THE SUNDAY PROFILE : Suite Dreams : In the ‘70s, Ian Schrager ruled the night with Studio 54. Now he’s a hip hotelier who, with designer Philippe Starck, is set to revive a Sunset Strip legend.
It’s 10 a.m. and Ian Schrager has way too much energy for someone just in from New York and just out of morning meetings.
As if fueled by multiple espressos, he bounds across the lobby of his new hotel, Le Mondrian, hand outstretched, a wide grin interrupting his rocky mug. He sits down in the almost empty restaurant and-- bam --lands in the middle of a conversation.
“I have to say,” he says, looking out the window at a hazy Los Angeles, “my wife is the best thing that ever happened to me. And I love my daughter. I’m in the process of negotiating for other kids. You have to be subtle about it.” He laughs. “I’ve heard stories about [how a family] weighs you down, you can’t move around. Of course your life changes. But I married a nice girl. It’s so simple.”
What’s this? The man who once ruled as New York’s night-life czar and now owns a string of super-chic hotels talking home and hearth?
It’s true. Those all-nighters with Calvin and Bianca and Liza and the gang were a lifetime ago. Schrager has served time in prison for tax evasion, and his longtime business partner and friend, Steve Rubell, died of hepatitis in 1989. Now life is work, dinner with wife Rita, getting 18-month-old Sophie to bed and “Nightline.”
“The things that I used to get enthusiastic about over time just can’t be as gratifying,” he says, “and you’re obliged to segue into the next phase of life.”
A lifetime after running the quintessential ‘70s disco, Studio 54, the 49-year-old Schrager reigns again as the emperor of perennially hip Manhattan “boutique” hotels: the Morgans (opened in 1983 and recently renovated), the Royalton (1988) and the Paramount (1990). Regulars at the Royalton include k.d.lang, Wesley Snipes and Karl Lagerfeld, while the Paramount draws Drew Barrymore, George Stephanopoulos and Sonia Braga.
Earlier this year he bought West Hollywood’s landmark Mondrian for $17.4 million and plans to spend $15 million more to Schrager-ize it for a fall 1996 opening.
His last project was the Delano, a family-friendly oceanfront Miami Beach hotel where Schrager stayed as a boy. Working with the much-lauded and prolific French designer Philippe Starck (who also did the Royalton and Paramount), he gave the Home of Deco Kitsch a new point of pride, style-wise. Madonna is an investor.
The Delano, which opened in June, is pared-down Starck. Rooms are done in pale, quiet colors with slipcovered wing-back chairs and white wood. Guests share one long communal table at the hotel’s kitchen. The designer’s usual touches of glamour and elegance appear as sleek Brazilian cherry walls in the lobby.
Schrager has bonded with Starck again on the all-suite Mondrian, opened in 1984 and styled as an homage to Dutch painter Piet Mondrian. It was once considered the Strip’s hottest hotel, a favorite of rockers, photographers, actors and artists.
But since the early ‘90s its high gloss has dulled, with the chrome and marble interior looking as dated as “Dynasty” reruns. Schrager plans to transform the boxy building into “a quintessential California hotel,” which he describes as “sort of very casual; it incorporates the outdoors, it’s healthy, very natural, and you have to reconcile that with the fact that this is one of the most sophisticated urban cities in the world. That balancing act is what will make this hotel, hopefully, exciting for everyone.”
He envisions the public areas as an “oasis in the middle of the city,” which will mean massive remodeling to allow for more open space. The basic structure of the 246 suites will remain. “The hotel has good bones,” he says.
“We want to try and get back to the basics, to go for a purity of design and to keep refining and refining. If you ever looked at one of my hotels and said, ‘This is like the ‘80s,’ I’d die. We’d fail. That’s not to say it can’t be quirky or iconoclastic, but it has to be so well done that it transcends the notion of [a certain decade].
“Before Philippe and I start a project, we say, ‘How do you see the project? What do you smell is in the air, which way are we headed? How will this project manifest popular culture?’ ‘
Schrager will call upon New York restaurateur Brian McNally to run the restaurant (he also has the Delano’s Blue Door and the Paramount’s Mezzanine). And he wants the lobby to be a gathering place that attracts locals, but he’ll pass on a nightclub. Rooms will start at $150.
