Art

For Ian Schrager and Anya Sapozhnikova, the Party Never Ends

Long confined by the pandemic, many social life-loving Americans are experiencing an indelible, almost manic desire to gather, party and celebrate life. Though many of our favorite haunts were economic losses to the year-long shutdowns, those that survived are back with an evermore enthusiastic vengeance. In New York, the scene has always been hot, and people are now ready to party like it’s 2021. Nightlife legend and hotelier Ian Schrager of Studio 54 fame and New York party young gun and performer Anya Sapozhnikova of Brooklyn’s House of Yes reflect on going out then and now.

Elizabeth Fazzare

DIANA ROSS AT STUDIO 54_1979
Diana Ross, New Year's Eve, 1979 at Studio 54. Photographed by artist Dustin Pittman.

Elizabeth Fazzare: How has the pandemic changed or not changed the way that you view a party? 

Anya Sapozhnikova: What hasn’t changed is this intrinsic need for people to just get together and dance. That is indestructible. Nightlife will survive against all odds. As an industry, we’ve been suffering, and the fact that there’s not even a doubt about us coming back has proven what we’ve already known: as long as there are humans, the desire for people to gather and celebrate is always going to be here. A lot of nightlife has gotten into this frivolous place where there’s a lot of partying, but why are we doing it? What are we celebrating? Now, coming back from the pandemic, we’ve all found the things that are important to us. I think people are a lot more selective about who they’re choosing to celebrate with. Being confronted with our mortality has proven that life is finite. I’m hoping to see nightlife take a turn in a more meaningful, more intentional direction.

Ian Schrager: I agree with a lot of what you said, if not all of it. I do believe that the pandemic has made people increase their humanity toward each other and has given them an opportunity to reflect on what’s important. I’m not a believer in paradigm shifts. I don’t think that anything is going to be different. We have an instinct to socialize. We always have, for the last 5,000 years. Whatever’s going to change in nightlife has been going on since before the pandemic and we’ll just continue to evolve. It’s one of the reasons I have so much respect and regard for Anya, because I think she’s doing what people want today. It’s got much more depth and much more meaning. There’s more variety and entertainment than what was happening before, which is why she has been so successful. I look at the pandemic as a short-term thing. We forget the bad and always remember the good. We do that in life in general. When the pandemic does finally get settled, people will be ready to go mad, and I’m sure Anya has everything planned in order to accommodate that.

AS: I see an exuberance in people that I didn’t see before. I think the enthusiasm and the commitment of the audience is palpable. People come out in more elaborate costumes. People show up earlier, people dance harder, people stay longer. People are really present now.

IS: There’s a pent-up demand to go out. I think people are going to go out with abandon. I see it at the hotels and I see it at the restaurants and the bars at the hotels. People are ready to go out there and reclaim their life.

EF: You both have experience in the contemporary nightlife scene and you also have experience in the nightlife scene of yesteryear. What differences do you see in people’s attitudes towards going out or what they’re interested in doing when they go out?

AS: Through the rise of social media and the Internet, the underground has really permeated into the mainstream. When I started performing in clubs in my early twenties, there was definitely a separation between the underground events and the events in the Meatpacking District with bottle service where we made the money. Now, with House of Yes having bottle service, and participating in Ian’s five-star hotel and doing very House of Yes things, I’m seeing a beautiful cross section of resources, self-expression, and art. I think it’s the best possible outcome. Having funds for the artists to make art is what we’ve all been moving towards.

IS: When you put that all together, that’s where the combustible energy comes from. And it’s so true about somebody going into a nightlife place that is the real deal and feeling the absolute freedom to be whoever you want, to do whatever you want, as long as you don’t hurt anybody and you don’t do anything illegal. The whole point of nightlife is to have an outlet to express yourself. It was that way back in the days of Studio 54, and it is still the same way here; it’s that same freedom. The ability to mix and match and put a lot of different people together is really where the energy comes from.

AS: I think entropy in nightlife is the most important ingredient, because otherwise a lot of places come in and do one thing really well, and then it just stalls. But having entropy and that intentional chaos, I think that’s the magic ingredient for sure.

Anya Sapozhnikova. Portrait by Kenny Rodriguez.

EF: What prompted each of your decisions to create spaces for nightlife? Did you find that this organized chaos was lacking and you wanted to create it?

