Ian Schrager: ‘Studio 54 nearly destroyed me, but after a while you forget the bad things’
The founder of New York’s legendary nightclub and head of the Edition hotel chain talks about a new opening in Madrid and how to create the magic that makes a place special
Ian Schrager, 75, is the man who had Bianca Jagger mount a horse in Manhattan to create the most iconic marketing campaign ever made for a club: the legendary Studio 54. For over three decades, this entrepreneur and lover of art, design, gastronomy and everything beautiful has been heading Edition, a chain of luxury boutique hotels that open only in the cities that he considers special enough to deserve them, he explains in a video call from his office in New York. The latest city he has selected for a new opening is Madrid, Spain.
Question. What’s the first thing you do when you get to a city where you’re planning to open a hotel?
Answer. First thing is to try and get my arms around the spirit and the mood of the city. Its essence. And it doesn’t take long for me to get that, just a couple of days.
Q. Do you remember the first time you came to Spain?
A. It was when I graduated in the late 1960s. I took a trip around the capitals of Europe. We wanted to stop in Madrid to buy some custom-made leather jackets in an artisan workshop whose name I don’t remember. I do remember that I was quite taken by the wide boulevards and grand architecture, and by the way people lived.
Q. Have you partied in Madrid recently, Mr. Schrager?
A. No, but several friends from Madrid, from the Studio 54 days, have called to ask whether I’ll be at the opening in April. One of them is the daughter of a friend of mine who used to come to the club and I would ask her where I could get bullfighter costumes for our parties.
Q. What would you say is the greatest crisis you’ve experienced as a businessman?
A. All the recessions have been very difficult, of course, but I think what happened in the United States on September 11, 2001 had a very, very deep impact. Even so, I wouldn’t say that it brought a total paradigm shift, despite what experts said. I never believed it. It took a while, but everything went back to the way things work, and I’m sure that people will go back to the way things worked before this harmful crisis in Ukraine and Russia.
Q. And what’s the biggest mistake you’ve made as an entrepreneur?
A. I think that the number one mistake was the debacle that happened around Studio 54. Some issues that I wish hadn’t happened and that changed my life forever. But I don’t have many regrets.
Q. Is there anything that, despite being a world famous hotelier, you still miss from nightlife?
A. After Studio 54 I didn’t have many good memories, they were mostly bad memories because it nearly destroyed me. But after a while, you start forgetting the bad things and remember only the good things. The nightclub business is a very, very difficult business because you don’t have a discernible product. You have the same liquor, the same music, the same everything that everybody else has. All that you do have to distinguish what you are doing is in that magic you are able to create, that excitement, that revelry, that fun, that abandonment that you’re able to create. And it’s quite exhilarating when you see a few thousands people on the dance floor almost operating like one single organism. And even though it doesn’t sound intelligent to say that nightclubs are an important cultural phenomenon, they are. When I went into the hotel business I didn’t merely rely on having rooms to sell, but on selling the magic.
Q. And are you able to identify a place and a specific day when you felt that magic?
A. If I could define it, I would write a book about it and sell it. When you walk into a place, you can feel if it’s something special. Harry’s Bar in Venice is a perfect example. You go in there and the tables are low, the seats are low, it’s always crowded, you gotta fight your way to the restaurant. It has good food, but there are plenty of other places with good food in that city. And nevertheless there’s something magical that makes you stay there. You can’ define it. The other night I stayed up late watching Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story and it didn’t have the magic that the original had. I can’t specifically tell you why, I can only say how I reacted to it.
Q. About those kinds of magical moments, if you could go back in time, what hotel would you want to stay in, the Algonquin at the time of Dorothy Parker’s Round Table gatherings or the Habana Libre at the time of Fidel Castro’s victory?
A. At the Habana Libre. Anytime that you allow people to experience a real freedom, it’s just combustible. When Fidel Castro went into Havana, there was a rejoicing and an energy and I would have liked to feel that.
Q. You don’t seem afraid to answer any questions, and you’ve lived a very wild life…
A. Very wild, but I’m very shy!
Q. Do you think political correctness and the cancel culture that people talk about so much these days are a problem?
A. It’s not a problem for me. There’s certainly a lot more political correctness now. The world is fractured into a lot of different groups, and there are a lot of groups sitting on the sidelines. But I still enjoy being an outsider, being subversive, doing things differently. That’s who I am.
Q. Would you say your hotel in Madrid is subversive?
A. It is, but without forgetting that respect is as important as being subversive. For instance, at one point we were thinking of putting in photographs of bullfighters, but the local team told us not to. You want to be subversive, you want to do something outside the box, but you don’t want to offend. It’s a delicate balancing act.