Industry Icons: Ian Schrager

Ian Schrager Industry IconIf Conrad Hilton was the one who modernised the hotel business, then Ian Schrager was the one who made it ultra-modern. From his origins in the nightclub business, he has become the ‘Harbinger of Hip’, making hotels once again the places where the beautiful and the fashionable go to see and be seen, in spaces that exemplify twenty-first century sophistication and style.

Ian Schrager cut his teeth in the world of trends and hipness back in the seventies with Studio 54, the nightclub he established with his business partner, the late Steve Rubell. In hedonistic pre-AIDS Manhattan, Studio 54 was the place to ogle and be ogled at. Bianca Jagger, Andy Warhol, Jacqueline Kennedy, Michael Jackson, Truman Capote, Elizabeth Taylor, Salvador Dali and Richard Gere were just some of the regulars.

Schrager’s friend Andy Warhol created the phrase ‘fifteen minutes of fame’, referring to the fact that in this age of pop culture practically anyone could achieve fame, no matter how brief or elusive. With his keen business sense, Schrager knew how to capture this market that either desired their own fifteen minutes in the spotlight, or wanted to mix with those who were experiencing it. It was a brand-new market that demanded comfort, style and a sense of fashionable exclusivity.

First Shaky Steps

Ian Schrager’s journey from nightclubs to hotels suffered a slight setback when he and partner Rubell were arrested and gaoled for tax evasion back in 1979. They spent 13 months behind bars and emerged even more determined to carry out a long-held plan to open fashionable hotels catering to their extended circle of stylish friends. It took almost four years for the pair to convince anyone to back them. They went against the grain by buying hotels in seemingly questionable areas, the first being an old fleapit called the Executive.

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Schrager and Rubell were still renting out unrenovated rooms at what would evolve into Morgans at US$44.95 a night as they fixed up the hotel. The first designer they enlisted was Paris-based Andrée Putman. Schrager had been fastidiously studying the world of architecture and art, convinced that a combination of the two would attract the clientele he desired at his properties. On each subsequent project a circle of hip designers, architects and artists was enlisted to create small but stylised rooms and eye-catching lobbies and bars where people would want to gather.

Hotels would be unique places wherein the diverse worlds of pop culture, fashion and commerce harmoniously blended in beautiful and desirable spaces. As Hollywood mogul and friend David Geffen once said of Schrager: ‘He knows how to make people feel as if they are staying at an exciting place.’ After Morgans came the Paramount and the Royaltan in New York, followed by several other hotel properties in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Miami. French designer Philippe Starck was responsible for the look of many of these hotels, but Schrager, as always, maintained a strong hand in the final design details.

The world of hotels is now awash with new copycat boutique chains (such as the ‘W’ hotels of Starwood), and every beauty shop in every hotel has suddenly become a ‘spa’. Jonathan Tisch, president of Loews Hotels, said: ‘Ian has really changed the hotel industry by showing us what design, excitement and hype can do for what has been a very staid business.’

By the late nineties the Morgans Hotel Group was the largest hotel owner in New York, and Schrager managed on occasion to out-trump Trump in real estate bidding wars.

Twenty-First Century Tycoon

Not even the most astute entrepreneurial hotelier, however, could have foreseen the events of 9/11 and the profound impact they would have on the hotel business. Schrager, like so many other New Yorkers, suffered as a result of 9/11, and in 2005 he left the Morgans Hotel Group to form the Ian Schrager Company. Like so many New York developers, Schrager has now turned his attention to condominium complexes that offer not only ultimate style, but also all the services of a five-star hotel. In 2006, the company opened the chic Gramercy Park Hotel and condominium complex in midtown Manhattan. The former bohemian haunt of artists and rock stars is now a beautifully stylised space designed by artist Julian Schnabel. Karl Lagerfeld was one of the first to buy a condominium there. Schrager’s properties still attract the hip and the fashionable as well as the corporate giants who wish to appear in touch with trends.

Knowing that his baby-boomer clientele are now ageing and slowing down, Schrager is looking to create spaces for a younger and faster crowd. Other hoteliers and developers will always be keeping a keen eye on whatever he does. Donald Trump once said of Schrager: ‘He puts linoleum in the bathrooms and gets people to pay a high price. I’ve always liked using marble. [For his sake] I hope the public never tires of linoleum.’ Schrager moved on from linoleum years ago, and the trick now for Schrager is to always keep one step ahead of the pack while catering to a crossover and very fickle market. Everything old is new again, and no-one understands this better than Ian Schrager.


Read more about Ian Schrager and other great hoteliers in Great, Grand and Famous Hotels.

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