Pioneers, innovators and perfectionists

this month MILLBANK
from ATTITUDE MAGAZINE
23 September, 2009

Their VIP clients include The Crown Rulers of Middle Eastern States, Russian Oligarchs and the likes of Duran Duran and the manager of Take That. In 1974, David A’Lee and Devon Buchanon started the UK’s first gay building and design firm. Millbank Interiors was named after the Westminster Street where the company was first formed. Buchanon provided the high profile clients from the entertainment, fashion and music worlds and A'lee the construction expertise and attention to every minute detail. It has even been suggested that Millbank Interiors should be accredited as the actual founders of the “Pink Pound”. The first true gay business set up for the gay community outside of the club and recreational environment.
Today Millbank Interiors is uniquely placed in what was once the very macho and bigoted world of construction: a world in which Millbank has become one of the few building companies that has direct access to the "pink pound" - the £70bn earned and spent by gay people each year. Research paints an alluring picture of these well-heeled clients with a high proportion of double-wage households earning significantly more than the national average. The most recent data suggest that about 41 per cent of homosexual men own their own homes, 15 per cent are intending to buy, 8 per cent already own an investment property and a further 9 per cent are planning to do so. These percentages translate into 463,000 buyers still looking for dwellings and 280,000 after investment properties, and all this despite the current economic difficulties.
Design is one of the key elements in making the most of the market’s potential. Devon Buchanon of Millbank Interiors says: “When we first set up in business around 1974, with all gay employees, it was the first enterprise of its kind in the building trade. Our aim was to be blind to sexuality. We were saying: ‘We are just people, not gay people, and we can do this well.’ Now they find investors and straight clients approaching them for their so called ‘queer eye’.” He explains of the concept: “It’s a shorthand for being open to new, innovative designs and ideas. One thing people do expect from a gay business is for it to be slightly ahead of what’s popular. Anticipating other movements and styles before anybody else has imagined them.” The current thrust of Millbank’s business, is seeking out emerging talent and presenting fresh new ideas to their clients, no matter what level of price range their project falls into. “We’ve never been stand offish or elitist about whom we work with. We have always wanted all of our clients to enjoy the Millbank Experience and to feel that we have taken pride and individual care of them. It’s a very personable service that we offer and it involves a lot of time, commitment and sensitivity. It is a great market for us because we are genuinely interested in aesthetics, style and enhancing peoples’ well being in general. Our work even enables us to support a variety of Children’s and HIV charities by making a donation from every contract we undertake, it’s our way of giving back something with gratitude” In 1974 the gay community was being liberated by the music and fashion scenes. "The gay movement erupted; people like David Bowie were breaking all the boundaries," says Buchanon, However, construction was slow to get the news, and gay couples often had to hide photographs and have female friends pose as partners if the builders came round.
David A'lee did some work for Buchanon's family, and they were suitably impressed by how he broke the typical builders stereotype: "We were astonished at the quality of his work, every screw head lined up, he wore a collar and tie and was articulate and polite. Not to mention the clearing up. You know, we were all used to stories of inarticulate builders who arrived late and left your home and bathroom very messy."
