BUT WHO IS IAN SCHRAGER?By Marie Pointurier, Pics: Brigitte Lacombe
He cemented his reputation with the legendary Studio 54, but he’s also a visionary designer who’s revolutionised the art of living. And 30 years on, he’s still lost none of his enthusiasm. A Portrait.
But who is Ian Schrager? It would be no exaggeration say that he’s a man who’s revolutionised the way we lead our lives – how we dance and party, how we holiday, how we work, and even how we see the world. Ian Schrager is also a man of many urban legends (Studio 54, Morgans in New York and the Delano in Miami are just a part of his legacy) and a man still intent on creating others. Also an intense individual, his life has been a pulsating, personal adventure. Certain people say that meeting him leaves you permanently marked. They’re not wrong.
It would be all too easy for Ian Schrager to luxuriate on the top floor of 40 Bond Street (the residential block he’s building in partnership with Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron) to soak up the views of Noho, in downtown Manhattan (breathtaking), to delight in his generation (at long last!), to revel in his reputation (he’s respected by everyone, even his competitors) and to take satisfaction in his fortune (sizeable, to say the least). From Studio 54 to his “boutique hotels” (where everything, from the design of the lobby to the brand of bubble bath refers to and articulates the same artistic direction), his career is a concatenation of successive revolutions. For a man who wanted to break the mould, he’s been the instigator of numerous conceptual innovations that have re-written the rulebook and imposed a new set of codes for the lifestyle industry (some thirty years later, these same codes are still being adhered to). He could easily wind down into early retirement, not least because he’s deserved it. But instead we find him teeming with energy and brimming with new ideas. His brand new West Village office has been turned upside down – reams of cuttings are piled up or stuck to the walls, and all torn out of magazines which he devours on a daily basis. It’s in this electric, yet studious, atmosphere that he talks to me about this fever grips him, this desire to do more and to do better which gnaws at him, and leaves him little or no respite. “I’m not completely satisfied. I still feel like I have something to prove,” he admits. “Sometimes it kills me. But I still feel like a haven’t achieved my life’s work, even if I am extremely proud of what we’ve achieved up until now.”
At 59, he is a man still ready to take huge risks, to embark on colossal ventures. Only this summer, here he is in New York, bringing to life three incredible projects, three inspirational collaborations – a hotel, the Gramercy Park, re-styled by the artist Julian Schnabel, and two residential projects: 50 Gramercy North, in collaboration with British architect John Pawson (Karl Lagerfeld has already purchased one of the apartments) and 40 Bond Street, with Herzog & de Meuron. Three major projects, showcasing the new directions that have taken his fancy. For that’s the way that Ian Schrager, born in the Bronx and raised in Brooklyn, has always run his business – by instinct. “I always work viscerally. I throw myself into new projects like a man who’s besotted with a woman. It’s completely emotional. When I want something, it’s a gut-reaction…” A powerful image, and one that proves there’s nothing stopping him.
Like the Plaza or the Chelsea, the Gramercy Hotel is a New York landmark. Under his supervision, Ian Schrager intends to respect the spirit of the hotel, one-time HQ of the intellectual, bohemian scene, and a building which looks out onto the only private park in New York. “We envisaged it as the home of the Renaissance man, a dandy who’s read a lot, travelled a lot,” he explains. “It would almost be like an artist’s studio. I had in mind the studios of Brancusi or Picasso, and their casual, almost nonchalant style. You know, like when you’d use a jug to put flowers in, but it still looks right.” That’s why he enlisted the help of Julian Schnabel for the design. “If you saw Julian’s homes, you’d understand right off. He has this simplicity of style…” But Schrager also wants a personal and cosy atmosphere, where each client should be treated as a personal guest. To this end, the apartments have been individually designed by John Pawson (the British architect who has already put his signature to the Calvin Klein stores. And for the record, it was Ian Schrager who recommended him to Calvin Klein at a time when Pawson was still relatively unknown). Hand in hand with its eclectic, maximalist aesthetic, there’s a warm minimalism to the Gramercy. “But it’s the same thing,” says Schrager, “it’s something out of the ordinary, both ultra-sophisticated and avant-garde.” Another novelty is that the owners of these apartments will be able to take advantage of 24-hour room service. Like those at 40 Bond too. But this third project signals a new departure. Schrager has now decided that he wants to build, choosing Herzog & de Meuron to design this superb, glass structure. “Working with Ian Schrager is not just another collaboration,” says Jacques Herzog, “it’s a total experience. With his boutique hotels, he created something completely new and earned his place in the history of design. But now he’s working in an even higher dimension – that of pure architecture.” Having created hotels that leave an indelible first impression (whether it’s the lobby, the interiors or the atmosphere), he’s now building structures that will remain for generations to come, leaving a permanent trace on the fabric of the city.
