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Ian Schrager: “It was like a lighting bolt”

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Ian Schrager
Photo courtesy of Ian Schrager
Short Profile

Name: Ian Schrager
DOB: 19 July 1946
Place of Birth: New York, New York, USA
Occupation: Entrepreneur

Mr. Schrager, in the late ’70s you co-founded Studio 54, the most famous nightclub of all time. What was the best party Studio 54 ever threw?

I always used to like the Halloween parties. It was the one night that anybody could get into Studio 54. You just had to come up with a great costume and you were in. You could not believe some of the things that people would wear. I remember doing a party inspired by the artist Bosch with midgets eating Cornish game hens and walking in on a floor full of white mice lit with ultraviolet light. It was just anything goes, mayhem.

You started your career as a lawyer. How did you go from that to opening Studio 54?

I was a lawyer for a couple of years, but I won a very big case very quickly and then I think I got bored with it. I didn’t become a lawyer out of love, I became a lawyer because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I think as you are growing up, deciding what you want to do is really the process of elimination rather than gravitating towards something, until you land on what really makes you happy. I realized that when I was driving around Manhattan and saw people waiting in line to get into a nightclub and I thought, “Wow! That is a business I want to get into.”

Why?

It was like, “What’s going on in there that all these people are really loving? What’s happening there? What phenomenon is happening there? I want to go and do that.”

So what was your original concept for a nightclub?

I did a nightclub I wanted to go to. I wanted to go to a great party with a lot of energy in the air. I didn’t want to be around a lot of rich people, a lot of old people, young people. I wanted that kind of energy, that kinetic spark that happens. I was never comfortable going into a nightclub that you went to meet girls. It felt very contrived to me. So I did the kind of nightclub where you could be anonymous or you could meet someone, you could dance or you could do nothing and be perfectly comfortable. So that was the nightclub we did.

And 40 years later people are still talking about it.

I know, it is a mindblower. I can’t believe it. New York used to be nightclub central. I mean there were 20 different places to go every night, downtown, uptown, straight, gay. But now almost 40 years later nobody knows about anything other than Studio 54. So that is pretty gratifying.

Were the ’70s the perfect time to open a club like Studio 54, with all the boundaries that were coming down in society at that time?

Well let me say this: I think all the forces of the universe came together. I think it was really the true fruition of the sexual revolution. But there is always a perfect time to open up a great nightclub. We are social people, we like to meet people, we like to have fun. I could do it in 20 years, I could do it 40 years ago. You just kind of have to hit the cultural zeitgeist at that particular moment. It was perfect for then, but if I were doing another nightclub right now I wouldn’t do it like that. I would do it differently. I think there is always a perfect time to do something that is distinctive and unique.

Is New York nightlife nowadays disappointing?

When I was in the nightclub business nobody from outside New York could come and do a nightclub in New York. We would laugh at them. Back then it was a really hardcore culture, like the way the nightclubs in Berlin are right now, which I think is the current nightclub central in the world. That is the way it was in New York back then. It is not like that anymore. I went to a club last night in Berlin and I was told that people go there on Friday night and don’t come out till Monday morning. (Laughs) That’s pretty hardcore. But nobody is hurting anybody. Everybody is just having fun. There was a kind of innocence and spontaneity about it back then, too. We just were having a ball, but I think the fun lasted too long and almost destroyed us.

And it didn’t even last that long…

No. It lasted two years. And that is even more the mystique about the whole thing. It was like a lighting bolt. And for Steve and I, my partner at that time, it was like hanging onto a lighting bolt. You didn’t have time to think about anything, you were just reacting.

When you are constantly out at night throwing crazy parties it must be difficult to keep your sanity.

Not many people survive. I don’t mean they lose their life, but they get consumed, they burn out. That is why I always go to another platform and move to something else. You are up when everybody is sleeping, you are working when everybody is playing. You actually live your life in reverse and it is exhausting. The worst part is that you lose your bearings. You know, there is more than one way to become intoxicated. You can become intoxicated with the success, which I guess is what happened. You lost your compass, but you don’t realize that while you are going through it.

You probably realized it when you ended up in prison for tax evasion.

Yeah, it almost destroyed me. I am lucky enough to have survived. I think in a way it strengthened me. Maybe if all those things didn’t happen I wouldn’t be where I am today. I don’t know. It is consuming. I remember we used to be closed on Monday nights and all I wanted to do was go home and do nothing, because it is just exhausting. Exhilarating and exhausting. I think it is the exhilaration and the energy that keeps you going.

When did you realize that you understand the zeitgeist and what people want?

I don’t. What I do is very personal. It is what I like and every time I realize that it also resonates with other people I’m always surprised. I just try to do the best possible thing imaginable and I am not afraid of taking chances or taking risks and I think that that kind of pursuit of excellence resonates with people.

When you realized through Studio 54 that you know how to entertain people and how to make people feel comfortable, did that draw you toward inventing what we know today as the boutique hotel?

It was definitely a progression. The most important thing that I learned about Studio 54 is that because I didn’t have any discernable product that was different than what every other nightclub had, all I had was the kind of magic we were able to create. It was just the way that I put it all together and took it up a notch that created this kind of magic. When Walt Disney did all those really great feature animations that I liked as a kid and my children like today, those same animations techniques were available to everybody else. He just did it in a way that touched people. So with the hotels it wasn’t really about design or about color or this or that, even though everybody says that.

What was it about then?

It is about the alchemy that happened when everything came together that other people couldn’t re-produce. Maybe I could have been the Marriott or the Hilton, but being the biggest hotel company in the world just never interested me. Doing something really great, that people who I regarded as in-the-know think what we did was great, that is a turn on for me. I don’t think of myself in the same way that people think of Steve Jobs, but I think that he had the same kind of approach. I was just reading a biography of his and in it he talked about Bill Gates being a really great business guy, but what he did was just make a lot of money. He didn’t really make any great products. Jobs wanted to make great products, something really, really great.

When you sold your hotel group you said that it wasn’t about the money, but most people get into hotels for exactly that reason.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the money. But I couldn’t do what I do for money. It wouldn’t be enough. You can’t get passionate about money. I have been fortunate enough to make some money in spite of myself and when you make some money you realize that it is not the answer. When I was growing up, I came from a modest middle class family and they wanted me to have financial success and stuff like that. For my kids I don’t care about that. I just want them to be happy and I want them to contribute in some way. My oldest daughter wants to be a teacher and I couldn’t be happier. You can’t have a more noble profession than that!