But A'lee suffered at work during this period. Having drawn their own conclusions about his sexuality, work colleagues would often show typical bigotry and comments about his sexuality and his higher standards of workmanship. A’lee annoyed them with his fastidious attitude to the "that'll-do people" on site, who did not work to his high bench mark. He recalls: "Now and again they used sexuality as an excuse to intimidate me but not anymore. I imagine they are now quite envious of how we have managed to survive against all the odds and to have achieved so much whilst working with such great clients."
Buchanon was, by comparison, having a much better time. Having graduated in Social Psychology at London University he began working for Anthony Price, the fashion designer who styled Roxy Music's decadent look. Fashion, music and partying were “de rigueur”, which is exactly what Devon did. Hanging out with the likes of Jagger, Freddie Mercury, Sting and Shirley McLaine. He was also developing a vast number of influential gay contacts - the ones fed up with living a lie when the builders came round, and then paying them a fortune for the privilege. A’Lee and Buchanon spotted a gap in the market and so they formed Millbank a building company that would be blind to sexuality and skilled enough to meet to the specifications of demanding and discerning celebrities.
The first difficulty - and the abiding problem until the birth of the internet - was the lack of places to advertise. "We really relied on word of mouth," says Buchanon. "There were no gay trade associations, no real magazines. Fortunately the gay community liked our service - we were new, clean, articulate and trustworthy. There was not a lot of that available in the 1970s."
The second was attracting staff. They could only find a handful of builders that were openly gay. One they did find was a carpenter and lesbian from New York called Miss Dee. A’Lee reckons she was probably one of the first females employed in this trade in the UK. She had fled New York after some sexist, rather than homophobic, colleagues had dangled her by her legs out of a window, saying that she should resign as there were no toilet facilities for women on a men’s building site.
And so she ended up working for the company with the most glamorous list of clients in London - among Millbank's early jobs were bespoke cabinets made to hold precious antiques for the star of La Dolce Vita, Anita Ekberg, and home improvements for Bryan Ferry.
In addition to their burgeoning building company, in 1980 A’Lee and Buchanon decided to break another taboo: they founded Torso, the country's first all-black male dance act. It was formed from a group of east London friends through a DJ at Maunkberrys, the basement nightclub Grace Jones once entered by motorbike (incidentally, Buchanon was to become her personal assistant on her London tours later in the decade). A'lee is particularly proud of the troupe: "I have an eye for dancing - my family was very musical; my father was a saxophonist. It was great because I could help with the musical side and also design and build the sets."
It was a highly successful act: Mick Jagger used to practice his dance moves with Torso before he went on tour with The Rolling Stones. They later went on to perform at Pete Townshend’s Prince’s Trust and the reopening of Studio 54 in New York. Torso's big breakthrough was performing and choreographing the video for Adam and the Ant’s now legendary dance routine Prince Charming.
Adam Ant was a one-time beau of actress Jamie Lee Curtis and, through one of the Torso dancers; Buchanon was introduced to the "scream queen" - the nickname she picked up for her work in horror films such as Halloween. Buchanon ended up dating Curtis for a short while. He attended the BAFTA awards with her in 1984, when she won best supporting actress for Trading Places.