IS: There’s a lot of expedience. Business is an opportunistic endeavor, and with nightlife you didn’t really have to have a lot of money. You really didn’t have to know very much. You just wanted to make people happy, and there was no barrier to entry. Anyone could go into a place, paint the walls black, put something over the stove and play a record player and have people dance. Originally, it was just from the baby boom. People were coming back to New York from school, they were inhabiting the city. They all wanted places to go. People were waiting in line to get into a club, getting a lot of abuses. If the place was a spot, they wanted to get in no matter what. And I just thought, being a person that didn’t have a lot of money and didn’t know very much, that this was a business that we should go into. I went in with a partner who really enjoyed the personal interaction with all the people, hanging out with everyone and so on and so forth. That wasn’t the part that I enjoyed. I enjoyed creating this atmosphere that was the catalyst for everybody going mad. All you had was the magic that you can create, very ethereal and ephemeral. And now I see that Anya is evolving and taking further what we did and turning it into a much more sophisticated, multimedia, sensory overload experience that really makes it into the entertainment business. It gets much more legs and depth and shelf life. That’s how nightlife was evolving, and I think they’ve really hit the zeitgeist with it.

AS: Thank you. I just wanted to party with my friends, and I wanted my friends to have a good time at my house. We have lived in a big loft, and so it all started organically. We also weren’t of age to get into a lot of clubs when we originally got into the underground. So it was kind of the only option—you either perform and participate in the nightlife that is happening, or you create your own. It happened really organically in the beginning, and as we’ve scaled up, we’ve really looked at the pieces and kind of dissected it— what makes us special? What makes it work? What makes it financially sustainable? But the model at the beginning was very pure: just throw the best house party, and our house party is going to have aerialists and marching bands and DJs and crazy décor. It wasn’t until much later, when we started scaling up, that we began analyzing why it works. The reason I think House of Yes is a success comes down to the hospitality aspect. The hospitality is something that you don’t see, and when it’s perfect, it falls into the background and you just feel right at home in this crazy, sensory overload place. Unless people are comfortable, they can’t really have a good time, so if we’re going to be pushing people’s boundaries and pushing the envelope on what people can expect on a night out, they need to feel welcome and at home.

IS: That’s the way it always works. Anybody creates something that they themselves like, they have that kind of light touch.

AS: There is an interesting cross section that’s happening with nightlife and wellness. If I remember dressing rooms 10 or 15 years ago, it was a disaster. People were screwed up on everything. And now, everyone is sober. I think there might be this significant shift occurring where people are coming more for the entertainment and less for the alcohol.

IS: There’s a very delicate balancing act because, what we do, almost by definition, there’s excess involved. But that’s true, people are coming for the entertainment and that’s what’s new and fresh to me.

AS: I’m hoping for a healthier nightlife in this next chapter.

EF: Tell me about the best party that you’ve ever attended.

IS: I always used to love the Halloween parties because there were no boundaries, no restrictions. There were a couple of parties that we did at Studio—one party had three or four tons of silver glitter on the floor. It was maybe three or four inches thick everywhere. It was coming out of people’s rugs six months later. That was kind of magical. And then I remember one time where we had 10-foot walls of dry ice that you had to walk through.

AS: I think my favorite was our last Halloween party. As nightlife people, it’s Halloween every day, but then the whole world catches up with you and it’s like, alright, now we’re all in this together. We threw a party at Grand Prospect Hall. It’s our annual Halloween called City of Gods. We’re doing one in LA and New York this year, and we basically just take all our favorite things and put them into one party. What we do is create these experiences that the world does not want to populate. The world wants to keep going nine to five, get your job, capitalism, pay your rent. We are like a quirk in the system. It’s not supposed to be happening. You’re not supposed to have people flying over the ceiling. You’re not supposed to have 6,000 people dancing their faces off in costumes that they’ve worked on for a whole year.

IS: I would say the same thing, but in a little bit of a different way. Everybody lives their life in the box. What we do is outside the box and that’s why people like it, because it’s not something they see or experience every day. I recently did a partnership with a big hotel company in London and the European person said, “What’s the big deal? I know what Schrager does. He raises the music and lowers the lights.” They kind of can’t get it. And thank God we think outside the box, because people want what they don’t experience every day.

AS: Nightlife is what’s happening in the world, boiled down and distilled into an intense pressure cooker. That’s why a lot of activism and social change comes out of it. It’s reactive to the world. That’s why it’s going to last forever, because it’s always a reflection of what’s happening to humanity.

IS: I think everything is about capturing the moment, everything. And anything that’s successful and innovative, anything in any business, not only nightlife, is out of the box. Because that’s what gets people excited, something new—not too new or they get challenged—but just new enough. This is an area that interests me tremendously. The iPod was around for 20 years before it became successful with Steve Jobs. The TV was out there for almost 30 years before it got accepted. The car was out there for 20 years before it was accepted by people. You have to be able to read the mood and feel if the culture is ready to embrace something. Being too soon is as bad as being too late. That’s where this judgment call of a creative person becomes critical. And you always bet on the person that has a long line and history of success. I know what Anya does! She lowers the lights and raises the music. That’s it!

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