“You have to keep moving or it dies,” explains Ian Schrager, the infamously obsessive hotelier who, with late business partner Steve Rubell, invented the boutique hotel in 1984 with Morgans, on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. It was then a completely novel concept, of course, which Schrager would parlay into a string of eight high-profile, high-impact Philippe Starck–designed hotels in New York, Miami Beach, Los Angeles, London, and San Francisco. No longer involved with the Morgans Hotel Group, which he walked away from in 2005, Schrager is currently keen on his collaboration with Marriott International for a series of one-off hotels, dubbed Edition, in “international gateway cities”—even if it means giving up ultimate control. This is unimaginable for anyone who knows the perennially hip hotelier, a man who once urgently summoned Anda Andrei, his design right hand, because the ice he ordered installed in the urinals in the lobby men’s room at New York’s Hudson hotel was precipitously melting. And Schrager definitely wanted ice at all times in the hotel’s urinals. So what, Schrager desperately wanted to know, was Andrei going to do about it?
One of the people duly impressed by Schrager’s attention to minutiae, not to mention by his high-stakes 2006 gamble with artist/filmmaker turned hotel muse Julian Schnabel on Gramercy Park, was J. W. “Bill” Marriott Jr., the 78-year-old chairman and CEO of Marriott International, who wrote in Marriott on the Move, the folksy blog he began in 2007, that the Gramercy Park Hotel was his “very favorite” Schrager hotel. If Marriott International is not known for its cutting-edge aesthetics or for courting the too-cool-for-school crowd—“We’re a nuts-and-bolts operation,” Marriott says—the company that began with a nine-stool A&W Root Beer stand run by J. W. Marriott Sr. and his wife, Alice, in Washington, D.C., in 1927 has an unimpeachable reputation for its management, its employee relations, its high-tech reservations system, and its 33-million-member-strong Marriott Rewards program. It is also a pioneer among large hotel companies for its adoption of environmental practices. The company currently has more than 3,500 properties in 70 countries (including the Ritz-Carlton chain, New York’s storied Algonquin, and the daring new 2,000-room Arquitectonica-designed Cosmopolitan, in Las Vegas), which translates into roughly 610,000 hotel rooms—a detail that dazzles Schrager.
Schrager and Marriott met shortly after Marriott began hearing news of Schrager’s new haute-bohemian hotel, the one with the over-the-top lobby fitted out with red-velvet drapes, a custom-designed Aubusson carpet, and an oversize crystal chandelier. “I want to see that property,” Marriott recalls thinking. So his people called the hotel to arrange for a tour. On the appointed day, Schrager was there to greet Marriott at the bronze-framed front door and give the industry icon the grand tour. At some point, Marriott remembers Schrager saying, “I really would like to hook up with a company to do a series of unique hotels.”
“I think the days of provocative and edgy are over,” says Schrager, seated in his bi-level office in Greenwich Village. In other words, the time is past when Schrager would bet the farm on an enfant terrible with a lot of panache and even more ideas but little confidence-inspiring, real-world experience. This time out, Schrager is acknowledging the changed times (and the exigencies of collaborating with Marriott International) with clear-headed choices that guarantee Edition hotels will not be full of aesthetic tricks or look-at-me design statements. In short, there are no dodgy three-legged chairs, no perplexing bathrooms lit like cocktail lounges, no mannered maneuvers that inevitably come at the expense of comfort and function. The Waikiki Edition, which opened in October 2010 and marks the debut of the brand, is mercifully free of the ironic gestures and tongue-in-cheek moves that so many found so seductive in the 1980’s, 1990’s, and into the 21st century. “No less glamorous, but more comfortable and easy,” Schrager explains of the seismic shift from then to now.
Toward that end, Schrager tapped pros with impressive portfolios of built work. For the Waikiki Edition, he chose Toronto- and New York–based partners George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg, whose 95-member firm is the subject of a 2009 monograph, Yabu Pushelberg, filled with glossy photographs of their exceptionally polished work for, among others, Tiffany’s, Bergdorf Goodman, Louis Vuitton, the W Hotel Times Square, and the Four Seasons Hotel in Tokyo. Asked why he chose Yabu Pushelberg, Schrager says, “The scale of this is what’s interesting to me. I wanted to put forth ideas and have someone capable of doing them fast, before anyone could copy them—either visually, operationally, service-wise, idea-wise, or ethos-wise. With that, execution was important, and the professionalism and ‘one-stop shop’-ability of Yabu Pushelberg was very important. All the designers have to fit these criteria!”
All the designers also have to make their peace with Schrager and his company’s intensive design reviews. Which are not subtle suggestions, but hands-on emendations. “You have to work hard to gain Ian’s trust,” says Pushelberg, who also recalls Schrager saying, “I want to go back to my roots,” as he pointed to Andrée Putman’s Morgans, noting its clean lines, subtle palette, and discreet chic.
Schrager now talks a lot about business travelers, about families on vacation, about that most elusive of all things—service. Whether attributable to Schrager or to Marriott International, the service at the Waikiki Edition is stellar—from the doormen and the concierge to the waitresses at Crazybox, the hotel’s bunker-like, raw-concrete-lined nightclub.
If in the old days the staff at every Schrager hotel was conspicuous for its pulchritude as opposed to its prowess, by contrast the Waikiki Edition staff is, of course, comely, but more about making sure that the SUV is at the airport when your flight touches down or that you have an eight o’clock reservation at Chef Mavro. Which is not to suggest that the Waikiki Edition does not have Schrager’s signature sparkle, the impossible-to-pinpoint X factor that has been his genius since Studio 54 and that has always distinguished the original boutique hotels from the hordes of derivative wannabes. (A telling detail: Charlotte Gainsbourg’s “Heaven Can Wait” was playing in the lobby the afternoon I checked in.) The hotel also has a bit of Schrager’s swagger, the self-assurance of a man with a Mercedes 600 idling at the curb, a Gulfstream IV waiting on the tarmac.
