Ian Schrager, rockstar hotelier

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Ian Schrager, rockstar hotelier

Words By Max Wallis

It’s quarter to midnight on a warm night in May. The marble-lined lobby of the 41-floor, 273-room New York Edition hotel is heaving. It’s the night of the opening party. And you immediately know this is a special party - an Ian Schrager party. You can tell this because over there is Daisy Lowe, chatting not far from Rosario Dawson, who not long ago was saying hello to Alexa Chung in the restaurant (which is a Jason Atherton production, naturally) and, ah yes, Leonardo DiCaprio just arrived in a blaze of photographer’s light.

In front of me a woman dances in high heels on the pool table with, one can’t help feeling, admirable balance; her glass of Ruinart Blanc de Blancs champagne, however, is not so poised, cascading out of her glass in a fizzing, iridescent arc. As a mark of one man’s renaissance it is a strong statement: Ian Schrager has come home. For the first time in 10 years he will once again have a New York hotel.

The man himself is the walking, talking epitome of the idea of renaissance. Born in the Bronx and raised in Brooklyn, he grew up with Manhattan in his sights. Not only did he manage to bring about a rebirth in New York’s nightlife scene, with the era-defining club Studio 54, but he’s also spent the latter decades of his career doing the same with hotels.

It ought to be no surprise that his party at the Edition was such a good one – he is a past master. To look at Schrager’s new book, a pictorial retrospective of his career, is to look at beautiful people having a bacchanalia. Studio 54, with its velvet rope, its beautiful design, its drugs and its excess – to say nothing of its famous faces – became the nightclub that everyone wanted to reproduce. His parties no longer have Bianca Jagger, Cher, Andy Warhol and Grace Jones; at the Edition, it is the likes of Grayson Perry, Iman and David Schwimmer. Where Studio 54 transformed the guts of an old opera house, here Schrager has converted a clock tower into a luxury hotel. Everyone is flirting, engaging in the thing that makes Ian, well, Ian: he is a master of making people have fun. As the clock draws closer to midnight I see Schrager himself, 69 years old, heading home. He is wearing the smile of a man who has pulled it off – again.

Formerly a lawyer, Schrager has reinvented himself more than most. He was a man who captured the club fever of the 70s with Studio 54. As Vanity Fair once put it, for 33 months it was the ‘epicentre of 70s hedonism, a disco hothouse of beautiful people’ – but that selfsame thing nearly finished him, too. In December 1978, the club was raided after Steve Rubell, Schrager’s business partner, attracted the attention of the Internal Revenue Service, after saying the club made “more money than the Mafia”.

They were indicted on Federal income-tax charges for allegedly skimming $2.5 million. Cash was found stashed in bin bags in the ceiling of the office. He and his partner served 13 months in prison. ”It is hard to be a role model for your children when you make such a devastating mistake,” said Schrager in a recent interview. “But [Studio 54] was part of my life and my work. And the club continues to resonate today.” After prison, and a second, unsuccessful club, Palladium, Schrager and Rubell turned their attention elsewhere: hotels. To say it was a successful change is perhaps to underplay the word ‘success’.

In 1984, the pair opened Morgans Hotel in New York. Their aim was to turn the idea of hotel design on its head: instead of traditional architects and interior designers, they sought out people like themselves; people who hadn’t necessarily worked with hotels but felt they knew what people wanted. They got Andrée Putman, who had previously worked with Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld and Thierry Mugler, to work on design. Their aim was to create hotels that “had a sense of time and place” Schrager said, “that took all of the cultural fragments floating around in the air along with the cultural zeitgeist, and put them all together.”

Morgans introduced full-size Kiehl’s products in the bathrooms and uniforms designed by Giorgio Armani. They spurned the dingy lighting, patterned carpets and wallpaper of their competitors, and lined the walls of the bedrooms with Robert Mapplethorpe photographs. The term ‘boutique hotel’ was coined by Rubell, and it is an apt description of what they did. The lobby was redesigned as a ‘living-room’ with taupe-coloured glass walls, three shades of Italian granite and French leather club chairs. Together they invented the notion of ‘lobby socialising’: not only staying in a hotel, but wanting to remain there, to drink there and eat there. These were not shopping-mall, cookie-cutter hotels, but high-end pleasure palaces.

After their initial success, more hotels followed including The Royalton – the first hotel designed by Philippe Starck – which opened in 1988. The death of Rubell in 1989 from an Aids-related illness changed Schrager’s life. “I’ll never have the kind of friendship I had with Steve, who I loved.” he said in a Guardian interview in 2001. “We went to school together and grew up together and had our ups and downs together, and it was a really, you know, unique and special thing.”

Schrager sold his share of Morgans in 2005, but before that he created some of the world’s chicest hotels: The Paramount, The Hudson, Gramercy Park, The Delano, Shore Club, The Mondrian in LA, St Martin’s Lane and The Sanderson in London: each a meticulous expression of Schrager’s mind, right down to the chiselled-jawed staff and the height of the coffee tables.

“Many of the people I have worked with have been with me for a long time... Each and every one of them has helped make me who and what I am today and for that I am forever grateful.”

Schrager went on to launch his own chain of “accessible luxury” hotels called Public, with the first opening in Chicago in 2011. The latest act in his career, meanwhile, is a partnership with a company he would, ironically, have previously shunned. Forging a partnership with the hotel chain Marriott, Schrager has created the new Edition series of hotel. “I thought it would be fun to do something on a big scale,” he has said. After veering briefly off course in Hawaii, the Edition series has opened four hotels: The London Edition, The Miami Beach Edition, The Istanbul Edition and now, The New York Edition.

Within two months of the Miami Beach branch opening in December 2014, it had doubled its assumed profitability. Forty percent of that money came from guests’ spending on food and drink (the restaurant was by Jean-Georges Vongerichten). Over the next four years, the Edition series will roll out across the globe: Sanya, Shanghai and Wuhan in China; Bangkok; Gurgaon in India; Abu Dhabi; New York’s Times Square; West Hollywood in California; and Bali.

“Many of the people I have worked with have been with me for a long time,” says Schrager. “Each and every one of them has helped make me who and what I am today and for that I am forever grateful.” From Yabu Pushelberg to John Pawson and Philippe Starck, he surrounds himself with the most talented people around and together they contrive to produce things that attract people. As he has said before, “You have to lead people into a place they weren’t even sure they wanted to go.”

The man walking across the lobby of the New York Edition, surveying his domain, is now 69 years old. He’s the head of a multi-national, multi-million-dollar company, who wafts across the globe and lives in a $20 million house in Southampton, New York. For a man who lost his father and mother when he was 19 and 23 respectively, a man who went to prison and lost his business partner, his particular renaissance seems almost amaranthine.

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