Hollywood's Bespoke BMW: A-Listers Requesting Leather Dog Beds, Family Crests

Roger Davies

BMW's Individual Manufaktur program, through which buyers can buy cars as if commissioning a suit from a tailor, is hot among industry power players even as some don't hesitate to pay extra for a "sacrificial" crash-test car, all in the name of possessing a one-of-a-kind status symbol.

This story first appeared in the March 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

When BMW DesignWorks lead designer Alexandra "Sandy" McGill heard the request from a top entertainment executive to create a custom-colored leather interior for the exec's new BMW, she cautioned that it would entail a bit more than just mixing up some dye.

The exec was designing the car through BMW's Individual Manufaktur program, the only one of its kind, which enables purchasers of BMW's 5, 6 and 7 Series sedans and X6 Series SUVs to fashion vehicles as if commissioning a bespoke suit, with McGill as the tailor. Prices range from an additional $10,000 for stitching and embroidering, up to $150,000 for extensive customization (and that's in addition to buying the car itself — the 7 X-Drive model's base price, for example, is $97,500). McGill works out of the car company's design studio that opened in February in Newbury Park, Calif. Located an hour north of Hollywood, the super-secret DesignWorks has designed under tight security everything from the U.S. Olympic team's bobsleds to Singapore Airlines' first-class cabins.

McGill explained to the industry executive that BMW would be happy to make the leather in a one-off color, but that would mean fabricating it from scratch — and crash-testing it in a virgin car to prove that it wouldn't interfere with the deployment of air bags and other safety equipment. In other words, the exec would have to buy two BMWs, one of which would be destroyed. The exec agreed, and at a cost of several hundred thousand dollars and a sacrificial BMW, got the exact color he wanted. This is not unusual.

"We have requests all the time where we have to sacrifice cars," says McGill. "We recently had an Oscar-winning director request a [complicated] exterior color." Karl Lagerfeld customized with Chesterfield tufting, while a Fortune 500 CEO had McGill and her team design a dog bed for the backseat of his 7 Series to match the Merino leather upholstery. "It's probably the most expensive dog bed ever built," says McGill.

As competition heats up in the super-premium (and super-­profitable) car segment, luxury marques including Rolls-Royce (owned by BMW), Bentley, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Jaguar-Land Rover and others are striving to outdo one another in catering to the whims of clientele for whom cost is a trivial concern and owning a one-of-a-kind car is a potent status symbol — whether on the streets of Dubai, Beijing or Beverly Hills (where Selena Gomez, Courteney Cox and Reese Witherspoon have been spotted piloting big Bimmers).

While giving The Hollywood Reporter an exclusive first-look tour of DesignWorks, McGill, who has been designing for BMW for more than 20 years, points out that the facility is "actually a room where future BMWs are designed. We use the same tools, including having a full-sized car and a screen where we're able to change the color combinations of your car." Customers also can leverage the expertise and resources of the studio's nonautomotive projects, which include every­thing from guitars to upholstery. McGill points to wood samples stained in a honey-toned sunburst finish, a design that was lifted from a line of electric guitars DesignWorks created for Ernie Ball Music Man, a musical-instrument manufacturer. Other options include trim fashioned from ebony or reclaimed from wine barrels and seats upholstered in alligator, crocodile or sharkskin. The choices are extensive and exclu­sive to BMW Individual models, but "tech­nically, you can request anything," says McGill. Want your family crest, Facebook selfie or company logo executed in marquetry on the dash or hand-embroidered on the headrests? Just ask.

Once the design is finalized, the specs are sent to BMW's mothership factory in Munich. Six months later, the finished car can be delivered to a local BMW dealer, but for the complete experience, McGill recommends taking delivery at the BMW World museum in Munich. The spectacle includes the finished car rotating on a spotlit pedestal while you are ceremoniously handed the keys. "They really put out the red carpet," says McGill. "It's something like a Hollywood premiere."

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