He says Curtis had "the most fantastic personality, really hilarious and we had the most brilliant time together, it was the time of sexual androgyny, glamour and fame. Can you imagine how thrilling it was to be dining with Michael Caine, Diana Ross and Princess Anne? " The mid-1980s was a high point for Buchanon. He had become good friends with Duran Duran's Nick Rhodes, attending his wedding and drinking in Parisian bars with him, Sting and Jagger. This web of celebrities did Millbank no harm, winning the firm work with Rhodes and developing a list of repeat clients such as Lulu, who only recently re-hired the company to do masonry work on the exterior of her home. Michael Douglas and Hans Zimmer, the composer of the Top Gun theme music and later the score to Gladiator, were clients – Millbank built units to house Zimmer's music collection.
Buchanon had left Anthony Price by this time to concentrate full-time on Millbank. The gay client base was also expanding as their disposable incomes were increasing. "A lot of gay people take pride in their homes," Buchanon says. "And in the 1980s homes became a reflection of how successful you were."
The firm was not just working for gay and celebrity clients, though. Women were keen to use the company: "A lot of women wanted gay builders as they knew that they wouldn't get harassed."
The workload was increasing, but the pool of labour remained small. Millbank decided to start employing "gay-friendly" builders, typically heterosexual men with families. Millbank made clear a code of conduct for its employees and subcontractors - no bigotry and cleanliness in word and deed. As it was still an essentially a word-of-mouth business, it relied on its fastidious reputation more than most. As the economy went into collapse in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Millbank suffered badly. Home repairs were one of the first cutbacks people made and Buchanon had to do something he never thought that he would – yes get his hands dirty. "It was pretty rough. I had to leave the office at 5pm and then get out the paint brush and overalls. I was helping David until 2 or 3am, cutting up material for the joinery, it was a great lesson in survival. We did everything we could to keep our head above water. It was a time of great cut backs and there was no room for pride or ego we just had to get on with it. A lesson that has taught us well and made us appreciate our good fortune. We have always made it our company policy to express our gratitude to clients by donating a percentage of our net income to HIV and Children’s charities."
Devon believes that Millbank's survival was down to its niche position - there were few, if any, rivals, so if the building market was shrinking, at least its dominance in the gay arena remained. A'lee says that the company really pushed the gay, rather than celebrity, side of the business at this stage. "When everyone else was not spending in the recession, gay people still had disposable income because they didn't have big families and children," he says. “ Just like today, when so many people are facing financial challenges and difficulties we continue to offer all our clients quality and commitment to good service no matter what. In today’s uncertain markets, clients need to feel confident that where they are placing their valued funds, they can be assured of trustworthiness, reliability and professionalism, I guess after 35 years we have certainly come of age and our references undoubtedly confirm all of that.” “We must have been one of the first Building companies to have mobile phones,” reflects A’lee. “Its funny to look back and remember how I was certainly one of the first people in London to have a mobile phone and how I insisted that this was the way forward and that all of our contractors should have one, despite the weight of those things in those days.” Millbank was also about to solve its greatest problem - the lack of advertising opportunities. The advent of the internet revolutionised this. “With people able to type - for whatever reasons," laughs Buchanon - "gay builder" into their search engines and find Millbank. We made full use of this new medium it was our voice to the greater world. Also, pioneering directories, such as gaytoz.com gave Millbank other places to list their services and, today, 90% of the firm's work comes from the internet.
The recent introduction of civil partnership legislation means that the gay building market has expanded even further - Buchanon believes that more same-sex couples are buying properties now inheritance and tax laws are in line with their heterosexual peers. But this has brought a surprising challenge to Millbank - straight builders purporting to be gay-friendly. Having seen the growth in the market, traditional firms are targeting work from the gay community, presenting themselves as clean, tidy and focused on detail - very similar to Millbank's pitch 30 years ago. Yet today many desperate builders are drastically cutting their prices but Buchanon has no doubts that you get what you pay for - “if you go for the cut price, to good to be true Builder, you often end up paying more in the end for a try to fix it solution.”
The expansion of the European Union is also having an impact, as gay Turkish, Polish or Latvian builders are often trying to escape societies where their sexuality is still a stigma. "At one stage we couldn't find people to work for us, but now we're getting contacted from all over Europe," says Buchanon. “ And it’s not just the Baltic States, I’m very proud of my Scottish and Northern Italian ancestry which dates back to 1640. I was so delighted when the Italian Chamber of Commerce here in London kindly invited us to attend the International Home Show in Milan, the show will of course feature the very best of Italian home design. They clearly see us and the Gay market as an ideal outlet for their products. I wonder if Michelangelo would find that amusing? I have even been learning Russian for the past 2 years, because it seems that the oil rich Russians have also fallen in love with us!”
Now that Millbank has finally established itself in the hetero construction world. A'lee and Buchanon have decided to expand their focus and turn to even greater things and new ventures. They want to encourage new talent other than their own (Buchanon by the way is one of Britain’s longest working advertising models – he was once photographed by the most important black photographer of the late 20th Century Rotimi Fani-Kayode and he is the man who gave the UK its first Gay Kiss in a television ad). So they have made it their goal to help young fresh talent by using their influence as others did for them way back in 1974.
Amongst many new faces they have discovered is a new astonishing Estonian photographer called Karel Polt whom they liken to a modern day David Bailey. They are also helping to promote and commission works by 21st century pop-artist Marty Thornton and his sister Joanie Thornton who are fast becoming artists and jewellers to the stars. Buchanon reinforces this point with his now famous Colgate TV ad smile. “2009 is simply not the end of the world but really the start of great new things for our beloved swinging London. We have made the journey from the days when gay men were hidden away to the days when people like us have been personally invited by PM Tony Blair to No 10 Downing Street, if we can do it then anyone can do it with determination and honesty.” Alee and Buchanon will not stop smiling just yet, they have a 35th Party to attend and much more to still achieve!

