Issue 1 - All In The Detail - Image 1

All in the Detail

For a privileged few car lovers, high-end custom-design is making their fantasies a reality. The luxury brands are taking what used to be known as the “options list” in car design and offering exhaustive “personalization”. We’re talking here about ways of customizing your new motor to make it utterly unique, and the likes of Bentley, BMW, Ferrari, Aston Martin, Lamborghini, Mercedes, Porsche and Rolls-Royce are only too happy to oblige. A comparison with the famed tailors of London’s Savile Row is apt, not least when it comes to Ferrari’s interpretation – it has named its custom-design plan “Tailor-Made”. It’s the vision of Lapo Elkann, the charming high-flying grandson of Fiat kingpin and style icon Gianni Agnelli. Elkann calls himself a “freestyle entrepreneur”, and it’s his idiosyncratic approach to life that runs through Ferrari’s Tailor-Made concept.


In dedicated ateliers annexed to the main Ferrari showrooms around the world, clients can choose between “Classica” (retro styling from the 1950s and 1960s) and “Scuderia” (racing design), or let their imaginations run riot with “Inedita”. Pinstriped seats, cashmere roof lining, or carbon fiber and titanium trim – it’s all possible. “Today, luxury has to be open to new materials and new elements,” Elkann says. “If you’re spending that sort of money, you want the freedom to make the product look the way you want it to look rather than the way the company does.” While Elkann is something of an iconoclast and revels in the possibilities of high-tech new materials, tradition still plays a role. Ferrari suppliers include the celebrated furniture designer and materials experts Poltrona Frau, whose mantra intelligenza delle mani (clever handcrafting) informs the distinctive interiors of today’s Ferraris, and is crucial in Tailor-Made. “There is an almost infinite number of colors for our leather,” the company chairman Franco Moschini says. “There are now more than 90 colors compared to the five or six in the past. The skins are analyzed individually, because each animal is different and has lived a different life.”


Another Tailor-Made supplier is the Piedmontese fabric-maker Vitale Barberis Canonico, whose work with the company is more akin to that of a tailor than an industrial partner. And in a nod to Ferrari’s early days in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when handcrafted bodywork was made in ultra-low volumes for the aristocracy, films stars and industrialists, the company’s Special Projects division will design an entire car to your personal specifications. Eric Clapton is one of the Ferrari clients to explore this avenue with his SP12 EC. Was overseeing the design an enjoyable process? “Oh, unbelievable,” he says. “One of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done. There will never be anything like this again. This is me aged seven listening to [F1 drivers] Fangio and Ascari.”


Victoria Beckham is another big name to turn if not designer exactly, then specifier. Her 2011 limited edition of the Range Rover Evoque comprised only 200 units worldwide, yet despite costing around $128,500, it was an instant sell-out. A hot brand, superstar name and custom design all aligned with a genuinely desirable product, underpinning the marketing voodoo. In matte grey, with rose gold accents inspired by the men’s gold Rolex that her husband David had given her, and with a cabin trimmed in highly desirable buttery aniline leather, the VB Evoque is a notably tasteful example of limited-edition design. “I like to think outside the box,” Mrs. Beckham told me at the car’s launch in Beijing. “Why shouldn’t I design a car? When Gerry [McGovern, Land Rover’s design director] approached me to do this, it was certainly a challenge. I’d never designed a car before, so I think I brought a naivety to the project, though I’ve enjoyed customizing the cars David and I have bought over the years. I didn’t want a car that was particularly feminine, I wanted something that David also wanted to drive.”

