Studio 54’s Most Stylish Men
Forty years since the club first opened, a new book by its founder celebrates the patrons who kept the party going
The first time I ever went to Studio 54 was also the first time I ever went to a discothèque. At 14, I had only been to a nightclub once before (if you count going with your mum to hear cabaret singer Mr Bobby Short perform at Café Carlyle). My best friend and I were at a black-tie dance uptown when three striking blondes of good pedigree and even better décolletage announced that we were all “going to Studio”. The crowd outside was 20 people deep on all three sides of the velvet rope as we spilled out of the cab and onto 54th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues. A bouncer in a puffer jacket clicked the rope open for the women, and we held on like drowning men. Something glamorous, intimidating and throbbing to a Ms Donna Summer beat lay on the other side.
The main floor of the former theatre and its backstage were now a dance floor with couches ringing the perimeter. Shirtless go-go boys wearing track shorts and tube socks tended the bar. The theatre’s balcony, which still had its rows of flip-up seats, was a pansexual passion pit; the bathrooms, pharmaceutical-ingestion stations. Over the dance floor was a pendulum-like sculpture of a crescent moon that would swing down and collide with another sculpture of a coke spoon as a maenad-like frenzy undulated beneath them. The scene was a melting plot – straight and gay; black, white, Latino and Mr Chow libido (not love) was in the air: The club’s heyday from 1977 to 1980 coincided with a moment when the pill was standard operating procedure and Aids hadn’t happened yet.
Forty years after Messrs Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell opened Studio 54 on an initial capitalisation of $400,000, people are still wondering why a short-lived nightclub from one of the dirtiest and most dangerous moments in New York City’s recent past continues to inspire mood boards from the hot, overt sexiness of Mr Tom Ford’s era at Gucci in the 1990s to the cool, clandestine sexiness of Mr Alessandro Michele’s current one. Why does Studio 54 generate so much nostalgia particularly when by all other measures (crime, cleanliness, prosperity) New York City was dangerous, filthy and nearly bankrupt.
“The attraction of the 1970s lies in how much this decade is the polar opposite of today’s brittle, money-driven city of hedge funds and $100 million apartments, and the nostalgia for the sheer grunginess of New York then seems only to keep mounting,” writes the cultural critic Mr Paul Goldberger in the introduction to Mr Ian Schrager’s new book on the nightclub, Studio 54. “ The very notion of a New York that rich people were fleeing instead of flocking to seems exotic.”
Messrs Steve Rubell (left) and Ian Schrager (right) standing outside Studio 54, 14 December 1978. Photograph by Photofest
Messrs Schrager and Rubell were both middle-class Jewish kids from Brooklyn, who were fraternity brothers at Syracuse University. Mr Rubell had two Steak Loft restaurants and Mr Schrager was his attorney, when the two thirtysomethings joined forces to create an entirely new type of nightclub in April 1977. “[The clubs prior to Studio] were either focused on entertainment or were more of a lounge where you sat at tables, drank and met people. That didn’t interest me,” says Mr Schrager. “What interested me was the phenomenon that was going on in the gay clubs… a kind of non-stop, intense, tribal-like dancing. It looked like the dance floor was some kind of living organism… We brought that into the straight clubs, which, as a result, broke down the classes and economic distinctions.”
Ms Bianca and Sir Mick Jagger at her birthday party given by Halston, 12 December 1977. Photograph by Ms Robin Platzer
The occasion is Ms Bianca Jagger’s (pictured) birthday party thrown by the designer Halston in 1977. The Rolling Stones were in the process of recording Some Girls, an album that was heavily influenced by Sir Mick Jagger’s time in The City and Studio 54. “The inspiration for the record was really based in New York and the way of the town,” he has said. “I think that gave it an extra spur and hardness.” In May 1978, Ms Jagger would file for divorce on grounds of Sir Mick’s adultery with Ms Jerry Hall, who was previously linked with…
Mr Bryan Ferry and Ms Barbara Allen, 1977-1979. Photograph by Mr Anton Perich
If heartbreak looks this good, then please purchase me a velvet blazer, gingham checked shirt and monochromatic tie. At the time this photo was taken, Mr Bryan Ferry (photographed here with actress Ms Barbara Allen) was on the short end of the love triangle with Hall-Jagger. Roxy Music fans may remember that Mr Ferry and Ms Hall began dating not long after she modelled for the cover of the band’s album, Siren. The duo lived together in London and Bel Air, California. Mr Ferry reportedly recorded the earworm Let’s Stick Together in tribute to Ms Hall. Sir Jagger had other ideas.
Pelé, 1978-1979. Photograph by Ms Robin Platzer
The greatest footballer of all time had settled in New York in 1975 to play for the New York Cosmos in an effort to make the sport popular in the US. His final game in New York, a few months after Studio 54 opened, was broadcast on national TV and attended by Messrs Muhammad Ali and Bobby Moore. Pelé was just one of many sportsmen who would frequent the club. Tennis stars of the era Messrs Bjorn Borg, Vitas Gerulaitis, and Ilie Nastase also put in time here. “First, there were the athletes, then the movie stars, then the recording stars, then the artists, then the print media editors and TV journalists, and then the models. They were all there at Studio,” says Mr Schrager before adding his gloss on how fame has changed: “Celebrities who actually did something to warrant their fame.”
