lockdown, and most of the activity can be found below the $2 million [approx. $2.6 million] threshold.” That’s a segment that Aman New York’s 22 residences can’t touch, with prices starting at around $17.7 million.
What makes Doronin so sure they’ll sell? “One, I can replace any skyscraper. I just need to find the land or the building demolition. But I cannot replace the Crown Building. It’s unique,” he says. “Two, location. It’s an unbeatable location with a park view. I tell buyers, ‘You’re above the clouds.’ And it’s full-service. We can arrange your romantic dinner for you. We can bring hot cappuccino to your apartment. You don’t need to have a butler or chef. We have everything.”
He says more than half of the apartments have already been sold. And if it’s true that the Aman New York’s five-storey penthouse is under contract for approx. $236 million, as has been reported, then that would make the residence far and away the most expensive apartment ever sold in New York on a per-square-metre basis.
For further perspective, take the rival Mandarin Oriental Residences, which are located nearby at Columbus Circle and could scarcely achieve approx. $39 million or a penthouse sale in June, settling for approx. $30 million. Meanwhile, a midtown Ritz-Carlton penthouse was originally shopped for approx. $125 million eight years ago; now its price has been slashed to approx. $64 million. The residences’ sales matter, as Aman New York’s performance, will be seen as a bellwether for the brand’s Miami location, which is set to open in 2023 and will also feature branded residences.
One would think that something of Aman New York’s scale (and timing) would represent Doronin’s most complex undertaking. But of all his professional and personal projects, he counts his own Moscow home as one of the most difficult. It’s also the one he’s best known for, as it’s the only private residence designed by the late Zaha Hadid. The two were close friends and shared a love of Suprematist art, a short-lived and deeply radical movement characterised by geometric shapes on an otherwise blank canvas.
The plan was to build a house on a slope in the Barvikha forest where Doronin could wake up in the morning, open his window and see the blue sky and the tops of the trees. Hadid sketched her idea on a napkin while the two were having lunch in London. He liked it, and with that, they were on their way. “I’ll tell you the truth, it was very challenging,” says Doronin. “She does not let you cut any corners. She wants exactly want she wants. We changed construction companies three times because nobody can build what she suggests.”
The results, however, speak for themselves. Known as the Capital Hill Residence, it’s a sprawling, one-of-a-kind home that marries land and sky. Spaces such as the garage and fitness studio are underground, with the night club and pool carved into the slope of the hill. The primary bedroom floats 36 metres above it all, connected by three slender columns.
It looks part grounded starship Enterprise, part air-traffic-control centre—basically, there’s nothing else like it. “For me it’s important that there are people like Vladislav who have the means to invest in something and explore what the good life is at the highest and most refined level,” says Zaha Hadid Architects principal Patrik Schumacher, who worked on the Capital Hill Residence with Hadid herself. “These things were initially prototype solutions, and they can become more accessible, but someone has to initially explore them and help figure out what works and what doesn’t.”
But at the moment it’s Janu, Aman’s new sister brand, that Doronin seems most eager to talk about. His idea is to create a slightly larger, more affordable and more social Aman that still has the brand DNA but targets a younger audience. “Aman I want to keep very quiet, very private. We play jazz music there. I don’t want that to change,” Doronin says. “For Janu we can go more open. We can create more life, more energy, different kinds of music, sports.” He’s going big, too, launching eight Janu properties over the course of 10 years. But is it counterintuitive to be doubling down on a socialised hospitality model in a Covid-19 world? “The exclusivity and the luxury of not too many people around is still strong,” says James Bidwell, the former CEO of Visit London and the chair of Springwise, a database that analyses the potential of innovative new business ideas across multiple industries, including travel. “I think one would want to avoid being the WeWork for hotels at all costs.”
Regardless of whether it succeeds, Janu requires Doronin to recruit a fresh roster of architects and designers to originate a similar but different look for the brand. Among them is the renowned and youthful interior and product-design firm Yabu Pushelberg, which is lending its expertise to Janu Montenegro. “In the public spaces there’s more food and beverage programming and there’s more ability to stay apart or come together,” says Glenn Pushelberg, one of the two principals.
“The vibe is a little less monastic.” The firm will oversee all of Janu Montenegro’s interior elements, from finishes and wall sconces down to smaller elements like cutlery and glassware. Who’s on deck for the next one? “I don’t want to give you the name because Aman competitors will try and steal from me,” Doronin says. “Let me finish my work at least. Everybody copies and pastes now, unfortunately.” Except, it’s implied, for Doronin.