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Staying on the pulse with the storied hotelier and visionary behind Studio 54.
WHEN I WAS 6 years old, my parents took me to a hotel designed all in white. The only color was a single green apple in our room. There were women, beautiful women, with short skirts, long, tan legs, and tiny Prada purses. I made a new friend by the pool, and we played together, dunking our heads underwater to hear the classical music playing below (my new friend was Harrison Ford’s daughter, I’d learn years later). The furniture in the lobby had great, exaggerated shapes, and the walls and windows were hung with endless bolts of gauzy white drapery. Before I even understood what the words meant, my earliest conceptions of beauty, sex appeal, coolness, and what life could offer — if you worked very hard — were formed here. The place was Ian Schrager’s iconic Miami hotel: the Delano.
The name and world of Ian Schrager have followed me through the years. It began at the Mondrian in LA, where during a formative stay at 8 years old, I absorbed the philosophy of “minimalism.” I had seen places like the St. Regis in New York, where there were always lots and lots of things: gold tassels, chandeliers, and crown moldings. The Mondrian’s minimalism had less but somehow felt like more.
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In my early 20s, countless nights ended (or, I should say, truly began) at Schrager’s cavernous PUBLIC hotel on New York’s Lower East Side, dancing on every possible level (the ground floor, tabletops, VIP balconies). I’d stare at my face in the bathroom, ears ringing, and feel utterly singular — surrounded by other girls just like me, hearts beating with the same feverish belief that tonight was the night. For what? It was unclear — but something tremendous. That’s just how Schrager’s spaces made you feel: singular and electric.
Of course, Ian Schrager’s world was born far earlier than these memories. To give an abridged version of his legacy, Schrager was the force behind the era-defining nightclubs Studio 54 and Palladium. He was the father of the “boutique hotel” concept, brought to life through other legendary names like Morgans, the Royalton, and the Paramount. He’s also the creator of one of today’s buzziest hotel brands, the EDITION. The visionary, in essence, falls somewhere between man and myth. Now 76 years old, he’s kept his finger on the pulse for almost 50 years — without ever losing touch.
To understand the mind behind the magic, I find myself in Schrager’s Bond Street penthouse. His home is much like his properties: minimal, airy, and expansive. I pass those endless gauzy white curtains and follow his voice upstairs to the office — that infamous voice, rich with husk, and with a classic New York accent now only heard in the outer boroughs or old films.
Inside a glass pavilion that he added on top of the Bond Street building sits Schrager in a nondescript black polo at a desk covered in papers. He clears them away as I join, disturbed by the visual clutter. As he gets me water, I take in the space — floor-to-ceiling glass walls so clear and vast, it’s like I’m suspended in air. “If everybody else was inside the box, I’m outside the box,” he begins. “And I think it takes people who are outside to stimulate people inside. If you do something a little bit new, a little bit askew, a little bit unanticipated, it touches people, moves them. You bring something to the body that everybody doesn’t normally get to see — but they crave it.”
‘If everybody else was inside the box, I’m outside the box. And I think it takes people who are outside to stimulate people inside.’
Schrager’s adamant this way of seeing things isn’t fueled by logic or linear thinking. Intellectualism means nothing to him. “I’m not an intellectual. I’m very instinctive, spontaneous,” he muses. “I think what creative people do isn’t always predicated on rationality and linear logic.” So what does he believe in? The resilience of the human condition. To him, we never change. “When the pandemic hit, everybody was making projections about how everything was going to be different. But I’ve been through these hits,” Schrager says as he leans back and crosses his arms with a contemplative gaze. “After 9/11, everyone said everything was going to be different. Nothing’s different. I can’t say when, but we’ll go back to the way we were. Zoom isn’t going to take the place of in person. Things evolve, but they don’t flip over like that.” He credits being around and working for so long for his conviction, quoting Steve Jobs: “You can’t connect the dots until you are older.”
We return to one particularly technicolor dot in time: Studio 54. He leans in as if about to share a secret. “F. Scott Fitzgerald said New York was over after the ’20s, and my parents said it was over after the ’50s.” His eyes crinkle into a smile. “But in the ’70s, boy, New York was just great. It seemed everybody in Europe tilted over and just flowed into New York. London had it in the ’60s. Over the last 500 years, that was the only time London was cool, from 1961 to 1962. But New York in the ’70s? It was bohemian and underground, not a bunch of rich hedge fund guys all over the place. It was one of the only cities with the theater, the fashion, the restaurants. It was here.” That was the last time, he says with a hint of melancholy, that New York was truly the center of the universe. “But I don’t go around telling everybody that,” he chuckles.
Schrager asserts that diversity is the key to all magic. “There’s nothing more boring than being in a room with everyone who’s alike,” he scoffs. “It’s the diversity of age, of wealth, of what you do, where you come from. That’s where energy comes from, always.” His voice is firm for emphasis. “At the nightclub, you’d see a gay guy in a pair of jeans with no shirt on dancing with a woman in a ball gown and a tiara. Diversity is the secret to energizing a space. It’s critical. It’s combustible. When different energy comes in, the fire starts. Maybe it’s the fascination with the things that are unlike you.” He recalls a spirit of total acceptance in the Studio 54 days. “If you were next to a celebrity or you were next to a down-and-out drag queen, nobody cared. Nobody looked, nobody talked, and it was just great.”
If we were at a party, I ask, where in the room would he be? Somewhere in the corner, apparently. As it turns out, the nightlife legend is shy. “I’m not one of those combustible energizers.” He throws his hands up with a bashful smirk. “I’m shy! What I like is creating this space that’s conducive to making this energy happen. But I’ve always been shy. It’s so funny. Making small talk, it’s a real effort for me.” But what is an interview if not formalized small talk? The man’s a performance artist, too, I think to myself.
