Affordable luxury made by Ian Schrager
BY ANJA FAHS
(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 1 2018)
The motto of the new Public Hotel by Ian Schrager is “Luxury for All”. The legendary New York hotelier has not only reinvented a new hotel concept, but with his idea of affordable luxury, he also stands up to the growing popularity of Airbnb. A hotel should and must be more than just a place to sleep. A cool location still proves its worth, because Public stands in the middle of New York’s hip Lower East Side. No-frills luxury, no reception, checked in by mobile phone or via iPads in the lobby. Room service can be ordered online through delivery services.
The numerous public spaces with the “fastest Wi-Fi in New York” play a major role in meeting today’s Digital Nomad phenomenon – whereby work is effortlessly networked with leisure and culture. In 1977, Schrager made a splash with the legendary New York nightclub Studio 54; in 1984, he turned the hotel world on its head with Morgan’s first boutique hotel group. Together with Marriott International, Schrager created a new, luxurious brand for design hotels, the Edition Hotels. Today, Ian Schrager gives us insights into his new approach, his visions and his unparalleled career in the hotel business.
What does it mean to you to have a People’s Hotel?
Anybody and everybody who wants to stay there can. It’s not restricted by an arbitrary price. If you like it and it appeals to your sensibility, you have the opportunity of staying there. It’s like taking luxury and making it democratic. It is a really important idea. It’s the opposite of elitist, but still just as sophisticated. It’s making it accessible to everybody and anybody who wants it. It is an opportunity for people to enjoy the same thing that only rich people previously could enjoy. It’s the same kind of contribution Andy Warhol made with art when he took the pretention out of it, and he made it available to everybody. Everybody could understand it.
What is luxury today? How did it change?
Luxury is very different to the way it was in previous years, and I think that’s rightly so. It should change; everything changes. Cars change, fashion changes, telephones, airplanes, kitchen appliances – everything changes! Luxury has also changed. What has basically happened is that the wealth is now scarcer than it once was. Luxury is no longer defined by how much something costs or a business classification; it is defined by how it makes you feel. Does it lift your spirits? Does it make you feel good? It’s just a different criterion than the one left over from a bygone era. My parents might have based their idea of luxury on financial exclusivity or maybe some kind of financial snobbery; I think that is irrelevant today. All people care about is having an elevated experience and being treated nicely.
What makes Public so different and unique in your opinion?
I think it is visually incredibly sophisticated; a new kind of look and a very special kind of visual stimulation. More importantly, it is an anomaly; an oxymoron. It is true luxury but at a great price. Those two things are not joined together very often, but I think if you can pull that off, it’s a really unique experience. The realisation that luxury only depends on how you feel and whether or not you are receiving an elevated experience is key. We’re able to provide the same luxury service and same luxury experience that you might find somewhere else at ten times the price. It’s not something dumbed down to the lowest common denominator either, Public is something that is appealing to people not looking for a bargain but who just want to get good value for their money. It’s luxury that’s accessible to everybody. It’s a modern idea. It’s a new thing. I think it’s good for people and it’s good for society, because it is a peoples’ hotel. That’s what makes it different to anything else out there.
25 years of hotel life, what does that mean to you and what are hotels to you now versus then?
I think the hotel business is not always very responsive in regard to what people want, and I don’t think it always leads people where they want to go. That’s always been a puzzle, and I enjoy solving that puzzle. I think if you love something you can be good at it. That was my approach with nightclubs, that was my approach with apartments, and that has been my approach with hotels to this day. It’s more of a social approach in finding out what people want and delivering it to them.
Tell me a little bit about your background and your upbringing.
I was born in the Bronx, which you could say is a provincial borough of New York City, and I moved to Brooklyn when I was in 5th grade. We were a lower middle-class family. I had a brother, sister, mother and father; we were a very close-knit family. I had a typical upbringing and we were all very close. We were ambitious and aspirational - my parents wanted me to have more and be better than what they had.
You were co-founder and partner of Studio 54. Share a little bit about that time and your partnership with Steve Rubell.
It’s very hard to characterise a partnership. There were areas of influence, but they weren’t mutually exclusive. Steve was more of an outgoing extrovert and I was shyer and more of an introvert; but we didn’t really fit into that box of “one person was inside, and one person was outside”. I enjoyed creating, conceptualising and putting the whole place together, and Steve enjoyed dealing with the people. We both made a contribution and those areas weren’t exclusive. They were overlapping responsibilities; I think it worked very effectively. Steve and I were fifty-fifty partners and you’re not going to give up half of the profits to someone who doesn’t make a major contribution.
How did you personally grow through all these processes of your career?
My career has been incredibly gratifying. I have had a charmed career. I’ve never done something that hasn’t been successful; I consider myself a very lucky person. I like to be thought of as a person who has done something special, changed things and improved things. I didn’t want to be just a person with money, I wanted to do something much more than that and to give something back. I have my family, which I love, and I have a career that I love.
What role does technology play in hotels today?
Technology in a hotel is very simple. It’s only useful if it makes things easier or if it makes things cost less. If it doesn’t satisfy one of those two things, there is no reason for the technology. I’m not a believer in technology for technology’s sake, or having the latest flavour of the month technology. I think those things are irrelevant, boring and don’t improve the experience of staying in the hotel. To me, technology can work in the hotel world, provided it makes things easier or less expensive. If it meets those two criteria, I think we’re very happy to have more technology.
With so many hotel players in the market now, what do you think is going to happen?
I don’t think it matters to me what the economic cycle is or how many hotels are in the market. There is always room for something that is really distinct and unique. There is always an opportunity to have a great hotel – no matter what city it’s in, no matter where it’s located, no matter how many hotels there are in that city – provided you do something more special than everything else. That’s what I’ve always tried to do.
What are your favourite hotels and places in the world and why?
My favourite places in the world are New York, Paris, Shanghai and Beijing. I like the 24-hour, international, gateway cities. They are energised by culture. I am incredibly curious, and I find those places a never-ending source of stimulation. My favourite hotel will come as a surprise, but I like Claridges in London. It’s a confident place and the service is so exceptional. I like the Okura in Japan, I think it is very smart. I like the Bel Air in Los Angeles because I think it is the quintessential California hotel with its rolling grounds, swans and lakes.
Ian Schrager is an American entrepreneur, hotelier and real estate developer. He is considered the inventor and designer of the “Boutique Hotels” hotel category. He was originally known as a co-owner and co-founder of the legendary nightclub Studio 54 in New York City.
Picture credit © Nicholas Koenig