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Haute-couture jets: how the top fashion came into aviation

Anastasia Dagaeva
December 11, 2017

Last November, Emirates introduced it’s newest first class cabin onboard their Boeing 777-300ER jet. The airline brought the layout to life with the help of Mercedes-Benz. The two brands also joined efforts to advertise this new partnership, which also includes actual cars. The airline says, passengers flying first class can now book a free transfer to the airport in a brand new Mercedes. 

BEAM examined how the aviation industry partnered with famous designers, fashion houses and car brands to create some of the most exclusive airliners in existence.

The power of the name 

In 2007, NetJets, a major business jet operator, ordered 33 Dassault Falcon 7X jets. Having spent as much as $1.5 billion, the company wanted something fresh and interesting. As a result, they made the decision to invite renowned British architect Norman Foster to re-create the interior of the aircraft. 

“We wanted to do a legendary product, something that would make our brand a stand-alone one in contrast with many others in the business,” said a NetJets manager. No guidelines were given to the architect, deferring to Lord Foster. “I saw this project from three sides - like a pilot, a passenger and, of course, a designer,” said Foster. He himself flies a helicopter, airplane and also travels with NetJets as a client. 

The spacious Falcon 7X was designed specifically to fly long-range. The jet is even able to fly Paris-Tokyo nonstop. So, the cabin had to be divided into zones - for crew and passengers, to work and to rest. The crew and client zones were split by colour: beige and brown for the passengers and grey/black for employees. 

Foster moved chairs around the cabin, making eating and chatting more convenient and placed the fold-out bed in the back of the cabin behind the curtain. He also introduced a thick dark-blue stripe across the fuselage - his signature element, the one reflected in his architectural works, like London’s “Gherkin” building. 

The project was presented in 2010 after 12 months of work. “Foster’s interior does help us to sell both charters and aircrafts,” said a NetJets manager, “It’s a great pleasure when a rich client with a fear of flying says he felt safe and comfortable inside the Falcon 7X.” 

It’s not just Lord Foster involved in creating airplane interiors, another famous designer, Philipp Starck, widely known for the Microsoft mouse design, Louis Vuitton and Samsonite bags, hotels, museum and restaurant designs etc. Aviation is also an important topic for him, Stark’s father worked as an aviation engineer. As a kid, Stark was dreaming about space travel. Now, he’s among those who bought their Virgin Galactic tickets. Together with Foster, he contributed to Virgin’s “America” spaceport terminal design in New Mexico, USA.

Back in 2008, Stark was invited to design a cabin inside one private Airbus A330-200 wide-body aircraft. The customer was an unnamed Middle Eastern individual. The order was never public, hence there were neither project details nor pictures of the interior when all was done. The VVIP cabin of the A330-200 consisted of a main lounge featuring an office and a dining room, a private bedroom with en-suite bathroom, two private salons, two executive areas, a changing room as well as a business and staff areas. Unique colours, materials and LED lighting create a feeling of floating on a cloud, said the company that installed the interior, Jet Aviation Basel. 

The price of the project is not known. Generally, the expenses to install a specific, unique interior might be as high as a third of the airplane price, says an Airbus representative. The A330-200 list price is $222 million, as was disclosed by the Toulouse-based manufacturer in 2014. 

Legacy airlines are also passionate when it comes to ‘big’ designer names. In 2008, Singapore Airlines hired a French yacht designer Jean-Jacques Coste to design a first class cabin on their Airbus A380 airplanes. The airline was interested in his experience in creating interiors within a limited space. So the yacht designer created a superjumbo first class cabin. 

The nose section featured 12 suites, with a storage, fold-out chair and a 198-cm long bed. Those travelling as a couple could book side-by-side suites and then combine them into one. The first class cabin was re-introduced in November 2017 with renewed features, fabrics and furniture. 

In 2013, Norman Foster was offered to design several things for Cathay Pacific. First, he designed first- and business class lounges at Hong Kong International Airport, Cathay’s principal hub. Secondly, the carrier wanted a new design for its Boeing-777 first class cabins. To create a seamless experience for passengers, the cabin’s design shared the lounge’s palette of warm white leather, reflective dark grey surfaces and walnut finishes to create a calm, understated interior. 

Every element has been considered and refined, including the stitch of the bespoke covers for Cathay Pacific’s celebrated first class seat, the handmade woollen carpet, the refurbished bathrooms and the new reading light, which has been custom-designed to cast fewer shadows when working or dining. 

The brand’s magnet

Italian fashion house, Versace was one of the first to invade the area of business jets and helicopters as an interior design company. “This is a natural expansion of Versace world, that also includes cars and hotels,” explained Giancarlo di Risio, the president of the luxury fashion house.

In 2007, Versace joined forces with the TAG Aircraft interior maker. The pair worked on several private jets and then concentrated on a project with AugustaWestland. They created a light-blue-coloured interior featuring Versace’s logo. The exact amount of Versace-branded helicopters is not known, although at least one of them was sold to Russia — a local developer bought himself the AW119Ke helicopter from Versace in 2008. 

Hermes, another top-fashion brand, followed Versace in designing exclusive helicopter interiors. Hermes collaborated with Airbus Helicopters choosing its top-selling EC135 helicopter. Hermes designers worked hard — every inch of a cabin was covered in Toile H fabric, that is widely used in Hermes’ bags and accessories since 1920s. All the chairs in the helicopter were handmade. The final product was presented in 2008. Plans were optimistic — to produce 10 helicopters a year.

