FEATURES : NEW YORK

Alex and Companies

New York

Alex Calderwood has a history of turning nothing into something. He looks at unloved and abandoned spaces with an optimistic eye, seeing potential to infuse them with new life, art, and music. Throughout his career he’s shown an interest in creating cultural hubs from organizing parties in Seattle, to Rudy’s Barbershops, to Neverstop’s experiential marketing events. After many successful ventures, he’s become one of the most innovative hoteliers in the country by launching the Ace Hotels.

Now he’s bringing that instinct to one of Manhattan’s forgotten neighborhoods. South of Herald Square, amongst the random shops and sidewalk hustlers, sits the Hotel Breslin. Built in 1904, it was once a stomping ground for New York’s creatives. It spent many years as a forgotten beauty until Calderwood spotted its potential. Today he’s laying down roots in the city and giving the hotel new vitality.

The Ace New York is more than a hotel. It’s a space that houses collaborations with artists, architects, musicians, and local businesses, creating a place that feels like home, but better. Its aesthetic is raw but refined, designed with the urban traveler in mind. Details like original artwork, a selection of vinyl, and Smeg refrigerators stocked with goodies make each room personal. There is a welcoming and unpretentious atmosphere here, traits that are a reflection of Calderwood himself. We had a friendly chat with him to find out how it all began.

The Scout: What did you do before Ace, Rudy’s, and Neverstop?
Alex Calderwood: I used to throw parties when I was back in Seattle, and that was about the time we started Rudy’s. Before all of that, when I got out of high school, I decided to take a year off from college. I was registered to go to Seattle University, which is a Catholic college back in Seattle. But then I got an offer from a sportswear company that was just starting in Seattle. I worked there over the summer. Eventually they asked me if I wanted to stay and offered me a full-time job, so I decided to do that; and frankly, I just kind of never went back to school. I ended up working for those guys for a few years and then left and went on my own, and that’s when I started traveling internationally a lot. We were specialists in what’s called “dead stock.” I travelled all over Europe and Japan and did that for a few years, which was great. All these things kind of started Rudy’s; and then after Rudy’s, all the work that I had done in the music world, like concerts and all that kind of stuff kind of morphed into what is now Neverstop.

Did Neverstop come before Ace?
It did. Neverstop started in 1998, just about a year before Ace.

Opening a hotel is extremely challenging, more so than a magazine, store, or restaurant. Despite all his successes as a pop culture mogul, Nigo said in past interviews that he is daunted by the task— even with an incredible track record in street wear, retail, music, salons and cafes. What enabled you to be successful despite the huge challenges of starting a hotel business?
I was lucky in the sense that we were in Seattle, so the barrier to entry in New York, Tokyo, or London is much more difficult. That was part of it, being in Seattle, so it was easier. We lucked out in that we found a property that was achievable and we were able to do it on a really resourceful budget, and that’s how we got our foot in the door in the hotel industry, basically. We just thought it would be interesting to do it, and then after we opened we got a lot of good feedback from consumers and from the industry. We thought, “Maybe there is something here, maybe we should do more.”

So everything was pretty organic, with one thing leading to another?
I think everything was organic and gut instinct.

Did you ever look to other hoteliers like Andre Balazs and Ian Schrager? Merging the party and club scene to the hospitality industry?
Everyone’s aware of what they’re doing, but I think what we do is evidenced by… just go check out what we do, it is different. I think what they do is great, and what we do is what we do.

You’ve worked with a wide range of talent, including Kaws, Alife, and Roman & Williams. What were some of the most memorable experiences and what does good collaboration mean to you?
Well, I think the collaboration process is certainly most interesting to us and certainly in everything that we do. When you bring really good talented individuals together or talented groups of people together, that combination will be better than if we did something just ourselves. I’m a firm believer in that.

To answer your question about the most memorable experience, I couldn’t really peg one as the best. I would say doing the New York hotel has certainly been very exciting and a huge learning process for me. I feel I’m still constantly learning. It’s like that phrase they say, “When you stop learning, you stop progressing.”-break-

When did you start working with Roman & Williams?
The way I met them was actually through Serge Becker. I was talking to him one day and we knew that the New York hotel might happen, but it was still really early. We were aware that we would be able to acquire the property and finish the deal. So I asked Serge Becker if he had thoughts about design or if he knew any interesting design firms, and he mentioned Roman & Williams. He said, “I recently saw some work from them, and I think they’re interesting." So I called them. Robin, who is one of the owners, called back right away. They were familiar with us because they lived in Los Angeles when one of the Rudy’s Barbershops opened. As soon as I went to their offices I instantly felt they were on the same wavelength. They’re really talented and really great to work with.

Was this after the Ace in Portland was finished?
No, we were still finishing Portland at that time. I remember Robin and Stephen coming out to Portland while we were still wrapping up. They came out for the weekend—there was a camaraderie there, a kind of spirit.

You mentioned that the growth of your businesses have been organic; was it ever premeditated?
It has been a really natural process. If I had to do it over again, maybe it would be a bit more premeditated, but so be it. Here’s where we’re at.