Mr Steve Rubell, Ms Farrah Fawcett and Mr Ryan O’Neal, 1981. Photograph by Ms Roxanne Lowit
Like all good things, Studio 54’s first incarnation came to an end in 1980 when Mr Rubell and Mr Schrager were convicted of tax evasion. (It probably didn’t help that Mr Rubell told New York newspapers that Studio 54 had made $7 million in its first year of operation and “only the Mafia made more money”.) Here, Mr Ryan O’Neal and Ms Farrah Fawcett arrive for the co-founders’ farewell party. At the event Ms Diana Ross serenaded Messrs Rubell and Schrager. The duo would return from prison and play a seminal role in the boutique hotel movement with the opening of Morgan’s in 1981. Mr Rubell would pass away later that year. Mr Schrager would launch a company that owns, develops and manages hotels, residential and mixed-use projects – including his collaboration with Marriott International on the Edition hotels and now his Public chain. As for whether the club’s harsh door policy might have had something to do with their undoing, he says: “It was really because of the door policy... the fact that people who were normally big shots or rich meant nothing at Studio. They thought what we were doing was undemocratic, un-American and elitist. But in actuality, it wasn’t elitist at all. We were just trying to exercise the same discretion you do when you have a private dinner party at your home.”
Mr David Bowie, 1978-1979. Photograph by Ms Robin Platzer
By the late 1970s, Mr David Bowie had relocated to Germany, shared a flat with Mr Iggy Pop and begun working with the producer Mr Brian Eno on the trio of albums (Low, Heroes and Lodger) known as the Berlin Trilogy. But when back in New York, why not put a double-breasted peak lapelled windowpane checked suit for a night out? While the thought of seeing as wide a cross-section of musicians – think Messrs Rod Stewart, Bruce Springsteen and Michael Jackson – all frequenting a nightclub in midtown Manhattan in today’s New York is a bit mind-boggling, Manhattan was a more artist-friendly milieu back then. “The difference between what a newspaper reporter and a banker made was not the vast gulf of today,” writes Mr Goldberger in the book’s intro. “That meant that even though New York was the home of Wall Street, it really felt more like a city of writers and a city of actors and a city of media executives and advertising copywriters and museum curators and musicians and bookkeepers and nurses and teachers.”
Ms Diana Ross and Mr Richard Gere, 17 August 1979. Photograph by Bettmann/Getty Images
Recently divorced, Ms Diana Ross hits the dance floor in the company of Mr Richard Gere. At this point in his career, Mr Gere is best known for his roles in Looking For Mr Goodbar and Days Of Heaven but has yet to hit the big time in American Gigolo. The former lead singer of The Supremes looks incredibly modern with her graphic T-shirt and high-waisted denim, and Mr Gere likewise in a linen blazer.
Ms Marina Schiano and Mr Yves Saint Laurent at the Opium launch party, 1978. Photograph by Mr Anton Perich
A number of fashion designers – both European and American – frequented Studio 54. The American side was led by Halston, Mr Calvin Klein, Ms Donna Karan and the then-unknown Mr Michael Kors, who skipped his prom to go; the Euro squad by Messrs Karl Lagerfeld, Hubert de Givenchy, Valentino and Yves Saint Laurent (pictured here at the launch party for his Opium fragrance with model Ms Marina Schiano in 1978). It got to be that European A-listers would get off the flight from Paris or Milan, shower, dress, then head to the club to see what was happening in New York.
Valentino, 1977-1979. Photograph by Mr Dustin Pittman
From the club’s debut, Mr Rubell shrewdly courted fashion designers – and birthday bashes were favourite theme nights. For Valentino’s birthday, the couturier dressed as a ringmaster and circus animals were brought into the club. For Mr Giorgio Armani, the club hired 20 violinists to perform in the lobby and the Ballets de Trocadero de Monte Carlo performed on-stage. Looking at how men dressed to go a club back then is more a tutorial in elite style than street style: Valentino’s chalk-stripe bespoke suit, pocket scarf and cigarette holder are a case study in 1970s sprezzatura.
Ms Catherine Roberts, Mr Steve Rubell and Mr Warren Beatty, 1979. Photograph by Ms Robin Platzer
Hollywood’s priapic prince, Mr Warren Beatty, wears his sunglasses at night as he enters the club with Mr Rubell in his wake and the model Ms Catherine Roberts on his arm. Mr Beatty is at the height of his powers, having co-directed, produced, wrote and starred in Heaven Can Wait the year before. The film was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Adapted Screenplay. Thus, his long collar worn outside the wide lapel blazer can be overlooked.
Studio 54 (Rizzoli International Publications) by Mr Ian Schrager is out now