Overnight Success

With Paris's Mama Shelter Hotel, Owner Aims for an Urban Club Med

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By Marisa Mazria-Katz
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 7, 2009

It was a wet November morning about seven years ago when Cyril Aouizerate took Serge Trigano to a dilapidated parking garage in Paris's 20th arrondissement. It was there, under a carpet of rain, that Aouizerate explained his vision of how a boutique hotel could revive a neighborhood whose only tourists were those paying respects to rock legend Jim Morrison at the nearby Pere Lachaise cemetery. "The time was ripe to rediscover our home town," says Aouizerate. "And what better place to open a hotel than in one of the city's most neglected quarters?"

Little, if anything, about the place appealed to Trigano. For starters, the area had none of the idiosyncratic Parisian charms tourists cherish. What's more, the 54-year-old former chief executive of Club Med spotted a few drug dealers operating near the garage. "It was the worst of the worst of the worst," says Trigano.

Despite serious reservations, he went inside a nearby tobacconist's shop to get out of the rain and call friend and renowned designer Philippe Starck for advice. "I told him I am standing on Rue Bagnolet," he explains. "Before I finished my sentence, Philippe asked, 'Are you in front of the car park? I have been trying to make that a hotel for years. If you take it, I'll make a hotel with you.' That was all I needed to make up my mind." In September 2008, the Mama Shelter hotel was born.

Yet for all the auspicious twists of fate that November afternoon, the hotel's true origins began after World War II when Gilbert Trigano, Serge's father, was asked by Olympian Gerard Blitz to help create a vacation resort where people could forget the war's recent tragedies and forge happier memories. Within a year Club Mediterranee, or Club Med, was launched.

Gilbert catapulted the brand into unmatched echelons of success, but profits dived and tensions mounted soon after he made Serge the chief executive. The principal shareholders ousted the Triganos in 1997.

"The most significant thing that happened to me when I left was hearing the American reaction," says Serge Trigano. "In France they were saying, 'You have failed and you are dead.' In America it was, 'So what will you do now?' " The time had come, he mused, for an urban version of Club Med.

Trigano wanted his homage to be nothing if not stylish, but at the top of his agenda were the initial socialist principles of Club Med's earliest years, and that meant hostel-like room rates. That choice meant that nearly every aspect of Mama Shelter, including Starck's design, would be executed on a tight budget.

Almost a year after its opening, taxi drivers still aren't accustomed to hearing Americans request the 20th arrondissement as their destination. These streets are home to throngs of immigrants and artists, not tourists. The seven-story, cream-colored exterior of Mama Shelter does little to allude to what is brewing inside. Cavernous interiors are dipped in black and strewn with tags from local graffiti legends that shower patrons with such ebullient expressions as "Paris I Love You!" Tree stumps, some of which are slathered in gold paint, serve as stools in the center of the lobby. Dickensian fireplaces ring the perimeter of the lobby-lounge area. In a narrow room adjacent to the entrance sits a 12-foot-long table made up of six TVs encased in glass. Images of news channels from around the world flicker incessantly from the tabletop, bathing guests in a soft blue glow.

Disjointed phrases such as "1.2 million mosquitoes biting you" or "336 dimples in a regulation golf ball" written in chunky white letters cover black elevator walls. The surreality continues: Every room and hallway is lined with black, custom-designed carpeting decorated with a smattering of Starck's scribbles and phrases; some read "Love is all you need." Accouterments in most rooms are limited to a bed, desk, shower and kitchenette.

Come evening, windows overlooking a derelict train track are hidden behind vinyl curtains coated in images of post-World War II street celebrations. The centerpiece downstairs is a U-shape steel bar perched next to communal dining tables, a prominent Club Med feature. The nightly music is provided by local DJs, and when the kitchen closes, the volume is turned up and chairs are pushed aside to allow room for a makeshift dance floor.

Every night, a flood of local artists mixes with international hotel guests, some of whom are high on style but low on cash. And given the reasonable room rates (single rooms start at $112), ordering another martini at Mama Shelter doesn't seem excessive in the slightest. Indeed, even the name of the hotel seems to say: We know it's bad out there, but you're with Mama . . . and Mama knows best.

Mama Shelter Hotel, 109 Rue de Bagnolet, Paris, 011-33-1-43-48-48-48, http://www.mamashelter.com. 172 rooms start at $112 for a single; doubles start at $126 (nonrefundable).


© 2009 The Washington Post Company


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