Ian Schrager, recognized today as a successful hotelier and real estate developer, first came into the spotlight in the late 1970s with the glamorous New York club Studio 54. When you consider the nightspot’s legacy, it’s a wonder it lasted just 30 months.
The next chapter of Schrager’s story centered around a novel concept at the time, the boutique hotel. Since then, he’s been behind an array of hotels and residential projects, including 40 Bond Street in New York and the Delano South Beach in Miami. All have been created with a dash of his “secret sauce”— an alchemy even he can’t define, but one that makes for a truly unforgettable experience.
Lately, he’s overseen the openings of over a dozen EDITION hotels around the world, including a recent one in Shanghai. There, he told us about his transition from nightlife to hospitality and what it was like to open up, for the first time in 40 years, about what happened at his famous club (and his subsequent conviction) in the new documentary Studio 54. We learned why he feels he’s been holding onto a lightning bolt all this time.
WHITEWALL: Let’s start by talking about Studio 54. There’s now a documentary out about it, directed by Matt Tyrnauer. What do you hope people will take away from it?
IAN SCHRAGER: I want to set the record straight. I didn’t talk about it for 40 years. But then there were a lot of people going out there and talking about it, making a cottage industry of their involvement with it. So I thought that I’d better tell the story.
I did a book on Studio and I enjoyed doing that. I wanted to show my kids what happened—that it really was a special place and it really was unique. I didn’t bring up any of the bad stuff, only the good stuff. People forget the bad stuff and only remember the good stuff.
And then I wanted to do a documentary. I went out and I chose a very unlikely director to do it, but I trusted him. I knew he understood the scene. He worked for Vanity Fair, and we shared a mutual love of design and architecture, and so I entrusted him to tell the story.
I told him I would be totally open with him, and when I started responding to all of his questions honestly, it was a little bit like letting a fox in the chicken coop. He said to me, “You’ve got to use that to make it a serious film, a credible film.” I wanted to be involved with something that was good, so I went along with it.
WW: What made you finally not so reluctant to tell the real story?
IS: I think when I got the pardon from President Obama, I felt I closed the circle at the high ground with my kids. I felt embarrassed by everything that happened. I still do. I felt very comfortable with my position in my personal life, so I felt I would tell everything. I would go on record and explain to everybody what happened.
I wanted to make a film on the phenomenon. I wanted to tell a story of the times, to put it into perspective, and connect the dots. Why was it so successful? What happened there that 40 years later people are still talking about?
There were two seminal events in my life, Woodstock and Studio. People don’t talk about Woodstock much anymore.
WW: Was it emotional for you to make?
IS: Very. I have bittersweet memories of Studio. Not only good memories, but bittersweet. I think of Dickens: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” That’s what Studio was. It’s not my legacy, but I just thought I ought to open up about it and tell people my thoughts.
WW: Can you describe for us a night at Studio 54 and what the energy was like?
IS: There aren’t many times in life that people are able to be completely free with no fear of repercussions or ramifications. There wasn’t anything that you couldn’t do, that you couldn’t get up and walk away from the next morning. You could be anyone that you wanted to be. You could make a fool of yourself. No one gawked at you. Nobody cared. It was being in a room with a couple of thousand people like that, that created this combustible spark. It was a sight to see.
You’re sitting next to the biggest celebrity in the world and nobody cared. Sex everywhere. The energy on the dance floor was like a couple thousand people together functioning as one unit, moving the same way. The light moving, the senses getting assaulted, feeling the music, as well as hearing it. It was nothing like anybody had ever seen before. It was like an adult amusement park. Very, very intoxicating.
People should feel that and experience that mayhem. It’s like hanging onto a lightning bolt. It was fun. It makes you believe in the possibility of things. Anything could happen, anything is possible. There’s no ceiling.
Steve [Rubell, my partner in Studio 54,] and I were a couple of kids from a provincial borough in New York City. Overnight, Steve was the social king of New York. It was pretty heavy stuff for two young guys that didn’t have anything.
WW: There are tales of how it began. But how did it really begin?
IS: Funny enough, I’m the one who wanted to go into the nightclub business, because I was a very ambitious guy. I needed to see people waiting in a line and paying to go into a night club.
I didn’t like the straight clubs, but the gay clubs, there was an energy. The music, even the alcohol. The inspiration was to do something like that—bring it uptown, raise it up a notch, and make it for everyone.
When we started to do the club, that was in the garage phase of nightclubs—music made in garages, technology made in garages, back when it was a very, very young industry. There were very few people that did the sound, that did the lights. We went to some award-winning lighting designers from the theater. That was this stroke of luck for us because it was a very sophisticated and advanced, a new way of looking at these things, and that set the tone.
Sets rising, coming and going, changing scenery, taking people on a kind of trip. You’re on the dance floor, but you’re not a dancer. You’re the star of the show.
WW: After Studio 54, you invented the culture of the boutique hotel with Morgans Hotel Group in 1984. How did you begin in the hospitality industry?
IS: We had sold Studio to somebody and we took back promissory notes. And then the guy couldn’t pay the promissory notes, so we traded his interest in the hotel for the promissory notes, and gave him back the promissory notes . . . But it was a dump called The Executive. So, that’s how we got started.
We felt that a nightclub, even though it doesn’t look like a hotel, has the same goals of taking care of people—looking after your guests, creating an environment, being sophisticated. It is a logical progression from nightclub to restaurant to hotel.
We went into the hotel world as outsiders. Again, outsiders. We worked with the European designer Andrée Putman, and it was an instant hit. A natural, just like Studio.
