The legendary hotelier and nightclub veteran Ian Schrager is bullish when it comes to the post-pandemic future.
“In the history of humanity, historically, any crisis that I have been witness to, or experienced, we have always recovered. And after we have recovered, we go back to normal, not a new normal, the same normal we were accustomed to before.”
Schrager talks a thousand miles a minute, in the thick New York accent he acquired growing up in Brooklyn.
“Go back to Noah and the flood. After the water goes down, life goes on.
“I really don’t believe in paradigm shifts. We were told New Orleans would never be the same [after Hurricane Katrina], that people would never be able to live there again, well, that didn’t happen.
“And then after 9/11, it was going to be this profound and fundamental change, and nothing happened there, and after the 2008 financial crisis, everyone went back to the exact same, reckless way of doing things.
“I do think this is an entirely profound thing that is happening to us, one without precedent, but the one thing that I’m quite certain of is that we will return to normal. That’s just the way it is. Life finds a way to resume.”
Schrager could be suffering from confirmation bias, given that his sprawling empire of hotels, and the bars, nightclubs, and restaurants that they contain revolve around people traveling and gathering. But why bet against a man who has made a lifetime’s career out of being right about human nature, not just once, but time and time again?
From Studio 54, which he co-founded with Steve Rubell, to the hip hotels with drop-dead gorgeous lobbies that he established across the globe—The Morgan, The Hudson, The Delano, The Mondrian, The Sanderson, Public, to name just a few—Schrager has a habit of knowing what humans want.
Admittedly, the pandemic has come at a bad time for his latest project: the opening of a new Edition hotel in Tokyo. Edition is a collaboration with the hotel giant Marriott and will ultimately see some 100 hotels be given the Schrager treatment.
“Edition is probably the best idea I ever had,” he muses, “I think there is just something really great about providing great style, sophistication, and great entertainment to anybody and everybody that wants it, not just the rich. Make it accessible to everybody. I just think that’s a very, very important idea.”
Schrager is dismissive of the suggestion that partnering with a major hotel chain might dilute his upstart attitude.
“I am still an outsider, I will always be an outsider, but working with Marriott has been a really gratifying experience for me. I haven’t changed my approach, or way of doing things, or the emphasis on doing something subversive and unanticipated. I’m still the same person with the same approach, but the opportunity to do that on a big scale is very attractive to me.”
Editions in Bodrum, Turkey; Miami; Shanghai; and Sanya (in China’s Hainan) are all back open, but Schrager says he won’t be opening many of his own hotels in America, including Public, until next year.
The priority until then is to keep his powder dry. He says, “There is nothing more that you can do as a business,” other than wait patiently, “until people feel safe traveling, period. Nothing else matters. There is no discount or offer you can make. It is not gonna happen.
“I’m not opening some of my hotels in America until March next year. I don’t see any reason for opening if you can’t make money. If you can’t provide the brand experience the people are expecting, what’s the point? Opening up a restaurant at 50 percent capacity? It’s difficult to make money with a restaurant at 100 percent capacity! You can’t make money opening a restaurant with everybody sitting on the outside, with 50 percent occupancy, you can’t.
“If there’s a vaccine that proves to be effective, and everybody starts feeling safe by the middle of next year, then, not much of an adjustment will have to be made. But I’m of the view that rather than getting brain damage trying to predict every possible nuance of what might happen, we just have to wait and see.”
To a generation of urbanites, Schrager is more famous as hotelier than club owner, but it was of course the founding of Studio 54 with his partner, the late Steve Rubell, that first made his name.
“It was like holding onto a lightning bolt,” he says of launching and running the club that became synonymous with late '70s New York, and subsequently saw him and his partner sentenced to three and a half years in prison for tax evasion.
“It was just an unbelievable experience. It was fun, it was all consuming, it changed my life forever. It was just a great, great experience. Well, most of it was; some of it almost destroyed Steve and I.”
Asked to define what made Studio 54 work, Schrager doesn’t dismiss luck, saying, “We were the right people at the right time in the right place,” but adds, “You try to make your own luck, and I think we did do that. I think we did create the most unique and classic product. We did, at Studio 54, things that had never been done before visually, and had never been done before socially; the mixing of crowds, gay and straight, black and white, rich and poor. It created a real combustible energy.
“You can’t fool the people. The people, they are the judges, not the critics, not the intellectuals; the people. Studio 54 impressed the people in all walks of life and all ages, and it was just a very wonderful thing to be involved in.”
Schrager always had a reputation as the more sober of the pair, and says that throughout the years running the club, he would be in the office at 9 a.m. every day, getting busy with “all the preparations to put on a new show.”
Rubell would drift in during the afternoon, and the pair would work together until 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. “It was a very quick dialogue, an intuitive connection between the both of us. One could complete the sentence the other one had started.”
As evening fell, they would head out to dinner, returning to the club around 9 p.m. or 10 p.m.
“I would stay there and leave sometime between midnight and 1:30 a.m., and Steve would stay until 5 in the morning.”
On Mondays, when the club was “dark,” Schrager says, “I would read all the weekly newspapers and magazines and that would be my night off. Then the whole thing would start over again on Tuesday.”
Why did he not join the party like Steve did? “I enjoyed creating and being the catalyst for making it happen. I enjoyed watching 2,000 people functioning as one big organism. The socializing, the shaking hands and kissing babies? I did not enjoy that at all, and Steve did.”
Schrager says that one of the most exciting and energizing factors of Studio 54 was that it gave him “the opportunity to work with the most creative people in so many different disciplines; in lighting, theater, dance, design, architecture, visual arts, sound.
“That’s the thing about nightclub business, it doesn’t have any boundaries so I had exposure to so many different people.”
Celebrities were an important part of the mix, with Andy Warhol and Bianca Jagger (on horseback) being among the names most frequently associated with the iconic club. Interestingly, however, Schrager says that fashion designers, like Diane von Furstenberg, Halston, Calvin Klein, Karl Lagerfeld, and Yves Saint Laurent, who were all patrons of Studio 54, were actually more important to the club’s DNA.
“At that time, the fashion designers were the movie stars of New York. They really set the social tone. They were very, very influential people. If they came to your nightclub, that was kind of ratification that this was the spot,” he says.
Celebrities, he says, felt comfortable at Studio 54 because “No one cared they were celebrities. They could leave the fact that they were celebrities on the outside. No one asked for autographs. And Steve was one of those kinds of people who other people react to well because he was fun and engaging and sensitive. He made them feel good. They reacted very positively to Steve.”
Is there one night at Studio 54 that he remembers above all others?
“That first night, the opening night, when we realized we did it, we did it; that will always be a moment that was very dear to my heart.”
If he was a young man again, would he start a nightclub? “The good thing about a nightclub back then was that it didn’t take a lot of money. That’s not the case today. Young people need to get started in something.”
Does he think a club like Studio 54 could exist in an era of camera phones and social media? “That has changed nightlife, but there are places that have not been impacted by it. Ibiza has not been impacted by it, a lot of the clubs in East Germany haven’t been impacted by it. Those are things that have to be adapted to, you have to take them into account. But they are not going to change the basic human social condition; the human wants to socialize, go a little crazy sometimes, and be with other people. That doesn’t change.”