To immediately establish a sense of place—Hawaii—there is a billboard-scale, wall-mounted assemblage by surfer turned artist Herbie Fletcher, made from broken-in-action surfboards, behind the Waikiki Edition’s laminated oak plywood front desk. There is also an open-sesame-style floor-to-ceiling bookcase in the lobby that leads, at 4 p.m., to an otherwise out-of-sight lounge that lurks behind. Elsewhere, there is a spa, a gym, a 9,200-square-foot ballroom, and, in addition to a swimming pool, an oval “lagoon” lined with sapphire-blue mosaic tiles, surrounded by a sand-and-pebble beach. There is also an outdoor drive-in theater, minus the cars, showing movies, videos, and art installations.
Pushelberg describes the Waikiki Edition as “easy, serene, chill.” And the palette at the hotel backs him up—all white and cream and greige and putty and ecru with soaped-oak walls in the lobby and, in the rooms, custom-designed white-washed ash furniture and soft, rheostat-controlled lighting. The only dark wood to be found in the sand-carpeted rooms is in the frames of the leather-webbed desk chairs, modeled after Finnish architect Alvar Aalto’s iconic 1929 Chair 611. In the suites are L-shaped white-cotton sofas, circular tea-height tables, and white-linen-upholstered lounge chairs. The built-in platform beds with quilted headboards and integrated side tables are particularly well designed.
Adding a touch of richness to the rooms are overscale, sliding Mozambique blackwood shutters with operable louvers that control the sun and cordon off the bathrooms. Introducing “a lost innocence from back in the day,” according to Yabu, is a shallow white shelf on which rest a pair of notebooks with vintage hula girls on the cover, a ukulele, two starfish, assorted seashells, and a pair of white-framed images of the Pacific. Three sprightly colored sarongs hang from hooks beneath the shelf.
For the Waikiki Edition’s restaurant, the hotel tapped Hiroshima-born Masaharu Morimoto, known not only for his appearances on Iron Chef but also for his establishments in Manhattan, Philadelphia, Boca Raton, and Napa. In addition to Morimoto Waikiki, which was designed by Thomas Schoos—Morimoto’s choice—the Waikiki Edition’s first-rate food services are overseen by Kaleo Adams, the hotel’s bright-eyed young executive chef.
As for the critical landscaping of the hotel, Schrager invited SoHo-based Deborah Nevins & Associates to take charge. “I want a beach,” Nevins recalls Schrager saying, and she gave him one, Sunset Beach, on the site of a former tennis court, up a flight of Brazilian ipe stairs from the Sunrise Pool, which is lined by a ficus hedge and rows of indigenous autograph trees. To soften the base of the massive masonry building, Nevins surrounded it with walls of greenery that act like a verdant plinth for the 17-story tower (built in 1964 as part of a condo/hotel/time-share complex called the Ilikai). There are also arbors of bougainvillea adjacent to the pool, which provide shade for a bar that services both picnic tables and acid-green café tables. “I wanted it to be elegant in that way that is so Ian,” says Nevins, who has already visited the site of the Barcelona Edition.
In addition to “cool kids from California,” as Schrager says, the 353-room hotel courts business travelers and garden-variety vacationers, small-, medium-, and large-scale business meetings, and wedding parties, all looking for a Hawaiian experience that is not riddled with such clichés as leis and luaus, hula girls and Hawaiian shirts.
The original plan, when the Marriott-Schrager collaboration was announced, was for 100 Editions during the next 10 years, but, according to “Mr. Marriott,” the economy has had an impact. Nonetheless, the Istanbul Edition is set to open in the first half of 2011. Schrager chose New York City–based partners Michael Gabellini, Kimberly Sheppard, and Daniel Garbowit, best known for their unrepentant minimalism. There are other Editions under development in London, Mexico City, Barcelona, Bangkok, and Miami Beach, the last of which Schrager is designing in house. “In house” means the hotelier’s office, where designer Kirstin Bailey and architect Paul Haslhofer work away under the watchful eye of Schrager and his architecture and design director, Andrei, who has been at Schrager’s side since 1983.
Asked to name Edition’s competition, or at least hoteliers whose work he respects, Schrager lists “André Balazs, the Thompson guys, and the Viceroy guys.” And as for W? “I don’t think that my customers go to W,” Schrager says, leaving it at that.
Is Schrager at all nervous about introducing a relatively quiet hotel into what is now a very noisy marketplace? “We never did a hotel based on the cycle we’re in,” he says. “There is a little wit, a little irreverence at the Waikiki Edition, but it is a whole lot less self-conscious. It doesn’t overwhelm you with ‘personal style.’” What it does overwhelm you with is the warm self-assuredness of its luxe, low-decibel design, the range of its amenities, and the smiling, can-do confidence of its service. “But not obsequious,” Schrager adds. “Service should never be obsequious.” Oddly enough—especially considering the proximity of Pearl Harbor and Diamond Head—once you check in, you feel no need to leave what Schrager alternately calls “the quintessential urban resort” and “the next generation Hawaiian resort.”
It is a new day for Schrager, a man who has successfully reinvented himself as the changing times demand. It is also a new day for Marriott, decidedly in the “lifestyle” game at last. The word lifestyle has seamlessly replaced the word boutique on Edition’s website. Why? “Because everybody is now using the word boutique,” explains Schrager, who knows nothing so much as when it is time to jettison the past and move on.
Waikiki Edition, doubles from $345.
Charles Gandee is a contributing editor to Travel + Leisure.