Katie Baron discovers the enduring allure of Studio 54 – once the world’s hottest and most hedonistic nightclub – and one of its most legendary patrons, Bianca Jagger
Few destinations have captured the fashion or film industry’s imagination, or crystallised a period in time, quite like Studio 54, the Manhattan nightclub so uninhibited that it practically became an academy of hedonism – an exclusive institution that was dedicated to ridiculously good-looking good times.
No less influential almost four decades on (affirmed by the 86,000 posts and counting currently amassed on Instagram), drama, fantasy and histrionics permeated its legacy before the velvet rope was even strung across its doors. Formerly an opera house and theatre, it was transformed by young entrepreneurs Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell into Studio 54 in 1977, and included a legendary dance floor devised by renowned lighting designers Paul Marantz and Jules Fisher, whose combined post-54 credits include the World Trade Center’s Tribute in Light installation, the Times Square LED Ball, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa ultra-skyscraper and numerous Broadway musicals and rock concerts.
Studio 54’s look upturned the conventions of club styling, ditching the darkly nefarious in favour of a moveable feast of thrilling, constantly changing sets. Beyond the dance floor was a rubber room, complete with wipe-clean upholstery, while for one of its two New Year’s Eve celebrations – it reigned for only 33 months, closing in February 1980 – the event planner Robert Isabell laid a four-tonne carpet of glitter that Rubell described as ‘like standing on stardust. People were still finding it in their homes and on their clothes months later’.
An extension of New York’s thriving fashion and arts scenes (even the logo was designed by Time designer Gil Lesser), it echoed disco’s essential DNA: an excessive, campy, wholly euphoric counterpoint to the aggression of punk, rejecting countercultural New York’s stigmatisation of dance music and the then largely white male stranglehold of rock music. With disco principally raised up by audiences from America’s African-American, Italian-American, Latino and gay cultures, the club became a byword for liberation and a crucible for creativity and fun, where literally anything went – as long as it oozed sex appeal.
High-profile revellers were a huge draw – regulars included Andy Warhol, Halston, Debbie Harry, Grace Jones, Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson, Jerry Hall, Lou Reed, John Travolta, Al Pacino, Jackie Onassis, David Bowie and Iman, among many others – but so was the meritocratic entrance policy, upheld by infamous doorman Mark Benecke, which meant anyone with the right style credentials could be plucked from the queue and pulled right into the heart of the seductive celebrity orbit. Fashion, life-and-soul-of-the-party bravado and an insatiable appetite for the wild side of glamour were the only passport specifics needed.
As legendary British stylist, costumier and cult figure on London’s 80s club scene Jeffrey Bryant says: ‘The biggest attraction of Studio 54 was that it mixed uptown and downtown. Working-class people could hang out with major celebrities. And, of course, the crazy parties gave it notoriety. Both elements generated an undying interest.’ The protocol reflected Rubell’s motto: ‘The key to a good party is filling a room with guests more interesting than you.’
Both a playground and a catwalk – the ultimate place to see and be seen – the sartorial lexicon followed suit. On opening night, Cher arrived wearing a T-shirt, jeans with braces and a straw hat. From women in everything from tattered denim and floor-skimming, navel-grazing silk to zoot suits (1940s-style men’s attire with a high waist, wide legs and a long jacket with oversized lapels) to men in very little at all (busboys carried plastic containers on their heads, wearing not much more than gym shorts and trainers), high fashion met high-octane fancy dress. The fantasy frequently spilled over into reality, with even the biggest industry players absorbing new roles. On one occasion, Valentino took on the guise of a circus ringleader (with real animals), while on another, Giorgio Armani presided over a ballet performed by drag queens. Similarly extravagant, when restaurateur Michael Chow held his birthday party there, the club recreated old Peking, carrying guests around on palanquin chairs. Pre-social media, spectacle was standard, with no heed paid to the twin spectres of censorship or repercussion.
While Studio 54 was populated by larger-than-life characters, Bianca Jagger remains perhaps its most recognisable, potent symbol – largely courtesy of the infamous occasion of her own birthday party, on which, at around midnight, she was led around the club on a white horse by actor Sterling St Jacques, who was naked and sprayed head-to-toe in gleaming body glitter.
Jagger, the exotic, Nicaraguan-born wife of rock star Mick, was already a globally renowned style icon by the time Studio 54 launched, but while famous for her bohemian slant on luxury, involving furs, sequins and sleek YSL tailoring (‘Bianca’s white flared pants suit is etched in my memory. I’ve copied it many times, as has Tom Ford and Stella McCartney,’ says Bryant), it cemented her status as one of the club’s eternal goddesses. Personifying its cross-cultural, sexually charged, pre-AIDS ethos, in which beauty, pleasure and glamour transcended all else, she became a near-mythological creature – forever inseparable from its desire for the decadence of liberation.
Image credits: Christopher Simon Sykes/Hulton Archive/Getty Images; Images/Rex/Shutterstock