Custom car design is a global trend, but individual countries’ traits can appeal across borders. A yearning for authenticity is one of the things that most commends say, Bentley to the booming Chinese market. British luxury automakers have a rich history in wood, leather and marquetry, and as the brand’s chief interior designer, Robin Page, puts it: “By the time you work out all the options [of materials] and all the combinations, there are millions of scenarios.” In fact, Bentley has arguably the richest history in custom design. Its Mulliner division offers “specialist personal commissioning,” a promise that is backed by a relationship that goes back almost a hundred years. The division is named after H.J. Mulliner & Co, the coachbuilder that the company founder W.O. Bentley asked to create the bodywork for his 1919 EXP1 prototype. Mulliner originally built Royal Mail carriages in the 18th century, and handcrafted saddles before that.
This sort of backstory plays well in emerging markets. “Craftsmanship and attention to detail is what defines British design,” Aston Martin’s chief designer Miles Nurnberger says. “We’re extremely creative, but we mix that with a pragmatism. German design is very pragmatic and very exacting, but can lack creativity. French design is creative, but might lack refinement or execution. British design strikes a good balance. We like modern architecture, but we also like quite homely things and comfort. There’s purity to British design, and it has honesty. Others might use something that looks like metal, but we actually use metal.” Gavin Hartley is head of custom design at Rolls-Royce, a company that has been working in the field for decades. “Whether it’s a house or a yacht, our customers don’t generally choose from lists,” Hartley says. “They’re beyond conforming to what other people might think. It’s an opportunity for dialogue with individuals, to allow them to pursue their own ideas.
We’re harking back to the early days of motoring, to the coach-building era, when there was less standardization and more choice. “Different rules definitely apply, and it often makes you question what good taste actually is,” Hartley continues. “You might think you are always right and everyone else is wrong, but in this business you are constantly challenging the arrogance of that assumption. But the people who come to us want a Rolls-Royce sort of solution, so it tends to be consistent with what we want to do – which is excellent, beautiful engineering.” Fortunately, as with other areas of automotive design, there is a notable trickle-down effect: the runaway success of the latest Mini, Citroën DS3 and Fiat 500 has democratized custom car design. Mass-produced they may be, but none is identical. Sustainability is also important: recently, the Peugeot Onyx concept car showcased an interior trimmed in felt and recycled newspaper so thoroughly compressed that it felt like wood. And even if the exterior matches a thousand other models, the endless possibilities for creating something unique on the inside provides a particular satisfaction, the feeling of knowing that no one else possesses anything like it.
Your address: The Bentley Suite, The St. Regis New York, a collaboration bringing the St. Regis and Bentley partnership to life.


Issue 1 - Harry Benson - Image 1

Harry Benson

1. Driving down to Troon, Scotland, 1956
