Yoo founder John Hitchcox on ‘branded living’ – or how to pimp your crib…
Meeting him at Yoo’s HQ in Central London, I’m surprised that founder John Hitchcox doesn’t really like the term ‘branded living’; after all, he virtually invented the term. Coming out of Manhattan Loft Corporation – a firm that made a name for itself in the 1990s by branding warehouse ‘shells’ in difficult-to-get-to bits of London and saving money on the fit-out while convincing yuppies to buy them at a premium – Hitchcox is no stranger to marketing’s magical capacity to monetise. But far from wanting to disassociate himself from the term, if anything he thinks it doesn’t do the process justice. ‘It just all sounds a bit “baked beansy”. All our projects are bespoke and have a lot of richness to them – it’s why I’m a bit chippy about it.’
To my mind, he shouldn’t be so sensitive. Hitchcox – along with a cohort of über designer friends like Philippe Starck, Marcel Wanders, Jade Jagger, Kelly Hoppen, Steve Leung and a 60-strong team of designers and marketing staff – is behind Yoo’s multi-million pound design and branding industry. Purveyors of designer lifestyles to the rich but stylistically clueless: the firm’s business model is to parachute into developers’ high-end residential projects all over the world and blanket-bomb them with luxuriant soft furnishings, bo-ho furniture, marble bathrooms, palatial walk-in wardrobes and stunning kitchen islands, all duly promoted by Yoo’s global marketing machine. With Hitchcox’s team keeping an eye on quality control across all developments, the expectation is that it shouldn’t actually matter where you’ve shelled out your millions; Miami, Mexico or Mumbai – it’s all Yoo.
That quality control aspect means staying in control of the project; so as the brand developed, the Yoo team has come fore, with the famous designers acting more as mentors. ‘We partner with them, but in a sense we’re doing more than, say, Starck does,’ explains Hitchcox. ‘We’ll do all the execution of the work and a lot of the design ideas are generated by us. Starck will sit down and act like a grand master, guiding us…our role is more as a producer saying what’s viable and what isn’t – we’re the conduit for the big names’ involvement in the project.’ So what happens if the desired quality isn’t met, I ask? ‘We’ll always have a local point of contact on any project monitoring,’ he continues. ‘The worst scenario is that we take our name off the project and ask for the design back. It’s an aggressive position and we’ve only ever done it twice…’
Hitchcox is keen to talk about the role of ‘place making’ as part of their development role, but in the same breath he voices past frustrations he’s had with architects who seem to be more interested with the exterior look of the building than the interiors. ‘All I’d get from them would be exterior views, and as a firm we were committed to focusing on the interiors and the quality of the lives of the people occupying them,’ he says. ‘My intent as a company was to improve the value of residents’ lives and make the home the most important place…what I felt from architects was a level of snobbism to the interiors.’ That said, he cites Icon Brickell, Miami, by Arquitectonica, Yoo Tel Aviv and ‘vertical village’ Yoo Panama as examples of ‘complete development’ – spaces that work well both inside and out. Hitchcox’s personal favourite is ‘The Lakes’, a high-end holiday homes development he designed himself in the Cotswolds, which he claims has a real sense of being an invested ‘family’ community – ‘Notting Hill on Sea’ as he likes to call it.
And it seems that haute couture Yoo has so much currency it’s even developing a pret-a-porter range for the proletariat. A keen admirer of developer Tom Bloxham’s contribution to housing with his Urban Splash, Hitchcox tells me that Yoo is now working with architect Make on developing 3.25ha of housing and leisure facilities in Greenwich for housing association London and Quadrant. ‘It doesn’t matter if it costs ten million or a hundred thousand, it’s the same design model. If we think it’s no good we work with the developer to change it. Place making is our job in any arrangement,’ he emphasises. With social housing taking over 50% of the Greenwich scheme, he says prices are starting at an affordable £235,000.
With all that emphasis on the power of celebrity and marketing, I ask Hitchcox if he hasn’t missed a trick by not designing TV’s Big Brother house: surely the ‘Big Brother’s watching yoo’ line would be a shoo-in? Turns out he’s beaten me to it. Former Channel 5 owner Richard Desmond has already asked him but he turned it down thinking the show’s concept was ‘fundamentally tacky’. Now however he seems to be reconsidering. This is the man who, despite Jade Jagger’s obvious natural flair for design which he witnessed in her own apartment, admits that when he took her on to work with him he was ‘embracing celebrity – the name was big’.
And in the bigger scheme of things, maybe ‘tacky’ is a relative term anyway. ‘We’ve even been asked to get Paris Hilton to design a building. I’m not saying we’d use her, but in a world where media, marketing and lifestyle are part of day-to-day life, perhaps, with a certain level of responsibility, we can be a conduit for that,’ Hitchcox concludes. So if in future you see baby doll pink furnishings, pooch pampering rooms and Swarowski forming part of Yoo’s new celebutante repertoire; remember guys – don't say you weren't warned …