According to Paola Antonelli, Architecture and Design curator at MOMA, New York, there’s little doubt that Ian Schrager has always had a flair for finding the perfect partners. “His passion for architecture, his great taste, his intuition, and therefore his choice of collaborators, which were on occasion really quite risky, have ensured his place in the history of popular visual culture. And that dates all the way back to Studio 54. How has he done it? Simply by understanding design in a global sense, incorporating everything from the wall colour to the music.” Evidently, he is immensely passionate about design and his eye is uniquely reliable. “He has a very pronounced taste,” recognizes John Pawson. “Like all those stories of successful people who are entirely self-taught, he reads and absorbs everything with a ferocious appetite.” He’s also a man who asks himself the right questions. “I think he owes a lot of his success to his capacity for attention,” says Anna Wintour, Editor-In-Chief at American Vogue and a long-time friend of Schrager. “He’s always open to other people’s ideas, whether it’s his friends, or even his children, and he often solicits their opinion.”
The most recent people to orbit the Schrager galaxy are two Frenchmen, Patrick Gilles and Dorotheée Boissoir, names still relatively unknown but who will oversee the design of a new hotel in Miami (another one, on the beach, has been entrusted to John Pawson). And even if he hasn’t built a single hotel in France, Schrager is well known by the French after choosing Andrée Putman to help launch the revolutionary concept that is the boutique hotel (Morgans, in New York in 1984 was the equivalent of a new fashion blueprint), and then, of course, Philippe Starck, with his irreverence and sense of humour, and who Schrager has catapulted onto the international stage. Together, they’ve brought to completion seven hotels – seven major steps in the history of style, seven variations on this new blueprint, opening the Royalton (1988), the Paramount (1990) and the Hudson (2000) in New York, the Delano (1995) in Miami, the Mondrian (1997) in Los Angeles, and the St. Martins Lane (1999) and the Sanderson (2000) in London. But what’s often forgotten is that before he revolutionised the hotel industry, he was behind yet another atom bomb: the mythical Studio 54. Another legend that could only be thought up by a man like Schrager.