This is Devon Buchanon

from BUILDING MAGAZINE
Article by Mark Leftly
17 February, 2006

Over the course of his life he has dated Jamie Lee Curtis, partied with Mick Jagger, created the UK's first all-black male dance group, been personal assistant to Grace Jones, acted as a stand-in for Burt Reynolds, provided the teeth for a Colgate advert, modelled for the most important black photographer of the late 20th Century Rotimi Fani-Kayode. Oh, and he started the UK's first gay building firm, too.
Left: Devon & Jamie Lee Curtis at British Academy Awards

So they formed Millbank, which is named after the Westminster street where the company was first formed, and which is now home to the Labour party. Buchanon would provide the upmarket clients from the entertainment, fashion and music worlds and A'lee the construction expertise. MIlbank Interiors have even been credited as the founders of the Pink Pound. The first true Gay Buisness set up for the Gay community outside of the club and recreational environment.


Devon in his 1980s pomp.


Photo by Rotimi Fani-Kayode
He has been an actor, a manager, a singer, a model and even a television presenter, yet Devon Buchanon's most enduring work has been as a builder - it is a little more than 30 years since he met joiner David A'lee and set up Millbank Interiors, London's first gay building company. Welcome to Buchanon's colourful life story, in which partying with celebrities goes hand in hand with struggling to compete in the macho and often bigoted world of construction: a world in which Millbank has become one of the few builders that has direct access to the "pink pound" - the £70bn earned and spent by gay people each year.
HIDING PHOTOS FROM THE BUILDERS


First Gay kiss in UK TV
commercial 1998

AOL commercial

It was 1975, and the gay community was being liberated by the music and fashion scenes. "The gay movement erupted; people like David Bowie were breaking all the boundaries," says Buchanon, who continues, somewhat less persuasively, that his old mate Kenny Everett had a similar impact to Ziggy Stardust.
However, construction was slow to get the news, and gay couples often had to hide photographs and have female friends pose as partners if the builders came round.
David A'lee did some work for Buchanon's family, and they were impressed by how he broke the builder stereotype: "We were astonished at the quality of work, the clearing up - you know, we were used to stories of inarticulate builders who arrive late and leave your bathroom messy."
But A'lee suffered at work. Having drawn their own conclusions about his sexuality, colleagues wrote things about A'lee on walls and made snide comments as he passed. A'lee also annoyed them with his fastidious attitude to the "that'll-do people" on site, who did not work to his high standards. He recalls: "Now and again they used sexuality as an excuse to intimidate me."
Buchanon, who was by now his partner, was having a much better time. Having graduated in Social Psychology at London University he began working for Anthony Price, the fashion designer who styled Roxy Music's decadent look. He was developing a vast number of gay contacts - the ones fed up with living a lie when the builders came round, and then paying them a fortune for the privilege. Buchanon and A'lee spotted a gap in the market: a building company that would be blind to sexuality and skilled enough to meet to the specifications of demanding and discerning celebrities.
So they formed Millbank, which is named after the Westminster street where the company was first formed, and which is now home to the Labour party.

David, Dee & Devon
Buchanon would provide the upmarket clients from the entertainment, fashion and music worlds and A'lee the construction expertise. Milbank Interiors have even been credited as the founders of the Pink Pound. The first true Gay Buisness set up for the Gay community outside of the club and recreational environment.


