The sun has shone almost constantly on the gorgeously wrought world of Anouska Hempel ever since she arrived in London in the 1960s. Then plain Ann Geissler, the would-be actress from Australia with pounds 10 to her name, is now a renowned designer rejoicing in the title of Lady Weinberg (through her husband, the financier Sir Mark Weinberg). There is slightly less for La Hempel to rejoice about now, however. She has been ousted from her austere temple of minimalism, the Hempel Hotel in London. This is not only a severe blow to her, but also signals the end of the capital's love affair with pared-down chic.
Some posit the theory that Hempel's misfortune is a sign that the chill winds of recession are approaching; that those who formerly paid to submit themselves to the splendid rigours of her regime now want something a little more joyfully visceral for their money. In the same way nouvelle cuisine became passee when diners realised that jam roly-poly made them feel better when the cupboard at home was bare.
Unlike Blake's, the sumptuous hotel she opened in South Kensington in the Seventies, the Hempel was always something of an oddity. There was the location, for starters. Although Notting Hill is steadily encroaching on its fringes, Bayswater, an area much patronised by Hempel's fellow Antipodeans (of the back-packing variety), remains resolutely unfashionable. Leaving a party in Craven Hill Gardens, where the Hempel opened to great excitement among the fashion crowd in 1996, was always a bizarre experience. One minute you would be in the cool, spare lobby, where low blue flames flickered over an exquisite row of pastel-grey stones. Half of the light spectrum was redundant in this room where the blacks, greys and whites were leavened only by the presence of orchids. This was not a place to shout or gesticulate. This was a place to mingle discreetly, to murmur; to accept a glass of champagne adorned by the fresh condensation of a balmy evening with a gracious nod, the sip to be followed by an amuse bouche of sushi prepared in the kitchens of the hotel's I-Thai restaurant.
As you left this oasis through a rather poky door, you were abruptly brought back to reality. Suddenly you found yourself in a world of noise and dirt, the local kebab shops assaulting your nostrils with the odour of cheap spice, the air laden with Levantine expletives. Anyone entertaining the idea that the Hempel was but a pearl peeping out of the Bayswater grit was instantly disabused of the notion.
There were many parties at the Hempel, like those thrown by Valentino and Sir Elton John. There were not many guests though. Prices now start at pounds 295 per night for a room, and pounds 440 for a suite, whereas at the beginning the cost of a stay was more likely to go into four figures. Less than two years after its opening an anonymous member of staff faxed me some of the daily bulletins written for Hempel's benefit. Reports on the restaurant regularly began with the words "a quiet evening". On one particular day the total number of covers served for breakfast, lunch and dinner amounted to 11. Room occupancy rates had fallen as low as 22 per cent. No wonder Henry Porter described the Hempel as having the "deserted calm of a Buddhist temple on a bank holiday".
When I wrote this up, Hempel was furious. Her lawyers tried to bully me, and Sir Mark Weinberg wrote a letter to my then editor asking him, as pals, to call his dogs off. (To his credit, he refused.)
I have spent many enjoyable evenings at the Hempel, and dined once at its restaurant at a friend's expense; my digestion of the lemongrass-scented delights was thus undisrupted by having to empty my bank account to cover the bill. But it is no surprise that its eponymous founder has parted company with her creation, which ran up losses of pounds 2.5m in the last accounts.
Location apart - which was undoubtedly a considerable factor and one that Hempel tried to counter by modestly suggesting Craven Hill Gardens be renamed Hempel Square - the hotel was hard work for the prices it charged. …