‘Diversity is the secret to energizing a space. It’s critical. It’s combustible. When different energy comes in, the fire starts.’
The original inspiration for Studio 54 was Woodstock, he says. “What I was trying to do was create that same sense of freedom, that same comfort, where you felt protected and could do anything you wanted as long as you didn’t hurt anybody else. I wanted to do a space where there was magic to it.” Though different formats — one being a music festival and one being a nightclub — they share the same story. And story, to Schrager, is everything: “It has to move you,” he says. It’s why he never liked pop art. “Andy Warhol and a lot of other great artists would gallivant around Studio. It’s hard for me to take him seriously now. But I look at some of that stuff he did and ... I don’t see it,” he smirks. “A lot of the great art collectors would think what I’m saying is sacrilege. But when I look at a Jackson Pollock, I could feel the frenzy in it. I could feel it. It’s almost unnerving.”
We continue with art, on Schrager’s need for energy and emotion in the medium. He presents two ends of the painterly spectrum — Matisse vs. Picasso — famous friends as well as competitors. “Matisse was the painter’s painter. He influenced generations of painters. Picasso didn’t influence anyone — because he was the only one that could do it. Who would you rather be, Picasso or Matisse?” he asks. Schrager, unsurprisingly, chooses Picasso, adding a television series recommendation on the artist: “Genius: Picasso.”
Our conversation turns to another medium: fashion. What was Studio 54, if not the playground for great American designers? “Our movie stars,” says Schrager with sparkling eyes. “They were so cool. They really set the social tone. I’ve been to things where athletes were the stars, rock stars were the stars, artists were the stars, media. But they had their moment, our fashion people. And now you have J.Lo coming out with fashion, and the Kardashians, and fast fashion. All publicity. Then, it was a craft.”
I ask Schrager to define his perfect night. “Spending it with my family,” he replies (Schrager has two older daughters and one younger son). “I know that may sound boring. Very bad for the reputation. I’m comfortable where I am because I’ve been there, done that — and then some. I found having kids liberating,” he explains. “I wasn’t distracted by bullshit anymore. I was able to see what’s important.”
Schrager’s a staunch downtown guy. My heart swells with comradery because I grew up on 16th Street, went to school in the West Village, and now live in the East Village. “The scale of the streets, the anti-brand stores, the little shops, the whole thing. I really love downtown. I loathe going uptown. I loathe it. I think everything bad about New York is from uptown. The anonymity, the aggression — nobody’s friendly. It’s a different city,” he states. “Downtown is the real New York. I love the West Village. Love the Lower East Side, the NYU area. I never go uptown unless I have to see a bank. Although,” he lights back up a bit, “Central Park is a masterpiece. A masterpiece.”
Not much of a shopper, he makes an exception for Hermès. “I love it. I think that’s probably the only store in which I really like to shop.” For restaurants, though he doesn’t go out often, he has a soft spot for the old-school, cash-only institution Peter Luger Steak House in Brooklyn. “I just went,” he grins. “It’s so good. I used to go there with my dad. And of course POPULAR, the restaurant at the PUBLIC. Peruvian.”
‘Matisse was the painter’s painter. He influenced generations of painters. Picasso didn’t influence anyone — because he was the only one that could do it. Who would you rather be, Picasso or Matisse?’
We look at what’s ahead for Schrager. He’s very excited about the concept of PUBLIC Hotels, a brand rooted in the idea of great spaces at a great value that he’s looking to expand far beyond its current New York City location. “I think making sophisticated things accessible to everyone, anybody that wants them, is a very important idea.” Considering he runs so many hotels, it’s striking that Schrager never uses the term “hotel business” or even “hospitality.” He says, “entertainment business.” And there’s a reason why. “I'm not creating something for somebody to come and sleep or eat,” he explains. “I’m trying to create a visceral emotional experience, an excitement in the air, a thickness. You can’t describe it, but you feel it as soon as you walk in. It’s very ethereal; it’s elusive, delicate. That’s what entertainment is. You just put everything into it and hope that alchemy happens.”
The challenge? He’s cursed by a level of perfectionism that never lets up. “It’s a curse. Because you can’t control it. I never know what detail is the detail that’s going to push something over the top. So every detail is a matter of life or death. I start worrying about a dishwasher behind the bar.” He’s also a self-described control freak who struggles with delegating. “Anna Wintour calls me a control freak … and she's a control freak.”
I, too, struggle with feelings of control, I tell him, asking if it ever gets easier to manage. “When you’re someone who needs to be in control, it’s hard to feel satisfied,” he replies. “But it’s something you have to live with. You have no choice. But that sense of dissatisfaction is what drives you.” He holds my gaze with a kind and earnest expression. “Now, it’s maybe a pain, but you’ll look back and realize — it’s part of the success you’re going to have.”
He switches roles, asking me about my work and my day-to-day life, leaning in with genuine curiosity. “You must be meeting with some interesting people,” he says excitedly. “It must be so great.” I love what I do, I answer. “Lucky,” he responds. “I’m still doing this because I love it. I actually love it! I think there are a lot of people that still work very, very hard — and they do it because they just love it. It’s not work.”
Lead images (clockwise from top left): Tasfoto/Alamy Stock Photo; Bill Wisser; Chad Batka; courtesy of Sophie Mancini.
Sophie Mancini is an editor at Departures. Born and raised in New York City, she holds a degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University and has a background as a writer in brand and editorial.
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