It's been 40 years since Ian Schrager opened the legendary disco Studio 54. But if the trendy crowds mobbing opening night for his new PUBLIC hotel are any indication, Schrager, at age 70, is still the coolest kid around.
The hotel, on Chrystie Street on Manhattan's Lower East Side, throbbed Tuesday night with champagne-drinking models, waifs covered in tattoos and other beautiful people vamping for photos, draping themselves across long white sofas and riding the mirrored escalator, bathed in glowing red-and-yellow stripes of light.
A worshipful mob prayed at the altar of punk goddess Patti Smith as she christened the hotel's performance space. Drag queen Lady Bunny showed up, as did the Quann sisters, icons of street style.
A week earlier, though, as Schrager toured the hotel issuing last-minute directives in a gruff voice with an old-school New York accent, the white-haired man in jeans and sneakers could have been anybody's baby-boomer dad. But don't underestimate him. Schrager is credited with creating the concept of boutique hotels, and he says the PUBLIC represents another innovation that's "smart," ''edgy" and nothing less than "transformative."
"This is more than just a place to sleep," he says. "You don't have to leave the premises to get the experiences New York offers."
Schrager is inviting the community in, saying he wants New Yorkers to spend as much time here as hotel guests. Never mind that hotel chains have been talking about attracting locals for years with co-working spaces, stylish lobbies and events. Schrager says he's redefining what hotels do, thanks to quirky public spaces that are the key to the hotel's identity. There's a cozy park-like greenspace out front, rows of stadium-style steps inside where you could sit with a laptop or a latte, long white sofas that invoke a sophisticated Miami club and even a '70s basement vibe, thanks to a pool table, plywood-finish cabinets and concrete pillars.
"Each area has a different personality, a different mood," he said. "We don't tell people how to use the space. They tell us."
The venue where Patti Smith performed, PUBLIC Arts, will host everything from movie screenings to comedy to theater. The rooftop bar's panoramic views — downtown to One World Trade and the Brooklyn bridges, uptown to the Empire State and Chrysler buildings — rival what you'd pay to see from a skyscraper observatory.
Prices for the hotel's 370 rooms start at a mere $150. "It's luxury for all," he says. "It's not so much about being rich. It's about how it makes you feel. Great style and design. Great service, but a new kind of service. Not obsequious or pretentious, but just a great experience."
Schrager says he's keeping prices down by "editing out things people don't care about." No bellmen because "everyone has a suitcase on wheels." No room service, but several in-house options for food, from ordering a meal via chatbot for pickup at the elevator, to getting food at a counter grocery store decorated with hanging hams or in an onsite sit-down restaurant, with menus by Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
No front desk or concierge, because guests check themselves in on iPads that can send a barcode to a cellphone that's swiped at your hotel room door. Which is not to say there's any shortage of hotel staff: PUBLIC "Advisors" wearing black T-shirts circulate throughout the hotel to offer assistance.
Scott Smith, a hotel industry veteran who teaches at the University of South Carolina's School of Hospitality, Tourism and Restaurant Management, says Schrager is a "pop culture figure" who's done for the hotel industry what Steve Jobs did for computers: "He wasn't the inventor but he brings the artistic together with the technology. He's a promoter. He's a marketer. He's an artist. He's not a hotelier. He's an innovator."
Schrager started with Morgans hotel in New York in 1984, followed by the Delano in Miami, and these days he's working with Marriott on a boutique brand, Edition. But is it fair to credit him with inventing boutique hotels?
Not exactly, says Smith: "There were small hotels that fit the definition of boutique hotels before, but we didn't call them that." It was Schrager who "made them cool."
Schrager's career has not been without its ups and downs. He and his Studio 54 co-founder Steve Rubell went to prison for tax evasion. Rubell later died of AIDS; Schrager got a pardon this past January from President Barack Obama. Greeting another veteran from Studio 54 days at the hotel, Schrager says, "We made it." Yet the long-gone disco is also the gift that keeps on giving: A book and documentary about Studio 54 are in the pipeline.
From a business point of view, Smith says, PUBLIC doesn't represent "serious competition" for the Marriotts and Hiltons of this world. And like other trendy concepts, it may not have staying power once the cool kids move on to the next big thing.
But for now, Smith predicts, "People are going to want to be there and be seen there. ... It's kind of like a work of art that has the word hotel attached to it."