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How a French retail mogul became an accidental hotelier

March 16, 2020, 11:30 AM UTC

The intention was never to open four hotels in the span of six months. But French retail mogul Frédéric Biousse is used to seeing his projects take on a Herculean dimension. “There were construction delays and permit issues, and before we knew it, they were all ready for unveiling around the same time,” says the 50-year-old during a candlelit dinner on the stone terrace of Torre Vella, one of two converted fincas he and his husband, ­Guillaume Foucher, opened last year as intimate agritourism hotels on the southern tip of Minorca in Spain. Juggling gargantuan budgets and customer needs was familiar to Biousse, but life as a serious hotelier, winemaker, and even farmer was new territory.  

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Domaine de Fontenille: A restored 18th-century manor house and winery in a secluded section of the Luberon in southern France.
Courtesy of Serge Chapuis

The foray into hospitality was a life change precipitated by what could be called retail burnout. As the founder and former CEO of the Sandro Maje Claudie Pierlot Group (SMCP), Biousse fast-tracked international growth for the clothing lines Sandro and Maje, saving them from bankruptcy in 2007 and catapulting them into profitable, accessible luxury brands with boutiques around the world. But by 2015 he had also taken on a role as a board member for Uniqlo and spent more time hopping from one global meeting to another than doing what he loved most: building and growing brands with potential. “It was during one meeting that the vanity of it all fully hit me. People around me behaved as though they were changing the world—I lost it,” he confesses. He sold the group to the global investment firm KKR and prepared for a different life.

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Inside Domaine de Fontenille.
Courtesy of Serge Chapuis

Initially, that life was meant to involve reviving an old winery and restoring the estate’s 18th-century manor house—a veritable find in a secluded section of the Luberon in southern France. It was intended to be the couple’s new family home, a deliberate move toward a slower routine. Foucher, the seventh generation in a family of farmers, wanted to reconnect with his agricultural heritage. The restless Biousse, who had moved 23 times in 20 years, was eager to lay down roots for the first time. But the scale of the project outgrew their needs. “[32,000 square feet] of space for two people and a dog was simply too large. We realized to restore the structure’s grandeur, we needed to make it a commercial project, and making it a hotel was the most natural format.”

The duo invested more than $15 million into the refurbishment of the estate and opened it in 2016 as Domaine de Fontenille, a boutique hotel complete with vines, produce gardens, a state-of-the-art wine cellar, and a one-­Michelin-star restaurant. The move proved to be a worthy expenditure of time and money: Fontenille quickly became a popular getaway for Parisians, in-the-know travelers, and high-profile personalities including singer Vanessa Paradis and Manuel Valls, a former French Prime Minister.

The luxury of tomorrow isn’t money or recognition—it’s meaning and purpose. And that’s especially true in travel. It’s tied to conserving local heritage, agriculture, and perma­culture. It’s putting local first.

Frédéric Biousse

Biousse and Foucher’s future as hoteliers was as much about transforming their lives as it was about capitalizing on a business opportunity. “When I was on the road, I was sleeping in different hotels around the world that were beautiful but without any real character or ­vision,” explains Biousse. On top of that, he realized he had already identified the ideal client for the kinds of hotels he envisioned creating—the same people who loved the mid-range luxury brands he previously had built and grown. The only difference in 2019, he says, is what luxury entails. “The luxury of tomorrow isn’t money or recognition—it’s meaning and purpose. And that’s especially true in travel. It’s tied to conserving local heritage, agriculture, and permaculture. It’s putting local first.”

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Fontenille Menorca Torre Vella: Two historic fincas on the Balearic island of Minorca were converted into boutique hotels and working farmland.
Courtesy of Yann Deret

In the past year, Biousse and Foucher have applied that vision to Les Bords de Mer, a 19-room boutique hotel in an iconic Art Deco villa perched directly on the beach in Marseille, France; to a refurbished surf lodge called Les Hortensias du Lac in Hossegor; and to Torre Vella and Santa Ponsa on Minorca, two historic fincas converted into agritourism escapes with a combined 740 acres of working farmland on which the men produce olive oil, aromatics, and organic vegetables to supply their locavore restaurants. Plans to expand the hotel business in the next two years are ambitious: an estate in Normandy; a 10-room inn in Siena, Italy; and an island getaway in Greece. 

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Les Bords de Mer: An Art Deco villa turned boutique property perched on the Marseille waterfront. Each of its 19 rooms has a stunning view of the Mediterranean.
Courtesy of Wearecontent

Still, these hotel projects haven’t kept Biousse out of retail altogether. In 2016, LVMH chairman Bernard Arnault approached him to run an affordable luxury firm within the group’s portfolio. He declined, but he saw the need to give support to rising stars on his own terms—the kind of support a big group wouldn’t be able to offer. With Experienced Capital, his four-year-old accelerator, he and his team help scale emerging French brands with solid convictions. This includes Balibaris, a fast-growing menswear label; NV Gallery (which Biousse calls the “Sandro of home design”); Jimmy Fairly sunglasses; and skin-care line Oh My Cream, among others. 

“The raison d’être in everything I do now is pleasure,” says Biousse. “And if I can use my success to build brands and experiences with meaning, then I’ve done something right.”

A version of this article appears in the April 2020 issue of Fortune with the headline “The Accidental Hotelier.”

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