The fashion designer Norma Kamali was his girlfriend at the time, meeting when Studio 54 had just opened its doors. Ian Schrager had asked her to create an outfit for Grace Jones to wear on New Year’s Eve. “Generally, I’m quite a reserved person. Nightclubs aren’t really my thing. But that’s all people were talking about – what had happened the previous evening, what they were going to wear for the next one. Everyone wore the most incredible outfits… You really had to be there!” In short, it was the fact of having to meet him that irritated her most. “But I was immediately charmed by his intelligence, his originality, and this fantastic energy that he put into creating this incredible place which sent shock waves through New York during that period.” Soon falling under his charms, she’d find him at Studio 54 towards the end of the day. A man of the shadows, he’d stay until 10pm, sometimes midnight, just enough time to make sure that everything was in order for the evening to come, leaving absolutely nothing to chance (even today, there’s no detail too small that doesn’t merit his attention). And then his partner Steve Rubell would arrive. Rubell was responsible for the energy of the mix, and for the people that came down; Schrager for the energy of the space – re-inventing its look for each new party, which meant just about every night. “He admired Walt Disney for his ability to take people into an imaginary realm,” recalls Kamali. “Well that’s exactly what he did, but for a more adult audience. Every night was like a magic ride on a flying carpet.” Ever since 1977, everyone’s been talking about Studio 54, and it’s Schrager who created it. Everybody has their own story to tell about the period, about its flamboyance, its decadence, about Barychnikov and Mick Jagger, about Andy Warhol and Truman Capote, about Halston and Calvin Klein, about Blondie and Margaux Hemingway. But Schrager’s been strangely silent over the years. In short, everyone remembers Studio 54, but Schrager would sometimes prefer to forget it. Why? Because for him, the disco ball had begun to spiral out of control and ‘The Man in the Moon’ (with its famous, flashing, coke spoon) had driven him and Rubell into a sordid and sorrowful space. After two years of the most mind-blowing parties, the police decide to raid the premises. There they uncover the hidden ceiling, and seize account books, cash and drugs… Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell are jailed for tax fraud. Schrager spends thirteen months (of his three and a half year sentence) behind bars, half of it in New York, the other half in Alabama. He’ll stay silent about this period for a long time to come. Not that he was hiding anything – he just felt battered and bruised. So it’s understandable if he’d sometimes like to forget about Studio 54: “It almost destroyed me. I must have been intoxicated by the success of it all and got lost along the way. I made certain mistakes and I paid dearly for them. Very dearly.” Norma Kamali concurs when she says, “He’s someone who’s always been moral, a man of integrity. Prison didn’t make him virtuous. He was virtuous already. With hindsight, I wonder how any of us would have acted in their place. They hadn’t reached 30 and they’d already created something totally off the wall. The energy was crazy and it was making so much money, the scale of it all was so immense…”
Stripped of his freedom, Schrager falls ill. He pays people to make sure he doesn’t get hurt. “What separates us from animals is our need for intimacy,” he says. “But in prison, there’s no intimacy. It was awful… Awful, awful. Believe me, nothing good can come from an experience like that.” It’s a period that has deeply traumatised him, his ex-wife Rita confides to us. They married in the ‘90s and have two girls aged 8 and 11. “The scars are still there,” she says, and the bad memories will continue to cast a shadow over the good ones for years to come.
But it’s during their time in prison that Steve and Ian foment their next revolution – the hotel trade. As you can imagine, the beginnings weren’t easy. “I had lost everything. Coming out of jail, I couldn’t even open a bank account.” But he straightened himself out and he battled relentlessly. “I didn’t really have any choice. My whole life was there in front of me. It was a case of either fighting or just giving up. If my father had still been alive at the time, he would have said to me this: ‘There’s only one thing that hurts more than falling down, and that’s not getting up.’ So I thought about that, and got myself back on track.” In a sense, he’s living proof that the system works, because he’s come from nothing to find himself now at the head of an empire.
If this empire is where it is today, it’s because Schrager knows how to take advantage of opportunities better (and faster) than anyone else. Upon their release from jail in January 1981, investors agree to finance Steve and Ian’s new proeject on the condition that they open another nightclub. But the pair aren’t interested in anything but a hotel. They refuse point-blank and negotiations reach deadlock. It’s at a time when Studio 54 is up for sale. Now it so happens that the new buyer cannot honour the terms of the Promissory Note. So Ian and Steve finally manage to exchange the premises for stakes in their future project. Problem solved. Morgan’s, designed by André Putman, opens its doors in 1984 and shakes up the hotel industry. It’s the first ever boutique hotel and it causes a revolution in the trade. “At the time,” says Anna Win tour, “there were only two options, either the high-end, traditional establishments, or the Hilton. The stroke of genius on Ian’s part was to find that gap in the market, to create a cool, chic and sophisticated hotel where everybody, whether they worked in fashion, or anywhere for that matter, wanted to go. And his taste is so impeccable that to this day his hotels remain as cool, chic and sophisticated as they were when they first opened.”
