If you put in some of the above keywords into a Google advanced search, the likely result would be Alex Varlık, successful owner and designer of the Georges Hotel in Galata. But, as with Chinon, his favorite red wine, there is much more texture to Alex than any string of single words can convey. When I interviewed Alex on the terrace restaurant of his hotel, I realized that only a charisma as strong as Alex Varlık’s could succeed in stealing my attention from the stunning Bosphorus view.
Prior to his incarnation as the successful co-founder and co-creator of the Georges hotel with Kerim Kamhi, Alex was a lawyer in Paris, where he was born and raised. His father, a well-known painter in Turkey, was a graduate of Mimar Sinan University before responding to the siren call to study art in Paris, the “crown” of the art scene in 1960s and 70s. His migration wasn’t intended to be permanent, but cupid had a different agenda; He fell in love (at first sight) with Alex’s mother at a gallery exhibit of Middle Age tapestries and ended up settling in Paris, where he still resides and works in his atoliye.
When I asked Alex what his relationship to art was, he claimed that he didn’t have much of a relationship to art. Instead he chose to study law because he always liked politics. “I don’t have artistic fingers—just imagination and perhaps some creativity from my dad.”
So, while Alex may disown his ‘artistic fingers”, the vibe in the Georges Hotel clearly demonstrates that there is a creative genius at work in this tall, engaging, philosophic former lawyer (who by the way, speaks so fast in English that I had to plead with him to slow down!) He may not create paintings, like his father, but he certainly has a knack for creating energy and winning concepts. “I create hotels, systems, protocols, menus, and ENERGY. I’m very empathetic. Actually I’m an emotion and energy sponge. I balance and stabilize energy. That’s what people feel here at Georges. That’s why it attracts people. I like creating hubs for people like me.”
Who are people like him? “Nomads. Others who are curious, at home in many places. Home is wherever you decide it is. I exchange information with people all day; I don’t have weekends, or fixed hours; my work and life are totally integrated.
But integration was not always a quality in Alex’s life. In fact, it was a lack of integration that brought him to Istanbul. Prior to moving to Istanbul, he had been working as a lawyer in Paris, but felt something was missing; it was a feeling he’d had since his mid-teens. “I wanted to escape from Paris. I wasn’t happy being a lawyer. I was depressed. My business failed. I had a feeling I missed my destiny.”
I asked Alex if he had a feeling of what that destiny was. “I was always a dreamer…and pushy and ambitious…but now life is giving me my dreams.
But in 2006 Alex wasn’t yet aware that Istanbul was calling him closer to his destiny. As he put it, “Coming to Istanbul was just a coincidence. I came in 2006 for one of my father’s shows and I felt so much energy here in Istanbul. There was a good vibe and it was brimming with life and creativity. After 3 days he told his father he wanted to stay. So his father used some contacts to find some law firms in Istanbul. He sent his CV and within 3 days he had two offers. So he went back home and sold everything to pay off the debts that accumulated from his small company that had failed, and on May 25th, arrived in Istanbul for a new chapter of life.
“I started from scratch,” said Alex. “It was a time of feeling vulnerable. Naked. For the first time I was completely on my own—not relying on my parents. In a way, it was a period of “disconnect” as he chose to live with Turks and explore this new blank page. But after 6-8 months it seemed that the chapter was not as new as he would have liked; he was again depressed and discontent working in a law firm.
“I was drowning,” said Alex. “I am someone who is good at creating energy but I can also create really bad energy when I’m sad.” In the midst of drowning, Alex got fired—ironically just after moving into an expensive flat near the Bosphorus. As he “had never flown” on his own before, it was a time of wrestling with his fears and reckoning with his ghosts. Yes, you read that correctly..…ghosts. They have been frequent visitors in Alex’s life. Perhaps others would use the term “muse” but, it is clear that Alex chooses his words deliberately, and that they are not a casualty of French translation. These ghosts have instructed his dance with his shadows, his flirts with despair and darkness, and have also been the catalyst for his genius and breakthrough moments.
Shortly after Alex’ firing, he went to Brasserie café in Nişantaşı and decided to “do an audit” of his life. He sat down with pen and paper and wrote down the following questions:
Who am I?
Where do I come from?
What did I learn from life?
What am I good at?
Where would I like to live?
In which field would I like to work? Which subfield?
In which field would my capacities and knowledge be most useful and appropriate?
After his self audit and some ghost-busting, he determined his new direction. The lawyer CV was burned, and from the ashes emerged a new one: Alex, the salesperson in luxury goods. His new action plan was to present himself at Sunseeker, a company that sold luxury yachts in Kurucesme at the time.
