Q&A: How Hotelier and Studio 54 Founder Ian Schrager Changed Nightlife Forever—and Keeps the Hits Coming

The 67-year-old night club legend and "Warren Buffet of boutique hotels" is making headlines again with new hotels and residences in London (The London Edition) and Miami Beach (The Miami Edition) and a forthcoming book about the denizens of New York's most infamous downtown scene (Rizzoli will publish the book in the fall of 2015).

Photo by Ian Schrager, courtesy of The Talks.


Photo by Ian Schrager, courtesy of The Talks.

Mr. Schrager, in the late '70s you co-founded Studio 54, the most famous nightclub of all time. What was the best party Studio 54 ever threw?

I always used to like the Halloween parties. It was the one night that anybody could get into Studio 54. You just had to come up with a great costume and you were in. You could not believe some of the things that people would wear. I remember doing a party inspired by the artist Bosch with midgets eating Cornish game hens and walking in on a floor full of white mice lit with ultraviolet light. It was just anything goes, mayhem.

You started your career as a lawyer. How did you go from that to opening Studio 54?

I was a lawyer for a couple of years, but I won a very big case very quickly and then I think I got bored with it. I didn't become a lawyer out of love; I became a lawyer because I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. I think as you're growing up, deciding what you want to do is really the process of elimination rather than gravitating towards something, until you land on what really makes you happy. I realized that when I was driving around Manhattan and saw people waiting in line to get into a nightclub and I thought, "Wow! That is a business I want to get into."


It was like, "What's going on in there that all these people are really loving? What's happening there? What phenomenon is happening there? I want to go and do that."

So what was your original concept for a nightclub?

I did a nightclub I wanted to go to. I wanted to go to a great party with a lot of energy in the air. I didn't want to be around a lot of rich people, a lot of old people, young people. I wanted that kind of energy, that kinetic spark that happens. I was never comfortable going into a nightclub that you went to meet girls. It felt very contrived to me. So I did the kind of nightclub where you could be anonymous or you could meet someone, you could dance or you could do nothing and be perfectly comfortable. So that was the nightclub we did.

And 40 years later people are still talking about it.

I know, it's a mindblower. I can't believe it. New York used to be nightclub central. I mean there were 20 different places to go every night, downtown, uptown, straight, gay. But now almost 40 years later nobody knows about anything other than Studio 54. So that's pretty gratifying.

Were the '70s the perfect time to open a club like Studio 54, with all the boundaries that were coming down in society at that time?

Well let me say this: I think all the forces of the universe came together. I think it was really the true fruition of the sexual revolution. But there's always a perfect time to open up a great nightclub. We are social people, we like to meet people, we like to have fun. I could do it in 20 years, I could do it 40 years ago. You just kind of have to hit the cultural zeitgeist at that particular moment. It was perfect for then, but if I were doing another nightclub right now I wouldn't do it like that. I would do it differently. I think there's always a perfect time to do something that's distinctive and unique.

Is New York nightlife nowadays disappointing?

When I was in the nightclub business nobody from outside New York could come and do a nightclub in New York. We would laugh at them. Back then it was a really hardcore culture, like the way the nightclubs in Berlin are right now, which I think is the current nightclub central in the world. That's the way it was in New York back then. It's not like that anymore. I went to a club last night in Berlin and I was told that people go there on Friday night and don't come out till Monday morning. (Laughs) That's pretty hardcore. But nobody is hurting anybody. Everybody is just having fun. There was a kind of innocence and spontaneity about it back then, too. We just were having a ball, but I think the fun lasted too long and almost destroyed us.

And it didn't even last that long . . .

No. It lasted two years. And that's even more the mystique about the whole thing. It was like a lighting bolt. And for Steve and I, my partner at that time, it was like hanging onto a lighting bolt. You didn't have time to think about anything, you were just reacting.

Read more of The Talks with Ian Schrager—plus listen to the recorded conversation in full.

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