Ian Schrager: Going residential

Ian Schrager, the man whose 'boutique' hotels revolutionised urban travel, has created an apartment block designed to change the way we live. Danielle Demetriou hears why he's going residential
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The Independent Online

It's business as usual at the Sanderson Hotel. Beautiful waiting-staff are serving breakfast to beautiful guests in a scene worthy of a fashion shoot. However, the sunlit table at which the father of the modern boutique hotel, Ian Schrager, is seated appears to require a touch of airbrushing.

It's business as usual at the Sanderson Hotel. Beautiful waiting-staff are serving breakfast to beautiful guests in a scene worthy of a fashion shoot. However, the sunlit table at which the father of the modern boutique hotel, Ian Schrager, is seated appears to require a touch of airbrushing.

For there, beyond the diaphanous curtains, the vase containing a single red rose, and the green fruit drinks served in shot glasses, something is ruining the picture of perfection. The man who introduced the word "design" to "hotel", is clutching a grande-sized cup of coffee from Starbucks.

"I'm sorry, I'm an American. What can I say?", he says of his style faux-pas, in a raspy Brooklyn accent. It is an unexpected insight into a man who has made his name - and his fortune - creating a genre of hotels that is synonymous with cutting-edge design and an equally cool clientele.

Schrager coined the expression "boutique hotel" after opening his first hotel in New York in 1984. Morgans Hotel proved that an establishment could be head-turning, rule-breaking and trendsetting - and still make pots of money. In the following two decades, his empire grew to include six hotels in the US and two in London - St Martins Lane and the Sanderson - and spawned thousands of imitations, of varying degrees of success, around the globe.

Last year, Schrager's plans to take over the world appeared to falter. Reports of debts within his hotel empire abounded. And in the midst of these came the sudden announcement that he was planning to sell his two London establishments.

This week, however, a defiant Schrager made his London comeback. Dismissing financial difficulties and stating that he no longer has plans to sell any of his hotels, he was keen to unveil his latest project - his first foray into residential apartments, combined with a revamped hotel.

Now 58, Schrager, who is as famous for co-owning the New York institution Studio 54 as for being a boutique hotelier, cuts a wiry, energetic figure. His caramel tan complements his neat grey hair, and a sky-blue collarless shirt is tucked into his black jeans, at the bottom of which peep incongruously white socks.

The latest focus of his intuitive attention is the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York, an iconic institution with a past as colourful as its present owner. It was here that an 11-year-old John F Kennedy lived with his parents, and that Humphrey Bogart married Helen Menken on the terrace in 1926. As well as completely revamping the hotel interior with the "maximalist" artist Julian Schnabel, he has also incorporated 23 residential apartments designed by the "minimalist" British architect John Pawson into the complex.

Each of the residents will have a full "lifestyle management" household to cater to their every need, as well as a key to the only private square in the city, which sits opposite the building. "The notion of living in an urban area but in an effortless, carefree kind of way is a new trend, and we're going to be seeing more of it," he says. "It's a totally new concept and it's the way of the future. It will be unlike anything I have ever done before. If I am capable of doing a masterpiece, I hope this is it."

In a market saturated with copycat minimalist hotels, Schrager believes that the new project, which will be complete by January next year, will herald a definitive change in direction for a tired industry. "It is actually the same opportunity that I sensed when I did a nightclub, and then when I did a hotel," he says. "At the moment, there is no originality and creativity. People behave like a bunch of elephants, charging in and copying everything and trampling on it.

"I like to think that we changed the entire industry, and that we are still changing the industry."

There will, however, be one undeniably major change to the latest project: it marks the departure of Schrager's long-standing designer Philippe Starck, who recently announced plans to launch his own hotel group. Schrager is tight-lipped about the move, although there is tension in his voice as he corrects me to state: "There was no partnership, he was the designer, a designer I hired. I wanted to move on in a different direction. I didn't think that if I did another hotel with Philippe, the world would get excited about it."

Schrager is equally dismissive of reports of financial difficulties at his hotels last year, including problems in relation to the debt repayments of several establishments, and the temporary decision to sell his London hotels. "We had no financial difficulties, we were in the middle of refinancing our debts right after 9/11, which made it complicated," he explains. "But the hotels were always performing well and profitably, and outperforming the market. We were just unlucky."

While Schrager is, today, every inch the stylishly clad hotelier, it is clear that his early Brooklyn days were a world away. His father, the son of Austrian immigrants, was a coat manufacturer in Brooklyn, while his mother, whose parents came to the US from Russia, was a housewife looking after Schrager and his two siblings.

It was in the 1970s that he co-founded Studio 54, the legendary disco that became synonymous with the heady excesses of partying New York. But his glamorous tenure came to an unglamorous end in 1978 when he was jailed for a year for tax evasion. Alongside the death of his parents, his time in jail was one of the lowest points in his life. Speaking about this time, he says: "People often want to talk about it, but I just want to forget about it. I don't think anything virtuous came out of it. But now, when I feel a little bit blue, I just think back to that time and it makes me feel better."

Today, Schrager admits that he has become more mellow with age. Although he is a self-confessed workaholic, he spends more time with his two beloved daughters - with whom he is going on safari in East Africa next month - as well as reading history books and generally relaxing. Unlike his former colleague Starck - who has 19 homes - Schrager has a modest three residences, all in the US. "Home" is a loft in the NoLita area of New York, which he describes with a wry smile as "simple chic".

And he is clearly uninterested in the concept of early retirement. He attributes his successes, from hotels to nightclubs, to an ageless "gift" that enables him to trendspot. "I'm very sensitive, I get impulses from the street, I interpret from things that are going on around me," he says. "It's a gift, and you know, the funny thing about it is, I think I can see things before other people see them, and my 10-year-old daughter can, too."

A more tangible reason for his success is his well-documented perfectionism. He thinks nothing of travelling across the Atlantic in order to source the correct texture of Venetian plaster required to cover a single wall. "To be honest, I wish I wasn't a perfectionist," he says. "It's not easy. I'm a perfectionist in every way. I always have been."

This trait is later confirmed at first hand when it comes to Schrager having his photo taken: he insists on deleting certain images. But, as he sits, smiling, on the notorious red-lip sofa in the Sanderson lobby, it is clear that, without his perfectionism, hotels would be much duller places.

For more information: www.50gramercyparknorth.com

www.gramercypark.hotel.com

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