Grace Jones
David & Devon with    Torso dance group

The first difficulty - and the abiding problem until the birth of the internet - was the lack of places to advertise. "We really relied on word of mouth," says Buchanon. "There were no gay trade associations, no real magazines. Fortunately the gay community liked our service - we were new, clean, articulate and trustworthy. There was not a lot of that available in the 1970s."
However, construction was slow to get the news, and gay couples often had to hide photographs and have female friends pose as partners if the builders came round.
The second was attracting staff. They could only find a handful of builders that were openly gay. One they did find was a carpenter and lesbian from New York called Dee. Buchanon reckons she was probably one of the first females employed in this trade in the UK. She had fled New York after some sexist, rather than homophobic, colleagues had dangled her by her legs out of a window, saying that she should resign as there were no toilet facilities for women on a men’s building site.
And so she ended up working for the company with the most glamorous list of clients in London - among Millbank's early jobs were cabinets to hold Anita Ekberg's collection of antiques and home improvements for Bryan Ferry.
TABOOS AND TORSO
In addition to their burgeoning building company, in 1980 Buchanon and A'lee decided to break another taboo: they founded Torso, the country's first all-black male dance act. It was formed from a group of east London friends through a DJ at Maunkberrys, the basement nightclub Grace Jones once entered by motorbike (incidentally, Buchanon was to briefly become her personal assistant on a London tour later in the decade). A'lee is particularly proud of the troupe: "I have an eye for dancing - my family was very musical; my dad was a saxophonist. It was great because I could help with the musical side and also design and build the sets."
It was a highly successful act: Mick Jagger used to practice his dance moves with Torso before he went on tour with The Rolling Stones. They later went on to perform at Pete Townshends Princes Trust and the reopening of Studio 54 in New York. Torso's big breakthrough was performing in the video for Adam and the Ants' Prince Charming..
Adam Ant was a one-time beau of actress Jamie Lee Curtis and, through one of the Torso dancers, Buchanon was introduced to the "scream queen" - the nickname she picked up for her work in horror films such as Halloween. Buchanon, ended up dating Curtis for a short while. He attended the BAFTA awards with her in 1984, when she won best supporting actress for Trading Places. He says Curtis had "the most fantastic personality, really hilarious", but the relationship ended soon afterwards.
The mid-1980s was a high point for Buchanon. He had become good friends with Duran Duran's Nick Rhodes, attending his wedding and drinking in Parisian bars with him, Sting and Jagger. This web of celebrities did Millbank no harm, winning the firm work with Rhodes and developing a list of repeat clients such as Lulu, who only recently re-hired the company to do masonry work on the exterior of her home. Michael Douglas and Hans Zimmer, the composer of the Top Gun theme music and later the score to Gladiator, were clients - Millbank built units to house Zimmer's music collection.
Buchanon had left Anthony Price by this time to concentrate full-time on Millbank. The gay client base was also expanding as their disposable incomes were increasing. "A lot of gay people take pride in their homes," Buchanon says. "And in the 1980s homes became a reflection of how successful you were."
The firm was not just working for gay and celebrity clients, though. Women were keen to use the company: "A lot of women wanted gay builders as they knew that they wouldn't get harassed."
The workload was increasing, but the pool of labour remained small. Millbank decided to start employing "gay-friendly" builders, typically heterosexual men with families. Millbank made clear a code of conduct for its employees and subcontractors - no bigotry, and cleanliness in word and deed. As it was still an essentially a word-of-mouth business, it relied on its fastidious reputation more than most
AVOIDING COLLAPSE


BT Connect
with Burt Reynolds and George Harrison

As the economy went into collapse in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Millbank suffered badly. Home repairs were one of the first cutbacks people made, and Buchanon had to do something he never thought that he would - get his hands dirty. "It was pretty horrible. I had to leave the office at 5pm and then get out the paint brush. I was helping David until 2 or 3am, cutting up material for the joinery."
However, construction was slow to get the news, and gay couples often had to hide photographs and have female friends pose as partners if the builders came round.
Devon believes that Millbank's survival was down to its niche position - there were few, if any, rivals, so if the market was shrinking, at least its dominance in that area remained. A'lee says that the company really pushed the gay, rather than celebrity, side of the business at this stage. "When everyone else was not spending in the recession, gay people still had disposable income because they didn't have big families and children," he says.
Millbank was also about to solve its greatest problem - the lack of advertising opportunities. The advent of the internet revolutionised this, with people able to type - "for whatever reasons," laughs Buchanon - "gay builder" into their search engines and find Millbank. Also, directories, such as gaytoz.com, gave Millbank other places to list their services. Today, 90% of the firm's work comes from the internet.
COMING TO A SCREEN NEAR YOU...
The recent introduction of civil partnerships legislation means that the gay building market could be about to boom - Buchanon believes that more same-sex couples will buy properties now inheritance and tax laws are in line with their heterosexual peers. But this has brought a surprising challenge to Millbank - straight builders purporting to be gay- friendly. Having seen the growth in the market, traditional firms are targeting work from the gay community, presenting themselves as clean, tidy and focused on detail - very similar to Millbank's pitch 30 years ago.
The expansion of the European Union is also having an impact, as gay Turkish, Polish or Latvian builders are often trying to escape societies where their sexuality is still a stigma. "At one stage we couldn't find people to work for us, but now we're getting contacted from all over Europe," says Buchanon.


