Tuesday, October 19, 2010

FT Weekend: Ian Schrager, From Studio 54 to Surfboards

Ian Schrager meets Marriott? Julie Earle-Levine on the genesis of a global hotel chain that is opening in Hawaii this weekend

Published: October 15 2010 23:41

The Sunrise Pool at a Waikiki hotel
The Waikiki’s Sunrise Pool

“It’s unlike anything anyone has ever seen before!” says Ian Schrager, the legendary hotelier, waving his hands around excitedly, then pummelling his fist into his palm. “All the cool people will be there – it will be really energetic – a bit tribal!”

We are meeting in Schrager’s New York studio to discuss his latest project, an unlikely-seeming collaboration with the hospitality giant Marriott International. Together they are rolling out a global chain of 100 hotels under the brand name Edition, the first of which opens in Waikiki this weekend. But it’s not the rooms, or lobby, or the pool or spa Schrager is talking excitedly about – it’s the nightclub.

Of course, it’s no surprise that Schrager is interested in clubs. He made his name with Studio 54, the New York club he founded in 1977 which counted Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger and Truman Capote as regulars. In fact he only got the idea to move into hotels while in jail for tax evasion relating to the club.

“I was reading the New York Times,” he says. “At that moment Donald Trump was building hotels and so was Harry Helmsley, and the media was building up the competitiveness of it and I thought: ‘Hang on, I could do that’.”

He went on to open influential properties such as Morgans and Gramercy Park in New York, the Sanderson and St Martins Lane Hotel in London, the Clift in San Francisco and the Mondrian in Miami. In the process he has been credited with inventing the “design hotel”, not to mention the concepts of “lobby socialising”, “cheap chic” and the “urban resort”.

So why is this club-loving, design-obsessed creative getting into bed with Marriott, which his contemporaries might think of as the blandest, most mainstream accommodation provider around. Is the 64-year-old selling out?

“People always ask me that,” he says. “But there’s a certain integrity in what I do, and I don’t think I could violate it. There couldn’t be enough money in the world for me to do that.”

He does accept though, that the deal is something of a compromise. “It is different from having complete autonomy and the freedom to be as quirky as I want. Really, what I am getting out of this is the chance to serve a bigger market than I would ever be able to serve on my own. That is gratifying. It’s something I’ve never done before.”

Schrager is Edition’s “creative director”, overseeing concept, design, marketing, branding and food and beverages, while Marriott oversees development and operations. As is the norm in the industry today, the hotels will be owned by third parties.

Edition will compete head on with other stylish sub-brands being created by big chains, including Starwood’s W, Hyatt’s Andaz and InterContinental’s Indigo. But Schrager and Marriott insist that Edition will not be a chain in the usual, homogenised sense – rather, “a collection of individualised, one-of-a-kind hotels that is the antithesis of an institutional ‘hotel chain’.” So how will it work?

“Each hotel will reflect the locale it’s in,” says Schrager. “When I see a city I am able to very quickly understand what needs to be done with the design, to fit the local environment and vibe.”

Such individual attention sounds like a big task for a chain that is rolling out so rapidly – the next Edition opens in Istanbul in 2011, to be followed by Barcelona, Bangkok, Mexico City and Miami. But in Waikiki, Schrager clearly has made an effort to capture a Hawaiian flavour. Guests will be confronted by the kind of surprise details Schrager is known for – a bookcase that “swings” open at 4pm to reveal a sleek, spacious lobby bar – but the art installation hanging above the reception desk is definitely locally inspired. Smashed-up surfboards from superstar surfers have been transformed by the artist (and former professional surfer) Herbie Fletcher. The air is fragrant with a custom black-tea-based scent.

Music changes in tempo and mood depending on the time of day. Breakfast might bring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Bebel Gilberto, or Koop. It picks up a few notches in the evening to feature music including Miike Snow, Grace Jones or Lykke Li.

D├ęcor is understated. In each of the hotel’s 353 rooms, a chic, grey throw is casually (but perfectly) tossed on each bed and Hawaiian-style teak louvres, when open, catch the breeze and natural light. The hotel is surrounded by lush gardens of palm trees, pink bougainvillea, jasmine and orchards. Pathways of smooth pebbles lead to a constructed private beach using sand from nearby islands, and its own shallow, infinity-edge lagoon.

“People say: ‘How can you do a really different hotel in each city?’ But to me it is like getting up and breathing. I never want to repeat myself in any way,” says Schrager. How his attention to detail, and the global expansion, play out will be fascinating to watch. He concedes he did not have control over everything. “We were building one of the Edition hotels and they wanted a grab bar in the bathtub,” he says. “So I asked, is that required by law? If it is, by all means do so but if not, then don’t, because I don’t like the look of it. Needless to say, it was put in.

“If this was a movie, I wouldn’t be the director or the producer and I wouldn’t have the final cut. The process by definition is more of a compromise, so I can’t have the autonomy that I’m used to in my private-label hotels.”

Although designing 100 hotels that fit with their surroundings might seem work enough for anyone, Schrager will still be simultaneously developing “private-label” hotels. And it’s with mention of these other projects that his eyes light up as they did with the nightclub chat. He whips out drawings for a new property in Chicago, and he’s off again: “Don’t tell anyone about this! Look at the desk – see the chair – see the throw...”



Cool clubs, hot hotels


Schrager is born to a Brooklyn garment-worker.


Attends Syracuse University and meets Studio 54 co-founder Steve Rubell while they are dating the same woman.


With Rubell, he sets up Manhattan nightclub Studio 54. Within a month the club is raided and briefly closed by the New York State Liquor Authority.


Studio 54 raided by police; Schrager and Rubell charged with tax evasion and obstruction of justice. They are each sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison.


Freed from prison, Schrager and Rubell move into the hotel business and launch New York’s Morgans Hotel.


Schrager becomes New York’s largest private hotelier.


Schrager founds the Ian Schrager Company, collaborating with filmmaker Julian Schnabel on the Gramercy Park Hotel.


Schrager enters into a £2bn joint venture with Marriott to create a chain of boutique hotels.