“The Hermes-branded helicopter didn’t meet expected demand as it turned out being too expensive even for a luxury market. The EC135 list price is €4.5 million and a Hermes design would add another million euro to it,” said Airbus Helicopters representative, “fabrics and materials are very expensive, as well as technical realisation, but you certainly pay for the Hermes brand, that's it.” For the price of €5.5 million the higher class helicopter is available — EC145. In total, no more than five Hermes-branded helicopters were built, one of them was bought by a businessman in Kazakhstan.

The Mercedes-Benz-style EC145 turned out to be more successful project. Perhaps, two engineering companies had more in common — both producing vehicles — cars and helicopters. The client had a choice of four colour options of chairs inside a cabin. “Mercedes is a selected finishing and colour. If you are looking for a pink helicopter — that’s great, but it’s not going to be a Mercedes,” says the car manufacturer’s designer.

The EC145 sports a signature silver Mercedes exterior, while the interior boasts the comfort and sophistication of one of the carmaker’s luxury sedans. A range of deluxe materials are available for seat upholstery in the cockpit and cabin, while flooring and ceiling panels can be done in a choice of woods. Other details include adjustable ambient lighting (borrowed from the E- and S-class cars) and a rail system allowing seat configurations for 4 to 8 passengers. The seats can also be removed altogether for luggage storage. 

“Eurocopter’s cooperation with Mercedes-Benz brings together the world’s leading producer of corporate and business helicopters with the automobile manufacturer that sets global standards for luxury and style,” said Eurocopter’s sales-manager in a statement. A total amount of 10 helicopters were sold.

Another fan of car branding is the US-based business-jet manufacturer SyberJet. In 2013, the company hired Jason Castriota, high-end automotive interior designer with more than 12 years of experience working with Italian design firms like Ferrari, Maserati, reported Business Jet Interiors International magazine. “The SyberJet SJ30 flies as fast as 900 km/h, many people call it “a Flying Ferrari,” explains SyberJet manager, “so why wouldn’t we make an aircraft that reflects this name even more?” 

Castriota also explained some of the philosophy behind the SJ30's new design direction: "Given that many of the SJ30's owners are pilots themselves, we snatched the opportunity to create a supercar-like environment in the cockpit, with superior ergonomics and a very technical look and feel. For passengers in the main cabin we have shifted the emphasis to being modern, functionally dynamic, and comfortable by creating an environment which is open and light to ensure a relaxed and peaceful journey.” CyberJet’s production plans were 24 aircrafts a year, $7.25 million each.

Self-made designers 

VIP-interiors are about personality, not trends, says Lufthansa Technik manager. “Before we start working on the project, we want to know as much as we can about the client — his wishes, lifestyle. In the end, design speaks for itself, whether you like it or not.”

Clients form Asia often ask for card tables to be installed. Passengers can gamble, just make sure the plane is more the 200 km from the shore, as some countries are gambling-sensitive. There are requests for a sauna, karaoke, treadmills and stationary bikes (those are installed inside big jets, like BBJ or ACJ). 

Sometimes a client want his airplane to be designed in the way his yacht or house was decorated. Women would ask to include the same type of leather their handbags are made from. There are some exotic cases too: what about Château de Versailles or a British library? Another Forbes-listed businessman has a Russian Orthodox icon on the wall of his ACJ319.

Middle East customers prefer gold-plated devices, shark skin and wood inlaid tables with diamonds. “Many customers from the Middle East spend their entire life in a palace — they are used to the highest level of comfort and service,” says Pierrejean Design Studio’s designer (yachts and airplanes interiors), “so, being a people with rich imagination they want the best, designer can offer. In other words, they prefer palaces even for flying.” 

Until recently, the most expensive project in private aviation was the double-deck Airbus A380’s VVIP design, called “The Flying Palace”. The order was placed by the Royal Family Saudi prince, in 2007. In 2015 he canceled his A380 order. The reason is unknown, probably the oil price falling. According to the Airbus representative, the project was stopped. A lot of rumours appeared: some were saying the VVIP-configuration allowed two Rolls-Royce cars storage, also a flying stable for horses and camels, a section for hawks, a prayer room etc.

Not any client’s wish comes to reality. Due to security reasons bathtubs, pools and golf are not allowed for installation. No flammable materials and heavy marble parts either. Everything on board requires certification, says Lufthansa Technik’ manager. It means, even a CD-player bought in the supermarket cannot be installed. An impressive amount of tests has to be done. 

In some cases additional equipment is being tuned up before installation, pushing the price for such things in volumes. That’s why any project regarding VIP-configuration is very expensive: for aircrafts like ACJ319 or BBJ737 it starts from $15 million, in case of wide-body Airbus A330, A340, Boeing 747 or B787 — even more — hundreds of million dollar. The construction would take from 1,5 to 2 years. 

But trends in business aviation are subject to renewal. Rationality is a must for a new generation of bizjet users. “These days clients are more concerned about the operating cost. They will never invest in the jet, feeling the money wouldn’t return. They always say how can I resell the aircraft, should I invest more in the maintenance?”, explains Dassault’s manager. 

The airplane has to be a liquid asset. Hence, we see less exotic requirements for the cabin design. Even the most ‘kitsch’ clients — Chinese, Russians and Middle Eastern businessmen, now choose traditional, modest interiors. Dassault offers several types of combinations of leather, fabrics, and wood. 

A private jet is also a flying office, equipped with all sorts of telecom equipment. “Before we used to set a satellite phone, now it goes with internet only”, adds Dassault’s manager, “Today you can hardly sell a charter flight without a Wi-Fi connection.” There’s a new type of client — young, luxury-indifferent, IT-orientated. They use a jet as a fast and convenient transport, that’s it. Elon Musk, for example, would use his Falcon 900 to transport a rocket part.