10 Downing Street

Now that Millbank has finally established itself in the hetero construction world, Buchanon and A'lee have decided to turn their minds to even greater things and new ventures yet to be revealed. They would even consider selling Millbank to an entrepreneur, who would then expand the company into a nationwide business.
Not that Buchanon will stop working! He will almost certainly continue his acting career, which has seen him perform the first Gay Kiss in UK TV advertising ,stand in for Burt Reynolds in a Dolland & Aitchison advertisement, help sell mens products for a Shopping Channel and order a "McRib" in a McDonald's campaign, as well as flashing his pearly whites for Colgate. He was even recently invited to visit No 10 Downing Street so it seems unlikely, as his life embarks on its next eventful chapter that Buchanon will stop smiling just yet.


Smile!


10 Downing Street

The pink niche

from The FINANCIAL TIMES
Article by Katrina Burroughs
10 May, 2008


The power of the pink pound has long been known to property professionals but they are having to rethink their strategies to take full advantage of the opportunities offered by this market. A widely accepted view is that gay men have historically invested in property in unpromising postcodes and have helped make these areas desirable to all: examples include Soho, Earls Court, Hoxton and Vauxhall in London, Greenwich Village and Hell’s Kitchen in New York, Eixample in Barcelona and Surry Hills in Sydney. Another common perception is that gays, with plenty of disposable income, are more design-conscious and urban-dwelling, caring more about architectural excellence or the potential of a plot than the performance of the local schools.
But that is not necessarily so, says Justin Lloyd, managing director of Brighton-based 4 Sale Estate Agents, which was set up as a gay-owned company aiming to serve homosexuals in the late 1990s. “When people think of the stereotypical gay apartment they think of a fashionable two-bedroom unit with fabulous entertaining space and the latest gadgets,” says Lloyd. “But the gay market is extremely diverse. We have buyers looking for everything from a one-bedroom bolthole to a seafront stucco mansion.
“In the past, the big difference between the straight and gay markets has been children. However, we are seeing more gay couples with or planning to have children, so even this difference is less clear than it used to be. It is fair to say, though, that gay buyers tend to be early adopters [of an area]. They will take more risks.”
Another veteran of the market, Barry Manners, co-founder of Chard Estate Agents, in business since 1993 in the Earl’s Court and Kensington areas of London, describes seeing a radical shift over the past 15 years. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, mainstream property professionals were not always giving great service to the gay community. As a result, specialist agents, builders, interior design outfits and financial services groups emerged . But today “the gay village is all but over,” says Manners. “It was a 1980s/1990s thing. Now clients are much more interested in where the local supermarket is than whether there is a hot leather bar nearby. We really don’t need estate agents that specifically serve the gay community now.”
If the gay ghetto is ancient history and the accepted stereotypes no longer valid, what can property professionals glean about the market? Developers, interior designers and those in marketing are keen to receive new intelligence because there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for those who can understand and access the sector.
This month, Out Now Marketing, which advises clients including carmaker Toyota and financial institutions Citigroup and Barclays, publishes its 2008 Millivres Gay Market Research Study, sourced from readers of gay magazines. The survey paints an alluring picture of well-heeled clients with a high proportion of double-wage households.
The report estimates the total income of the 3m-plus people that make up the UK gay community at more than £70bn annually and suggests that respondents, on average, earn significantly more than the national average. The most recent data suggest that about 41 per cent of homosexual men own their own homes, 15 per cent are intending to buy, 8 per cent already own an investment property and a further 9 per cent are planning to do so. These percentages translate into 463,000 buyers looking for dwellings and 280,000 after investment properties.
Over the past 15 years, Ian Johnson, Out Now’s chief executive, has done similar work in the Netherlands, France, Germany, Belgium, Ireland, the US and Australia and says the UK research is indicative of a global movement: “These trends are evolving in most of the liberal western democracies. It’s a period where social and economic change are working in lock step – good for society in terms of integration and good for business in terms of niche marketing.”
