Celebrating Women in West London
West London is known as the place where the posh socialites and wealthy foreigners spend their time in the city, but it is also a great place to celebrate female empowerment. I discovered this recently while staying at the Belgraves, A Thompson Hotel in Belgravia. Though I lived in London, I can’t say as a student I really frequented this area very often, finding the West’s posh reputation daunting for the most part. However, on my first trip back in a long while I found myself in this area, surprised not only at how much I enjoyed it but also at how many opportunities there were for women to be their very best, to celebrate and empower visitors to London and the residents of the city as well.
This interesting dynamic I encountered is also unique to the hospitality and travel industry—women in high-powered positions. From the designer of the hotel interiors Tara Bernerd to the executive chef Sophie Michell, the Belgraves is full of women working together and creating something absolutely wonderful. Even the cigar sommelier Paola Paollilo is a woman, the only female cigar sommelier in the UK.
Let’s start with the design of the interiors. Tara Bernerd and her team have crafted a lush yet welcoming experience visually. For the moment you enter this property, it simply oozes coolness. Its gold-hued staircase and pops of color via a vibrant blue sofa give the illusion of walking into a well thought out living room. This is continued upstairs into the bar area where bookcases line the hallway. For such an expensive and luxurious neighborhood that the hotel resides in, the place never felt stuffy. Instead it was overly welcoming. I felt immensely comfortable to sit in this bar and have a drink—more like hanging out in the living room of my dreams and less like the bar in a hotel.
The space is also home to a kind of rotating gallery, with images lining the walls switching out every few months. During my time at the hotel, the collection was courtesy of the Andipa Gallery nearby. This hotel as gallery space is almost a way of having the property blend in with its surroundings of galleries and luxury shops, as though the hotel is a part of the neighborhood as opposed to being located within it.
This art collection doesn’t end with the common areas, however. It continues into the guest room, where a collection has been integrated into the design of each individual space. In mine, there was a Tracey Emin piece directly across from my bed. It was incredible to be confronted with a seminal type of work in her repertoire from the comfort of my hotel room. It was an art lover’s dream, simply being within the aura of an artist’s work that I admire. The studio suite also afforded views of the small park across the road from the hotel and was an excellent use of space applying the brightness from the large bay windows housing a desk and plush maroon sofa.
The location of this property and the ultimate design feels as though it was used as a homecoming for Bernerd, as her studio is based in Belgravia. The establishment is a kind of celebration of the area through her contemporary practices. The restaurant’s design is equally fascinating with a beautiful geometric tile floor and several intimate round booths with slight views of the city above. This hotel is not large; by using every space available to make a statement one is always encountering a beautiful sight. This is very apparent in the small smoking terrace. It features a living wall and retractable glass roof, which lets the sky be the focal point no matter what the weather.
In all of the common areas of the hotel one can experience absolutely delicious food courtesy of chef Michell. Her British meets global with a lean toward Mediterranean style is sure to delight all travelers to London and locals alike. The restaurant, Pont St, is open for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner, making it simple for guests to have an incredible dining experience without having to look far. I was lucky enough to dine there twice, for dinner and breakfast, and what I found interesting was the variety of the types of food served. It’s not as though it is an overwhelming menu, it’s just that one can really experience diversity. Having started with a Thai-inspired crispy squid, a sea bass ceviche that brought me right back to Lima, and a Jerusalem artichoke soup, I was able to really taste the experiences Michell brought back with her to London from her time working abroad.
The mains were equally interesting if not more European in influence. The venison pappardelle with house-made pasta was a rich Bolognese, and the roasted cod with pea purée was like a light interpretation of the British classic fish and chips with mushy peas, minus the chips of course. But we did not miss them one bit—the perfectly cooked fish and bright pea topped with pea shoots was like eating a garden, in a good way. One of the specials for that evening was crab and lobster rolls on brioche, straight from Dover. You could actually taste the freshness of the product and what, again, could have been incredibly heavy wasn’t. It was balanced, and the kitchen team let the shellfish shine through, cutting the buttery brioche with a cool, satisfying filling. I highly recommend going for the special, seeing what kind of magic the kitchen can create on any particular day.
And then there was dessert—oh the dessert. The freshly made donuts filled with passion fruit were just immense. For those who don’t want passion fruit, Nutella-stuffed doughnuts are also available—how fun is that? They are served with a small milkshake to cut through the yeasty morsel. There was a true playfulness in the desserts. I also got the elderflower jelly (“jelly” in Britain is what we call in the United States “Jell-O”), but this was not the kind one would find in a children’s lunch box. This jelly was classed up in a way I had never experienced, and I hope luxurious gelatin desserts become the next food trend. It was light and refreshing like a post-meal sorbet would be, but way more fun.
In between enjoying the luxurious landscape created at the Belgraves, one might be in need of some pampering. The hotel can arrange for an in-room massage or one can experience the uniquely empowering Grace Belgravia. London has a history of exclusive men-only clubs, and women were excluded from this kind of experience for years. Though that did change in the early 20th century with the Women’s University Club, there is still not an overwhelming amount of women-only private clubs. Grace Belgravia, a brisk five-minute walk from the hotel, is a women-only spa, wellness center, and private club combating the men-only history of London and even attracting celebrity cliental such as Cara Delevingne. It is described as having no feminist agenda but instead a feminine one: to empower women to be the very best they can be. And in that way the destination does not need to be labeled in a political term; it is simply there to support the women of West London. Luckily for visitors of the Belgraves, the hotel has a partnership with the club to offer discounted passes for however many days the guest would like or access to the club’s spa services, which can be arranged by the concierge.
Also near the hotel is the Victoria and Albert Museum, or the V&A, a design and visual arts institution that often finds itself inspiration in clothing and textiles for special exhibitions. At the time of publishing, there is an exhibition titled “Shoes: Pleasure and Pain,” a comprehensive, if not small, presentation about a topic that might not first come to mind for an exhibition. The exhibition gazes at shoes as an object of culture, high and low, ancient and highly modern. It was interesting how the exhibition contextualized shoes of different eras together in one case, showing how women and men display social status through footwear through some incredibly uncomfortable ways. For example, one case displayed Chinese foot binding near a fetish shoe collaboration between David Lynch and Christian Louboutin—the creepiest thing this author has ever seen. The museum is known for its displays of women’s clothing throughout history, bringing fashion into an institutional context and celebrating the way in which women live every day and at their most celebratory.
After observing fashion in an institutional subject, exploring it in a commercial context is easy. Near the hotel is a wealth of high fashion and luxurious shops. As London Fashion Week had just ended when I arrived at the hotel, celebrations of fashion and visual textile seemed to be all over the area. Head up the road to Knightsbridge to encounter Harvey Nichols and Harrods’s department stores. Topshop, H&M, and other high street options are mixed in with shopping houses, including Louis Vuitton and Hermes, giving a whole host of options for the consumer in this area. Sloane Square and Duke of York Square are in Chelsea, an eight-minute walk from the hotel. This lovely little area features food, fashion, beauty, and cultural experiences courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery in the posh London neighborhood.
While West London may be an area known for lavishness, this lavishness has given way to women empowering themselves and others to present glorious displays of hospitality, design, and cuisine.