Sitting on the edge of both the preserved jungle of Indonesia’s Moyo Island and the Flores Sea, the hushed Amanwana resort is a luxurious beachside haven. Long before glamping became a trendy pastime, Adrian Zecha’s forward-thinking retreat, which opened in 1993 as a part of the Aman Resorts portfolio and includes 20 tented suites along the secluded coast, put Jean-Michel Gathy on the map. It was the turning point in an illustrious career that started in 1981 when he moved to Hong Kong, founding Denniston two years later.
Hailing from a family of academics, the Belgium-bred Gathy chose to pursue a more creative path, inspired by his frequent family visits to historic monuments like the Colosseum, the British Museum, and the Louvre. “I always studied maps and rivers, looked at landscapes and mountains,” says Gathy, who was fascinated by travel and geography from childhood. “I love what I do, and I’ve never changed my mind. If I die tomorrow, I want to be reincarnated in the same position.”
Gathy relocated to Kuala Lumpur in the early 1990s, growing his firm to nearly 150 employees since then. Despite this, he still personally conceptualizes all the firm’s projects. “Every [one] is worked on by every senior of the company. There is this continuous, holistic intervention from all of us. When we design, everybody is equal,” he says. With a resumé that boasts such signature resorts as the Cheval Blanc Randheli in the Maldives, the Chedi Andermatt in Switzerland, and the St. Regis Lhasa in Tibet, Gathy’s works are known for their attention to detail and a seamless, sophisticated approach to luxury.
Currently, he is transforming another Aman property, this time in the heart of Midtown New York. Opening next year in the historic Crown Building on Fifth Avenue, the remarkable overhaul of a former office building will be home to an indoor pool and spa, a sprawling 10th-floor terrace, and commodious guestrooms that will average an almost unheard-of-for-New York 800 square feet. “As you can imagine, an old building is always a bit more challenging,” says Gathy, “but [when it’s complete, it will showcase] our skill in mixing an urban hotel with a resort feel.”
In the works are outposts for One&Only in Dubai; the ultra-luxe Amaala, an island resort on Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea complete with a museum and sculpture park, all helmed by Gathy; and two Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts in Tokyo and Bangkok. The latter he describes as a “lively box with courtyards, volumes, and restaurants along the river” that will create a city-centric environment. Indeed, Gathy has seen the evolution of luxury over the past four decades, and he says it can now be captured through the simplicity of comfort. “Whether it’s space, time, or the quality of the bathtub, luxury is where you feel good,” he adds.
However, for Gathy, the most profound definition of luxury is time to do the things one loves. “The only way to relax is to do something physically, and I am the most relaxed when I am on safari,” says the globetrotting designer, who has gone on 49 safaris and clocked 500,000 air miles in the last year, some of which were spent traveling to Botswana, a trip he takes every year. “I am always talking, but when I am in the Jeep with my wife, you get completely embedded in the mood. It’s then that I can watch a leopard on a tree for five hours without saying one word. The animal is waiting for its prey, and I am just watching. I don’t get hungry. I don’t get worried. It’s the only place in the world where I don’t get impatient, and it’s extraordinary.”
Photography by Ralf Tooten and renderings courtesy of Denniston