Asking less than competitors for design and atmosphere that are the antithesis of bland and predictable is part of the marketing plan.
“The most important thing,” Schrager says, “is to have something to say, to have a point of view.” His hotels do, to the point of being opinionated. The Paramount’s lobby is sexy and provocative. The Royalton’s public bathrooms, with their bizarre hide-and-seek fixtures, have first-timers dazed trying to figure out what’s what.
He clashes with “big mass producers” who create impersonal, generic hotels. The customer, Schrager believes, may accept plain-wrap, but that’s not necessarily what he wants. “You have to get out there and stretch the boundaries.”
To do that, he forgoes market research studies and instead relies on intuition and a knack for harnessing the Zeitgeist .
“There is a collective consciousness,” he says, his eyes circling the room. “You just have to be able to see the signposts--like magazines, what clothes we’re wearing, the fact that baseball stadiums have been going away from 100,000 seats. All of those things mean something. What I’m not sure, but it means something. A return to family values? Maybe.”
Schrager had been eyeing Los Angeles for years, thinking he might snag a property in Santa Monica or Malibu. Friends here steered him inland. He then fixated on the Mondrian, and when the previous owners, brothers Severyn and Arnold Ashkenazy, plunged into dicey financial waters, Schrager made his move.
The hotel’s rebirth coincides with an in-progress renaissance of Sunset Strip. His neighbors are the House of Blues, the Comedy Store, Thunder Roadhouse, Sunset Plaza, and fellow hotels the Argyle and Chateau Marmont.
Starck’s interiors alone will likely be a draw. The French designer has put his imprint on everything from toothbrushes to motorcycles and is in constant demand. He is usually described as “iconoclastic” or “genius,” or “iconoclastic genius.”
In person he doesn’t disappoint. Curly, graying hair rises up in asymmetrical tufts and he’s dressed in all black--pants, T-shirt, vintage jacket, boots.
“It’s incredible busy,” he says of his frenetic schedule. “Incredibly. But at the same time it’s a pleasure, it’s not work. . . . I am obliged to myself to create.”
Still, he detests globe-hopping.
“When I’m in a city,” the 46-year-old Starck says, “I don’t go outside, I try to stay in my room. I think it’s better to stay here, I think the vibration of the city gives you the same information [that it would] if you go into the street. Two days ago I was working at night in my room with the window open, and suddenly I realized that the noise-- huuuummmmmmmm --was like music, like a concert, which gives me information [about] the people.”
His impression of Los Angeles figures heavily in the hotel’s new look.
“I think the interesting thing of the city is that you will never know it completely. It’s too big, and it’s like . . . a labyrinth, a mystery. But mainly a mystery is dark, and for me this one is completely white. A white mystery. The hotel will be a white mystery. It will be completely white, but this will be more radical and surrealistic [than the Delano], but with a lot less. I have just this vision.”
L.A. style-watchers seem sure that the Schrager-Starck team cannot miss.
“If they keep it in the realm of what they’ve been doing, they’ll definitely hit a good mark,” declares Luis Barajas, creative director of L.A.-based Detour magazine and a frequent guest of the Royalton. “Having Philippe Starck do the hotel will make it a five-star hotel for people in their 30s who don’t need to have seven people serving them at all times.”
West Hollywood City Councilman Steve Martin believes the hotel will add elegance and excitement. “People are clearly going to want to go where they feel that they’re on the cutting edge.”
Even the competition seems to welcome Schrager’s presence on the Strip.
"[The Mondrian] will be yet another exciting anchor for that whole area,” says Chateau owner Andre Balazs. “Part of what makes an urban environment is a sort of critical mass, and I think this will be terrific not only for this whole area, but for the city as a whole. The key is not making [this area of Sunset Boulevard] a Disney-esque facade, but an authentic place where real things are happening.”
Of course, it won’t be called the Mondrian when Schrager gets through with it. He doesn’t have a name yet--inspiration will hit. Right now, he’s off to another meeting with his architect, then back to New York. A vacation is not on the horizon.
Not long ago Schrager and his wife went to Florence for two weeks, their first major trip without Sophie. They came home early.
“We couldn’t stay away without the baby,” he confesses. “My life is rather simple. I work and I go home.”