WW: Like Studio 54, your boutique hotels, and now The EDITION, create experiences rather than just host guests. What type of experiences do you aim to create?
IS: We are trying our best to lift the spirits and make the heart beat faster. Amaze people and astonish them so that when they come in, they feel that there’s an excitement in the air. It’s hard to put your finger on. We all know it when we feel it, and we all know it when we see it—that as soon as you walk into this place, you know you are in a separate, different reality. You want to make it very conducive for people to come in contact with each other and mingle and work and play and socialize and entertain themselves in a freewheeling place. That has always been the code.
WW: You say you’re a producer because you’ve had “no training and just want people to feel special.” What is your secret sauce for making people feel special?
IS: My secret sauce is that there is no secret sauce. Really, when you put all of the details together, when you mesh those details, when you never stop until there is nothing left to offer. Usually, what happens in that situation is that an alchemy happens; a magic happens. I don’t know when and where that happens, so you just keep pushing. It’s when the total becomes more than the sum of the individual parts, because that inexplicable something comes in and takes it to a new level. There is no map or process that I can give you to tell you how this happens, but I have been fortunate enough that it has always happened in my career.
WW: EDITION is opening over a dozen new hotels around the world this year. Tell us a bit about expanding the brand.
IS: The whole point of doing this partnership with Marriott was to increase the scale and the scope of what we were doing. I think it’s important to get a good idea out there and have as many people experience it as possible. There are thousands of versions of what Steve [Rubell] and I have invented all over the world. The EDITION is a further refinement of all of that. It’s a combination of the magic we put in the public spaces, the great food and beverage and entertainment options, the sophisticated design. And it’s all lifted up a level by providing a great service.
WW: You worked with Herzog & de Meuron for the Public in New York and Philippe Starck for the Delano. What do you look for when choosing architecture and design partners?
IS: I choose an architect or designer because I have seen their work and it resonates with me. It’s a very subliminal process. I suppose it’s like looking at a piece of art. It either resonates with you or it doesn’t.
WW: What did you want this property in Shanghai to feel like?
IS: I wanted it to feel like home. I wanted it to feel residential. I didn’t want to have indestructible fabrics, indestructible wallpaper, indestructible carpets. Loose pillows, loose throws, painted walls, unpatterned carpets, white sheets, white towels. All of those things no other hotel person would dare to do because there was an impracticality about it. We thought that if you do those kinds of things, it might increase maintenance, but you would make it up in rate and occupancy, because it was special.
It was intuition, but we weren’t being cavalier. We followed the rules that made sense and didn’t follow the rules that made no sense. It’s not rocket science. Once we had that hit, we felt more empowered to keep breaking the rules—to follow our own good judgment and our own instinct. To be disruptive as much as we could.
WW: Why did you select the French designer Éric Schmitt?
IS: Very simple. We thought nobody would undergo the treachery of working with a French designer who would see things in meters, not inches; who sleeps on square pillows and not rectangular pillows; whose sink heights are higher; who’s giving different bathing habits; who doesn’t mind separating the water closet from the sink. We just felt that if you work with a designer who doesn’t live in America and never did a hotel before, you’re going to get a different hotel.
WW: Can you tell us about the integration of art at EDITION, and where that started?
IS: We’ve always had art in every project I ever did. For the first one, Morgans, we commissioned 40 photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe for $35,000—and on from there. In the Palladian, we had a whole bunch of eighties artists like Francesco Clemente, Keith Sonnier, Keith Haring, and Kenny Scharf. This was just when the art of the eighties was exploding. We wanted to have art that people interacted with. Not at home, and not only for rich people, but for everybody. Basquiat did a big piece for us, but the deal was, “We’re going to use it as long as we use it, then you can take it.” He did two pieces for us that were museum-quality. But the deal was he could take it, and he did. As a matter of fact, his father came and got it.
It was about taking the art and making it available in a public venue where you can have a drink and look at it. It was the same idea in Gramercy Park. It’s exactly the idea that Andy Warhol had. The most important thing that he did was take the pretention out of it. He made it accessible to everybody. Everybody can enjoy it.
WW: What is the importance of having on-property venues to organize entertainment and experiences, like Public Arts at Public in New York?
IS: I think a hotel is supposed to manifest the city it’s in. It’s supposed to offer a microcosm of the best that city has to offer. The people who go to that hotel want to go to the restaurants and bars and clubs that the people in the know of that city go to. But why not have that right downstairs in the lobby?
It’s essential, and it’s the way hotels used to be, but it stopped when the real estate guys and the nance guys and the bean counters got hold of it. They changed the business and got rid of it because they didn’t know how to do it. We just went back to it because we know how to do it.
WW: What do you include to create a safe and inviting space for people from all over?
IS: I’m an observer of culture. I think good taste is a universal language, like the way art is a universal language. It doesn’t know any territorial restrictions.
We’re true to ourselves. We like simple things, rich materials, and details doing most of the work. Just keep refining and refining and simplifying and pairing down—not minimal, but simple.
WW: You’ve said a few times that your life has been like holding onto a lightning bolt. Do you still feel like that now?
IS: Yes. I’ve been lucky enough to live life to its fullest. I don’t have any regrets—any serious regrets—in my life. I have almost made sure to go after whatever it is that I wanted, and it’s been a wild ride. I am at a point, maybe the final quarter of my life, where I’m the happiest I have ever been. I think it’s great to end on a high note, not that I’m planning on going anywhere!