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“The ability to merge fashion and hospitality is such an exciting thing”

Inspired by a long editorial career, most recently as Editor-in-Chief at Elle Décor, Whitney Robinson is now working with the brightest minds in fashion, design and architecture to develop hospitality and café venues straight out of a magazine spread

Whitney Robinson (left) and world renowned fashion and lifestyle magazine ELLE | Photo credit: Whitney Robinson International / David Allen

As a child growing up in New York, Whitney Robinson would savour a fudge sundae treat at Rumpelmayer’s, a now shuttered coffee shop and desert parlour brimming with ostentatious Egyptian revival interiors, gleaming silver pots of hot chocolate and giant teddy bears.

Looking back, the former ELLE Décor Editor-in-Chief and now founder of design agency Whitney Robinson International fondly remembers those moments as key formative experiences that have shaped his 20-year career in editorial, fashion and design. “All my work is inspired in some way by New York,” he says.

Design, interiors and hospitality have been embedded in Robinson’s DNA ever since. Over a 15-year editorial career, Robinson rose through the ranks at Hearst, beginning as an Associate Editor at House Beautiful and later taking the top spot at globally influential interior design magazine, Elle Décor.

“The magazine was a way for me to travel the world and meet the greatest thinkers, creators and designers,” Robinson says, recalling a “golden era” for print publications in the early 2000s.

After stepping down from Elle Décor in 2020, today Robinson is applying his passion for design and fashion to a host of hospitality projects around the globe via Whitney Robinson International.

Interior of Café ELLE at VIA Riyadh, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia Photo credit: Whitney Robinson International / David Allen

The luxury design and fashion consultancy is a collective of designers, editors, architects, marketers, artists and creators who have worked with the most prestigious brands in fashion, hospitality and real estate. High-end clients include luxury hotels Fairmont and Raffles, and the agency is currently managing projects in Mexico, Qatar, Slovenia and the US.

Among them is ELLE Hospitality, a collaboration with renowned lifestyle magazine ELLE that gave rise to Café ELLE. Robinson has also forged partnerships with US fashion house Ralph Lauren to develop its proprietary café concept, Ralph’s Coffee, in the Middle East and Culture Pass Club, a private members’ venue in Qatar.

“What I do is not so dissimilar from my work as a magazine editor – I seek out really cool brands in the design and fashion spaces. We do everything from incubating ideas, ideation and building physical brands.”

Whitney Robinson International holds the global license to Café ELLE and is expanding the concept throughout the Middle East and the Americas via café and hotel projects. The first Café ELLE opened at luxury hospitality and entertainment development VIA Riyadh in June 2023 in partnership with boutique hospitality venue group Cool Inc.

“Café ELLE is a premium coffee shop inspired by all of our favourite fashion spots in the world,” says Robinson. Taking design cues from traditional Parisian cafés – including an extensive patisserie menu – Café ELLE also reflects contemporary Saudi design with sophisticated yet understated interiors. Conceptualised as an all-day casual dining venue, the menu features health-focused small plates, afternoon tea and a full range of premium espresso-based beverages. A second site in Doha, Qatar is also currently in development.

As Robinson recalls, his first involvement with ELLE Café, as it was then known, was launching the concept at New York’s Plaza Hotel in 2019 while he was still at Hearst. “It got a huge response. Brooke Shields was even there – that was an amazing moment,” he says.

“The ability to merge fashion and hospitality is such an exciting thing”

Though Café ELLE was a resounding success, 2020 brought the pandemic and the temporary closure of the Plaza Hotel. Like so many hospitality venues the project was put on hold, “but it gave me the germ of an idea that the magazine has the ability to hunt out the coolest chefs the greatest collaborations with really cool brands,” Robinson says.

“The ability to merge fashion and hospitality is such an exciting thing. ELLE is a global brand with around 60 editions in as many countries, but it also thinks very locally. Since the 1940s it’s been synonymous with lifestyle and empowerment and I wanted to bring that ethos to a physical location.”

In that vein, Whitney Robinson International brought Ralph’s Coffee to Qatar in 2020, its first Middle East location. Alongside a mobile coffee bar that has toured key cultural destinations, including the iconic National Museum of Qatar and the Fire Station contemporary art space in Doha, Robinson’s agency also worked on the development of Ralph’s Coffee at Hamad International Airport.

“Doha is so interesting because it sits at an intersection between East and West. The offerings, especially from an F&B perspective, are truly global in a way that you really don’t see in New York, London, Paris or Sydney, which tend to be highly European-centric. The district we’re based in has coffee shops from all over the world – everything from traditional Italian espresso to the latest brands from Tokyo or LA,” Robinson says.

As for the future, Whitney Robinson International is staking out further locations for Café ELLE in Kuwait City, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha – with India and Morocco also firmly in the agency’s sights.

Wherever a new project takes him, Robinson is steadfast that considered and locally inspired design is fundamental to delivering memorable – and enjoyable – hospitality experiences.

“The best design makes you feel something. It can make you more productive, change your mood, make you feel happy and inspire you in so many different ways.” 

This article was first published in Issue 19 of 5THWAVE magazine.

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