But, in spite of the rewards it promises, the gay property market is not a subject with which mainstream developers are entirely comfortable. Phil Brown, marketing director of London-based Cala Homes (South), is typically cautious. “It is a bit of a minefield,” he says. “People don’t like to be classified.
Everyone is very, sensitive about it.” But, equally, he is keen to mention the firm’s award-winning development Cala Domus in Harlow, Essex, which attracted substantial interest from gays. “It does make a difference to marketing,” he says. “You have to know where you are going to put your spend. We advertised Domus in AXM [a gay lifestyle magazine] as well as a specialist architectural magazine.”
Nikki Ackerley, managing director of Property House Marketing, which represents UK developers Barratt Homes and Berkeley Homes, says gay buyers are a significant sector for her clients. “For strongly design-oriented developments and those in places where there’s historically a large gay community, it would be madness not to advertise in the pink publications.”
Design is one of the key elements in making the most of the market’s potential. Devon Buchanon of Millbank Interiors says: “When we first set up in business in 1975, with all gay employees, it was the first enterprise of its kind in the building trade. Our aim was to be blind to sexuality. We were saying: ‘We are just people, not gay people, and we can do this well.’ Now we find investors and straight clients approaching us for our ‘queer eye’.” He explains the concept: “It’s a shorthand for being open to new, innovative designs and ideas. One thing people expect from a gay business is to be slightly ahead of what’s popular.” He pauses: “I wonder if that is so relevant now. We have all become so knowledgeable, through media exposure, of what constitutes good taste or even new taste.”
So, if great new design is within everyone’s reach, are the developers who are targeting the gay community’s cash supplying the right stuff? Interior designer Christopher Dezille, who has just completed a penthouse in Dean Street, Soho, central London, for a developer aiming at attracting a pink purchaser, says: “Developers are not always very good at understanding how best to court the gay market and much of what we see as being aimed at this demographic is misguided.” In his project, the walnut flooring with neutral paints and textiles were conceived for “someone with an eye for style and glamour, who works longer hours and keeps later nights”. He has thrown in a few references to Soho’s nightlife in specially commissioned photography. “We had one shot of Brewer Street, another of reverse reflections of the neon bar signs in windows – just subtle ways of saying ‘This is where I play.’ ”
If the story on the home front defies simple characterisation, professionals agree that there is a clearly identifiable gay market in holiday properties abroad. The pink press has long been full of holiday homes in the popular getaways of Sitges and Gran Canaria in Spain, Mykonos in Greece, Sydney and Miami. Joshua Rafter, managing director of Outlet Property Services, says he has seen more buyers looking overseas recently. “People have started switching their money from investment properties in the UK to holiday homes overseas,” he says. “New destinations such as Rio, Cape Town and Thailand are proving especially popular. The gay community is one of the most enthusiastic about buying holiday homes abroad. No dependants definitely means more money for property investment.”
At the top end of the market, developers are creating luxury gay holiday communities in the sun. Rafael Danés of Suite DO builds opulent retreats for stressed executives and launches the most ambitious of these developments this month. Danés has bought and restored a small settlement of century-old vernacular buildings near Campos, south-east Mallorca. State-of-the-art interiors feature Boffi kitchens and wet rooms, and properties share a concierge service and spa. Danés has hired Montse Peñarroya from Axel hotel in Barcelona as his marketing director to make sure the development reaches the consciousness of his target audience: “We understand the potential of this market,” he says. “It is a great market for us because we are interested in aesthetics, style and the good life in general.”
However, there is one large sector of the gay market that tends to be overlooked by some property professionals: lesbians. This might be partly due to the belief that lesbians earn less than gay men (though Out Now’s research reveals their incomes are still higher than the average) and are more likely to be raising children. Johnson says this amounts to a massive missed opportunity and believes the next step in the evolution of the market must be the proper understanding and subsequent targeting of this overlooked group of gay consumers. “The industry really needs to learn how to better understand and market to lesbian women. Failing to do that cuts the profit potential of the gay property market almost in half.”
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