I left the RAF when I was 19, but I couldn’t afford a car until I was 26. It was a Fiat 600, and my very first journey was from Glasgow down the west coast of Scotland to a seaside town called Troon. I’ll never forget the feeling, just me in my new car on a sunny day. Because it was Italian, it was a bit sexier than a British car – a chance to get the prettiest girls. Happiness.
2. The Berlin Wall goes up, 1961
I was sent to Berlin for the London Daily Express, and we knew something was going on as the city was being systematically closed off. The wall went up quickly, the barbed wire and the barricades encircling the city. I went back in 1989 for Life – I never thought I’d see the Berlin Wall come down in my lifetime. I’m glad I was there to see it.
3. Following the Beatles to Paris and America, 1964
One night in January 1964 I got a call from The Express picture desk to go to Paris to photograph the Beatles. I was a bit annoyed because I had no interest in photographing pop stars. But as I walked into the hall they started to play All My Loving, and it was electric. I knew I was on the right story. My 
favorite picture of the Beatles having a pillow fight was taken in Paris. Within two weeks I was on a plane to America with them for The Ed Sullivan Show. The Beatles changed my life because America was a fascinating place to be in the 1960s; after that, I never came back.
4. The Meredith march, Mississippi, 1966
The Civil Rights Movement was at its height when I drove to Tuscaloosa,
Alabama, HQ of the Klu Klux Klan. I knew this was going to be dangerous, but it was my job. I met the grand wizard, Bobby Shelton, and attended Klan meetings with him. I followed the whole march; I went to rallies, I was tear-gassed, saw beatings, hid film in my socks. When I met Martin Luther King, I said to him, “This is just awful.” And he said, “It is awful being a black man in this country.” Jobs like these were journeys into the heart of America.
5. The assassination of Robert Kennedy, Los Angeles, 1968
I grew to like Bobby Kennedy immensely. He was fun to be with on the campaign, very easy to work with. When he was shot in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in LA, I was 12 inches away from him. It was chaos and people were punching me in the head and shouting, but I just kept moving, trying to get the shots. I photographed his wife Ethel screaming, and people said, how could you do that? He was someone I cared about. When something like this happens you know you are recording history. The picture of the straw boater is one of my most dramatic. This was Bobby’s blood. This was the end of the road.
6. 9/11, New York City, 2001
By the time I got down to the site, the second plane had hit. There was dust and debris everywhere and the police weren’t letting anybody through, so I took my pictures from the perimeters. Lots of photographers are suffering now from what they inhaled that day, so in a way it was a blessing for me, but I had to be there to see what happened.
7. Returning home to Glasgow, Scotland
Glasgow is my home, I love to go back and smell it. It has a rough and tumble about it that is similar to New York. But no year is complete unless I go to Troon for a walk along the beach and have an ice cream or some fish and chips and look across to the Isle of Arran. That to me is Scotland. I get excited just getting on the plane.