But destiny had a different idea. That very day he met a real estate agent who immediately invited him to work with her. And thus Alex crossed the threshold into his new life as a real estate agent. As if destiny wished to make up for lost time, within 6 months, Alex found himself being introduced to the owner of the The House Café with whom he instantly connected. So within a mere 6 months on his new career path, he found himself creating a business plan for The House Apart. (By the way, this was something which he had never done before, but had boasted he could. So with a blend of boldness, determination and some Google searching, he pulled it off well enough to be offered a 15% share in what began as a 6 Apart hotel. He, along with the 3 owners of The House Cafe, created the brand "THE HOUSE APART", a serviced apartment concept, which set off the trend in Istanbul.
At this point, one might be tempted to say, “and the rest is history…” But not quite. After selling the majority of the company to a private equity company he and his partners created The HOUSE Hotel, a luxury boutique hotel brand. It grew quickly, expanding to 100 employees and 3 hotels, and ranked as the no.1 start-up in 2009. But this fairytale, like many, had an underside.
Take Two: March 2011. Depression. A bout with the ghosts. Then a journey to Bebek's Lucca Café for another life inventory. There pen and paper gave birth to his own design and concept: A hotel that would feel homey and bear a French signature. Luxury without pretention. A place of information exchange, energy exchange: a hub. He wanted the place and the name to carry the energy of substance, solidity, strength. He began to review family names, and came up with Georges, the name of an uncle from his family’s mountain town of Aveyron. It was a town marked by families of café owners from the early 1900s.
The very day he placed the concept on paper, his friend (now partner) Kerim Kamhi called him to say he had just bought a building in Galata and wanted him to come look at it, and give him some ideas. And a mere 6 months later, and a lot of hard work, the Georges Hotel opened. Within two years, the success of Alex’s concept was confirmed, winning international acclaim and nominated the Best hotel in the world by Wallpaper Magazine in 2012. And now, Georges Hotel will soon have a sibling, with the opening of the Georges Hotel in South Beach Miami in 2016.
What does Alex say now about his life? “The process is exciting, but I’m always living on the edge. I’m pushing the life machine.”
And what about the ghosts? “I can get very depressed but I can create when I’m down. I can contact the creativity in the shadows. I like it when everything is dark…it’s a state of being. It’s tinged with a nostalgia. There is the danger of sinking with them, of reaching my limit, or losing my curiosity. But the more you live with them (ghosts) the more you can digest them. But I’ve found the balance. I’m very happy where I am today. I’ve begun to control the ghosts this year, made friends with them. I have many dreams remaining but I’ve achieved many.
I asked Alex what some of his favorite hangouts in Istanbul were. “I spend all my time here, on the terrace” he said. “When I’m not here I like to get on my vespa and go to the shores—maybe Sariyer. My Vespa is synonymous with freedom for me. On the Asian side I like Beylerbey or Moda. But there is a different energy there. Istanbul is a mystical city…a light hole. Why else do we all gather here? I’m sure one day they will discover that there is some special magnetic energy line running through Istanbul.”
Since the word “energy” was used so often by Alex, I asked if he had always been so aware of it. He said that his openness to energy came from restarting life again. “When you start out naked again, it opens you up….this aspect of life: starting naked again, living with ghosts…re-evaluating yourself: that should be the new religion for people. No Gods. We’d all be better off.”
What about Alex’ favorite restaurants? “I’m a conservative guy. I tend to go to the same places. I like Galata and Karakoy and Beyoglu. In terms of restaurants I like Karakoy Lonkantasi. It’s a good compromise between classic and hype. And always delicious food. I also like Maya Lokanti, or Yakup Meyhanesi, where my father went in the 1960s. I like the simplicity, the posters from the 50s. I love to have a good easy time with friends and a glass of raki.
Other special places: I like to take my vespa and go to Aghia Sofiya at night. Istanbul is amazing because you can change environments so fast, from one neighborhood to the next. And in just one area there is a beautiful mosque alongside a beautiful synagogue and an amazing church.
Where does Alex see himself in 10 years: “I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m in France. ..I will always be a nomad…but home is where you decide it will be. I want to enter politics. Maybe I’ll be in Parliament. I’ll be about 48—that’s a good age for politics. I also want to serve—to spread the good energy that comes to me, and give it back.
If anyone needs a high dose of good energy, you can definitely find it on the Georges Hotel terrace. A gastronomic delight, top quality wine selection, and a breathtaking view are the least of what you will walk away with. In one evening you will not only feel the vibe that is Alex, but also the vibe that is Istanbul: the blending of some mystical spirit, a vital energy, a blending of ancient and modern…and perhaps a lingering ghost that will urge you toward your destiny.
Photography by Christine Mager Öz