From parties to holidays (or should that be business? For it’s to his credit that he’s managed to create an atmosphere conducive to both), once again Ian Schrager has laid out the new codes for the art of contemporary living. He’ll happily say so, and without a touch of false modesty, mainly because it’s true: “We were the exception to the rule. But soon enough, the exception became the rule. These days, everybody’s doing a more or less successful version of what we invented thirty years ago.” The Royalton and the Paramount are the next to open, and pioneer yet another new concept – the trendy hotel lobby, where people flock to have a drink, whether they’re staying at the hotel or not. Then in 1989, Steve Rubell, who had been living with AIDS, tragically passes away. Deeply saddened by this terrible loss, Ian Schrager enters a period of personal mourning and professional doubt. “He was initially suffering from the loss of someone very dear to him,” explains Tina Brown, the then Editor-In-Chief at Vanity Fair, “but then he started to question whether he could go on all by himself, whether he could be both the ying and the yang of the business.” The answer was an emphatic yes (he’d begin to work more closely with Philippe Starck). Of course he’d never had the confidence or the exuberance of his close friend Rubell. Schrager was always reserved, discreet, even introverted. He admits, with a wry smile, that at cocktail parties, he’d invariably find himself, nose stuck in a glass, drifting towards the plant in the corner. But he also maintains that “if it’s work-related, I’ll happily stand up in front of a hundred people.”
According to Jacques Herzog, “he’s a man of conviction, who knows how to convince like nobody else. Emotionally, he’s completely committed, and he’s always ready to fight to the last.” Tina Brown goes one step further, saying “There’s few people who know just how much of himself he puts into each and every one of his projects.” And if every project has been a success, it’s simply because they’re all upheld by a solid conceptual framework so that they all have good reason for coming into existence. “It’s like for a film. I need the script first, the guiding thread, the driving force,” he says. “The special effects, the musical arrangements, these things come afterwards. So when we’re meeting with the designers and the architects, we don’t talk about what colours we want, we talk about the social context. What does the client want? How do we understand their collective unconscious? What will they react to? What’s missing? What can we do that hasn’t been done yet? You have to keep the guiding thread in mind from conception to completion.” And when pressed on what he considers as a good hotel, he fires back, “Those which aren’t just a pale imitation of the formula we created.” More specifically? “Hotel Costes in Paris; the Aman Resort, where they’ve really created their own concept; and finally those grand, old hotels like the Okura in Tokyo, the Carlyle in New York and the Bel Air in Los Angeles. These are all really special places. From the staff to the guests, everybody knows it, everybody can feel it.”
Ian Schrager will admit to having a fiercely competitive streak. He’ll actively go and see what his competitors are up to, but most of the time he’s disappointed by their lack of imagination. It’s something that only feeds fire to his own creativity, “It definitely encourages me to come up with new ideas.” Indeed, the next idea is a project of epic proportions: the creation of an entire residential district in Las Vegas. Ten thousand apartments, restaurants, boutiques, and green spaces will rise out of the desert by 2010, with the help of architecture A-listers, Herzog & de Meuron. “It will be a community partly inspired by the Milanese boutique, Corso Como, which is not just a fashion outlet, but also a piazza with a bar, a restaurant, a fantastic bookstore, a superb record shop…” He’s multiplying tenfold the risk factor and the adrenaline rush. “I’m not frightened of making mistakes. I’m not scared of being taken for an idiot, because I’m not an idiot… I’m more scared of not succeeding. You could say I’m scared of failure. And that’s what has driven me to work all this time, driven me to work harder than anyone else.” Is he scared of the chattering masses, of what other people will say? “If you don’t care what others think of you, you might as well be dead.” He explains that with each new venture, it’s those same old fears that begin to resurface: What if no one turns up to the party? Or if nobody’s having a good time there? But he can rest assured, because up until now, it’s Ian Schrager who’s thrown the most unforgettable parties. Hands down. No contest.