What started out as a high school summer job at the fanciest inn of a rugged Canadian fishing town took Leah Marshall on a winding career in the hospitality industry, eventually landing her at the helm of a Parisian luxury hotel.
Currently manager of Le Bristol, the Paris five-star outpost of luxury hotel company Oetker Collection, Marshall was the first woman to head a Westin hotel in 1978. Other career highlights include overseeing Disneyland in Paris and managing the re-opening of the Four Seasons George V hotel in the late Nineties.
Marshall got her first job by fudging her age by a few months to pose as a 16-year-old on her application. She gained valuable hospitality experience manning the front desk while a preoccupied supervisor drank cocktails with the guests.
These days, Marshall said she tries to keep the dress code smart and comfortable for hotel workers, while she wears heels and chunky necklaces, but never jeans.
She spoke to WWD in the corner of the hotel’s plush tea room, keeping a watchful eye out for guests, but excusing herself only once to greet an American television series producer and his young child.
WWD: How do you dress compared to five years ago?
Leah Marshall: Quite honestly, I was never someone who wanted to wear the standard navy blue jacket and skirt, or jacket and slack with a white blouse. That was never me. I just adopted my own style that I felt comfortable in — not the traditional suit.
Obviously, I don’t want to overdress, because I’m very respectful of our clientele. I try to look smart without being too overboard. I’m comfortable wearing chunky, big necklaces and I’m always referring people to places where I’ve shopped over the years.
For the last 20 years, I’ve pretty much had the same m.o.
WWD: Can you talk about the catalysts driving change for dressing in the industry?
L.M.: What you see a lot now, and even in some other palaces, is this move toward trying to be very kind of residential. Thinking back to a smart hotel in London, around five years ago, the only directive they would give their team in this very fun bar — a very happening bar — was that they could only wear black. There would be no name tag, they were given a budget to buy three outfits and they had to look very smart and feel good in it.
As a result, you have sharp young ladies looking very fashionable and feeling very good about what they were wearing. You see that trend more today.
When we opened the bar here in September 2012, I wanted them to look smart, fashionable.
I wanted just a black slack and white formfitting blouse. I went to Hermès to look for a scarf, that I ended up finding in the men’s department — reversible with big polka dots, one side chocolate and one side navy blue. We made this sash, and we get more compliments. I was so proud, and I still am very proud.
What the ladies are wearing here, that is also a style that I designed. I wanted that pant, I found that that flow was very becoming for all shapes and sizes, and the little ballerina shoe. They have to put on the miles and I wanted them to be comfortable. So with this gal that I enjoy working with and I’ve been working with for 19 years, I asked her to come up with the blouse that would come over the hips and to design a belt that would look snazzy.
We’re still classic enough, but at the same time we don’t want to be stuffy. We didn’t want to do just what the tradition has always called for, which has been kind of stuffy.
WWD: Are there any clothing items in your profession that are off-limits or should be?
L.M.: I wouldn’t wear jeans to this hotel, although you see Madame [Brigitte] Macron when she’s entertaining Rihanna: hats off, she’s got a fabulous Courrèges top, which is beautiful on her, and she’s got great legs, so it’s understandable when you’re receiving entertainers that are in that field. It doesn’t shock me at all, and she’s the first lady.
But I wouldn’t feel comfortable, for example, wearing jeans, even with a Courrèges top, even on a Saturday, and I work generally every Saturday. Even though our guests do, and look great, I wouldn’t — more for respect of the guest, even though they can wear them.
WWD: Do you shop for fun? Did you enjoy shopping at Hermès where you found the scarves for the outfits you described?
L.M.: Hermès for me is accessories. You can’t go wrong, even though I understand that Millennials don’t care to buy something that lasts forever, because they want to change all the time. The reputation of Hermès is you have a handbag and you keep it forever. I’m a big fan of Hermès quality.
WWD: If you had a choice, would you dress more formally or more casually?
L.M.: Definitely not more formal. I’m here every New Year’s Eve. Nine times out of 10, it’s always black: two pieces, and I change the necklace. So honestly, the last time I owned a long dress was for my graduation when I was 18, and I have never worn a long dress since. Nor am I interested.
WWD: What was your favorite recent purchase?
L.M.: I went on a safari for the first time, there was a boutique attached to a lodge where we stayed in South Africa. I wanted to buy everything.
I bought so many things that reminded me of this amazing time that we had, including a throw with ostrich feathers, locally made. Everything was locally made. I’ve got it on one of my chairs at home and it just makes me so happy.
I have got a lot of different necklaces, this for example, I bought in a little boutique in St. Barth’s — I get more compliments.
I wore one yesterday, kind of loopy, like macramé, I bought that in a bazaar in Marrakech for five dollars, just so inexpensive. People think it’s Chanel — it’s a riot. I probably have more fun with accessories.
WWD: Is the industry changing faster now?
L.M.: Most of us of a certain age don’t have that passion like young people who are so quick to be following everything on Instagram, so we’ve had to obviously grow our communications team to keep us all on top of things. I would say that’s the biggest change over recent years.
WWD: How did you dress when you were managing Disneyland?
L.M.: At Disney, I was in charge of the entertainment center with a thousand employees. It was very spread out, 18,000 square meters, so I was basically walking a lot, on my feet a lot. I wore probably more slacks. Always a heel but not high, high heels because, again, I was on my legs all the time.
Although I’m still on my legs all the time and I still wear heels, but when you’re outdoors on pavement, it’s just different.
People comment on it, “Leah, how do you do it?”
Guests see me moving around all the time, early in the morning, pretty late at night.
Even though I’m a big fan, of young women in particular wearing slacks, or even tight jeans with a ballerina [shoe], that’s not been my personal [style], for me.
Although I love to wear my Isabel Marant tennis shoes and I have a pair of All Stars. They give you a little lift.