Issue 1 - The Ascent Of Man - Image 1

The Ascent of Man

You can’t mistake the Beijing West Railway Station. A massive, plain-face building broken in the center by a cavernous archway, it is one of the capital’s throbbing transportation hubs. Colorful little pagodas are perched on the roof, and the effect is a kind of hybrid of the Pentagon crossed with Disneyland. But the station handles a quarter-million passengers every day, and on Chinese holidays, when half the country seems to be on the move, it can manage twice that number. Even at nine o’clock on this weekday evening in spring, the place is teeming with travelers.
Passengers for Urumqi are shunted into one huge waiting hall and passengers for Kunming into another. Those bound for Tibet jostle into Hall 5, standing room only. In the crowd, I’m reassured to spot two Buddhist monks in saffron robes, and I figure that they must know where they’re going, at least in a temporal sense. When the departure is announced, the gates open and the crowd cascades down a stairway to the platform below. There is the usual last-minute mayhem of passengers finding their places. Almost all the travelers are Han Chinese with a sprinkling of Tibetans and a half-dozen Westerners. Everyone carries suitcases, backpacks, plastic bags and roped-up bundles. I find my sleeper car and my compartment: two berths below and two above with a narrow passage between. Shrewd beyond my years, I have purchased all four places, an indulgence for the sake of privacy as well as space to store my gear for this three-day trip. Beneath the large window is a small, fixed table. An arrangement of dusty artificial flowers sits on top. There is a tiny reading light at the head-end of each bunk and a television screen set into the wall at the foot-end. The Chinese are putting a lot of effort into their long-haul passenger service and a pair of hotel slippers is tucked into each bed. I’m impressed, and I feel pretty well off. Spot on time, the engine pulling 18 cars glides out of the station. A forest of lighted apartment towers passes by on either side of the track and I see that some of the narrow alley markets are still doing business at this late hour. But then, suddenly, as if a curtain were lowered on these urban scenes, we are in the countryside and the Chinese night closes in around us.
The rhythmic click of the rails and the sway of the car become a lullaby. The Beijing government has invested vast sums of money in its national infrastructure and the rail network is a prime beneficiary. There are already more than 56,000 miles of track, but the plan is to lay half as much again by the year 2020 at a cost of some $675 billion, and high-speed trains (200 miles per hour) have been introduced on several sections. Even more ambitious, the Chinese have imagined a high-speed train eventually hurtling from Beijing all the way to London in four days. For the Chinese, the purpose of all this investment in rail is partly political: to strap together a far-flung and disparate country which has always been susceptible to centrifugal forces. It’s also economic: the rich mineral and coal deposits of western China can be efficiently funneled eastward by rail to the industrialized regions of the of the coastal hinterland. And with passenger traffic generously subsidized, the entire network represents a colossal national expenditure. Developing the Chinese railroad system has been a daunting undertaking. When the Americans and Russians constructed their great rail systems, the respective landscapes only occasionally presented serious obstacles. But more than half of China’s surface is rugged and mountainous. In this twisted terrain, every mile of track is a challenge.
We arrive in Xi’an with the dawn. Passengers disembark. Others board, and we’re on our way again. The track here swings north west to skirt the forbidding mountain ranges lying directly west. We follow the course of the Wei River, the broad, shallow, muddy stream that cuts through the dusty loess of the central highlands and eventually becomes the Yellow River. We are in the real heart of the nation, for it is from this region, Shaanxi Province, that the First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, emerged and unified the country in 221 B.C., but who is best known for his extraordinary Terracotta Army of soldiers that escorted him into the next life. The lower course of the Wei is fertile on both alluvial banks. Green fields of rice and millet roll out to the distant foothills. By the time we reach Baoji, however, the broad, well-ordered plain suddenly seems to collapse into a jumble of crumpled earth, and the valley narrows. On either side now stand bare sandstone mountains with sharp ridges, like a dinosaur’s backbone and flanks, gouged and jagged from eons of wind and rain. Here, rice is still grown, but cultivated in helter-skelter paddies, some carved into narrow terraces leaving others to cling to the steep hillsides. From the 21st century we seem to have slipped into the 18th. Villages are a collection of mud walls, small courtyards and tile roofs. The primary source of power is the ox. The train switches back and forth across the tumbling river, and in and out of innumerable tunnels. And we are climbing. In the outskirts of Lanzhou, the public address system in the compartment jumps to life.
After a long announcement in Chinese, a recorded translation in English is played. Passengers are informed that Lanzhou is a thriving city and “a friendly stopping point connecting on the way to Africa.” But there aren’t too many travelers on the train who look as if they’re bound for Kampala or Bamako, and Lanzhou, through the window, seems like yet another of China’s nondescript, colorless, over-built cities. At the station, more passengers get off than get on, and I notice a telling attrition rate as the train heads for the remote, high-plateau country and the gateway to Tibet.


Pilgrims prostrate themselves in front of
the Potala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet

Each day trains leave Beijing Western Railway Station for Lhasa,
along the highest railway line in the world.

I have brought along abundant supplies of nutrients: bags of dried fruit, bars of dark chocolate and a treasured jar of peanut butter. But on the second evening, I decide to see if I can get a place in the normally crowded dining car. To my surprise, I find the car empty and I don’t know whether that’s a good sign or a bad one. I order “eggs with edible fungus”. Inedible fungus is probably cheaper, but the fare is tasty, and the bill, including an excellent Chinese beer, comes to $4. Shortly after returning to the compartment, there is a knock at the door. The attendant hands me a long coil of plastic tubing, and with gestures he indicates it’s for the oxygen outlet above my berth. The straight end of the tube plugs into the socket and the splayed end into your nostrils. But I have already decided to forego the convenience of the oxygen supply unless absolutely necessary. After all, the prospect of gazing at the wonders of Tibetan scenery with a long string of plastic sticking out of my nose might undermine the romance of the journey. Later, after settling in again, I peer through the window at the mountain shadows of the lengthening twilight. With the clickety-clack of the train, the effect is mesmerizing.
On the third morning, I wake early. The compartment is cold. I peek through the curtains and see a gibbous moon illuminating the landscape. Clouds hang low over the dark, barren and deserted countryside of Qinghai Province, and a distant lake shimmers in the moonglow. The train is slowly pulling up the incline from the southern edge of the great Qaidam Basin, and at full light we arrive at Golmud Station. The 700-mile stretch of track from Golmud to Lhasa is the engineering jewel in China’s iron crown of railroads. For years, a line across the Tibetan Plateau was deemed physically impossible and economically unjustifiable. Eighty per cent of this route is higher than 12,000 feet and the surface is mainly unstable permafrost. But, against the odds, the Chinese authorities launched the project in 2001, and after five years of toil, the highest railway line in the world opened for service at an estimated cost of $3 billion. In addition to the delicate laying of track, the line crosses 675 bridges and runs through the world’s highest tunnel, the 12,000ft-long Fenghuoshan (“Wind Volcano”) Tunnel. Even then, the maintenance of heaving track and shifting pylons plagued the line’s first years, although the authorities now assert that the problems have been resolved and the route is perfectly safe. The train creeps out of Golmud and begins the gradual climb to the roof of the world. At the outset, we chug through a grey, gritty landscape that is almost lunar. Once on to the high, undulating plateau, however, a green hue of sparse grassland washes over the countryside, which contains small ponds and depressions streaked with white salt deposits. The peaks of the Tanggula Mountains to the east snag puffs of cotton clouds, and there is snow in the Bayan Har range to the west.
The train passes several antelope, and near a bend in the track I spot my first shaggy yak standing insouciantly on the crest of a ridge. Hugging the shoulder of a hillside, we cross the Tanggula Pass at 16,640 feet and then start the long, gradual descent to Lhasa. There are many good reasons to take the train to Tibet, but three stand out. First, a train is still the best way to travel in a foreign land. On this trip, you pass through postcard after postcard of stunning scenery, which pile up in your memory. Second, and more practically, the slow ride up to the highlands of Tibet gives your body a chance to adjust by degrees to the altitude. This is a serious consideration, for mountain sickness can quickly lay you low and ruin your adventure. And, third, this is Tibet, and traveling there by train allows you to fix the place in the map of your mind. The mystery and magic of this remote land on the roof of the world deserves a gradual approach, a long, anticipatory overture before the curtain rises. One doesn’t simply drop in on Shangri-La. We roll down the long incline toward Lhasa. The valley narrows as the train picks its way through the snowy Nyainqentanglha Mountains.
Near Damxung we pass our first glacier, a field of white glass squeezed between two peaks. Below 14,000 feet, the scattered tents of nomadic shepherds sprout up like big flowers, and herds of domesticated yaks graze in the permafrost. And now we begin to see isolated Buddhist religious monuments – stupas – on the hillsides and the colorful prayer flags which festoon this intensely religious country. Every peak, point and promontory seems to possess a spiritual significance. The train crosses numerous streams and rivers; Tibet is the fountainhead of Asia and the source of the Brahmaputra, Yangtse, Indus, Ganges, Yellow, Mekong and Salween Rivers. In the villages of Lhasa’s hinterland the houses of brick or stone are unexpectedly substantial. Doors are decorated with strapwork and little ruffled aprons flutter above the windows. Each corner is surmounted by a castle-like turret with a prayer flag on top, and each flat roofline is broken by a big, beehive-shaped incense burner. In the swept courtyards there are stacks of dried yak dung for winter fuel. With one final effort, our weary locomotive pulls the train across the Kyichu River and the track then swings into Lhasa. Rising above the city like a red-and-white mountain is the magnificent, monumental Potola Palace, the 1,000-room residence of the long-exiled Dalai Lama. The train stops. A Tibetan guide meets me outside the new station and drapes a white khada around my neck in greeting. I have been delivered to the top of the world.

Raymond Seitz was the US ambassador to Great Britain, 1991-1994


Photographs courtesy of VII


Your address: The St. Regis Beijing; The St. Regis Lhasa Resort


Sheep and cattle struggle to find grazing
as the landscape turns to snow and ice