You’ve said that you’d like to open “a new hotel every one to two years.” Why the accelerated growth?
I feel like there are certain windows of opportunity that you have. What we’re doing right now is interesting, and I think we hope to create instant classics, so as not to be pegged as the hip hoteliers. Yeah, it’s aggressive. Get a few of them open and then just enjoy that. Who knows? It’s like when we started talking today, I think even a couple of years ago, I was thinking we could do a couple of hotels a year, and then maybe have 10. That would be awesome. But I think going through this last year, it won’t happen.

What other cities interest you at the moment?
We’re not actively looking at anything particular right now, but of course we would like to do something more on the West Coast, like Los Angeles or San Francisco, they call them gateway cities. There are also second-tier cities like Portland that are interesting. There are places like Philadelphia, Savannah, or Memphis that have some culture going on.

The way the economics of real estate has been going the last 10 or 20 years, a lot of those second-tier cities are potentially becoming more interesting because of the creative class, or the young, creative people that can’t afford to be in the big cities as easily. So that’s what you’re seeing. It’s not really affordable, and you have all these amazing kids going there doing really creative stuff, and I think that same dynamic’s happening in some of these other cities.

Hotels have inspired so many movies and stories, from Lost in Translation to The Shining to Wes Anderson’s short Hotel Chevelier. What’s the best story that’s taken place in one of your hotels?
That’s funny, wow. We actually had this conversation the other day about how there are a lot of stories you can’t tell. That’s one thing: Hoteliers are famously discreet about their guests. Another guy I know who owns a few hotels who I like a lot said something kind of funny: “There’s one good thing about hotels: if you think you’ve done something kind of naughty or something kind of bad in a hotel, somebody else has done much worse.” That made me laugh; I thought that was funny.

You may have read that Ace in Portland was actually used in Drugstore Cowboy. We actually went back through the movie, and you can see it. I didn’t know this at the time when we started the project. I was watching the movie one night and all of a sudden I noticed it in a couple of scenes and said, “Oh my God, that’s our hotel.” Then I recognized the hallway, and an interior shot with Matt Dillon. It was a revelation that it’s our hotel!-break-

That’s great. I didn’t realize that you found out after wards.
We just started the project, and it was complete kismet. It was one of those weird things.

How much are you involved with Neverstop and does that part of the business ever mingle with your other businesses?
For the past couple of years I have not been as involved in the day-to-day. There’s a lot of creative cross-pollination that happens between the different companies. If I’m working on something for a client at Neverstop, oftentimes there is some kind of inspiration that interacts with the other companies. I’m really excited for the new office to be here in New York and to be more involved in that creative process. I really like working with clients, and oftentimes our clients at Neverstop turn out to be our same clients at Ace. It’s a natural kind of cross-pollination between the companies.

You’re involved with hotels, barber shops, creative agencies, music, and partnering with restaurants. Is there a particular area of business that you’re not a part of that you would like to be involved in, like film?
That’s a good question. I think film is interesting, more on the production side of it, but I don’t know. There’s not a hankering for it. I have other entrepreneurial ideas that I’ve been thinking about, concepts that I do intend on pursuing, but they’re more along the lines of a Rudy’s type of thing. That’s a tough thing, when you’re thinking about something, usually there are 10 other people around the world that are thinking the same thing.

It’s a race to be the first to market.
Either first to market, or sometimes you’re not first but you’ll do it a little better. Build a better mousetrap, as they say. But it’s really important to pursue it because if you’re thinking about it, clearly a lot of other people are too.

Let’s talk about the Ace Hotel in New York. What are some of the amenities? 246 rooms are going to be available?
Yeah, about 250 rooms. It’s a quirky old building, with strange layouts. The rooms are actually quite large, definitely by New York standards. By any hotel standard, our rooms are actually pretty generous. Because it’s a quirky old building, we didn’t just come in and knock everything down. We’ve got many different kinds of details. There are a large variety of room types, which from a sales standpoint, makes it more difficult for our staff to sell the hotel. The easiest thing is to have all the rooms the same and just sell them as the same experience. I think this is more exciting because we’ll get a lot of repeat guests that come, and one time you’ll be in one type of room and another time potentially in another type of room, you know?

And what’s the biggest room?
It’s just over 700 square feet. The largest rooms will be nice because they’ll have parquet wood floors, and they’ll be appointed with a lot of found furniture and antiques resembling someone’s cool apartment in New York. I think everyone will really like those rooms. I’m really excited about that. About a third of the rooms will have what we call maxibars, where we made a deal with Smeg Refrigerators from Europe. That will allow us to have a broader selection of items. There’ll be little mini kegs of Heineken Beer in there, a broader selection of liquors, sodas, and water. We’ll also be able to have ice cream, which you usually don’t have in a minibar. We’ll also probably have some meats. And if the guests wanted to keep something in it, if they brought back their dinner in a doggie bag, they could put it in the refrigerator.

What other amenities will the hotel have?
There’s a cool gallery thing that’s happening; there’s a dessert concept that’s happening, and a newsstand that’s in the works.

Will the hotel have a retail shop?
In terms of Ace retail, we may decide to do special objects or collaborations. For example, the ties that we’ll have for the front desk staff will also be available to purchase. There will be some objects and some stuff that’s related to the brand that we’ll have for sale at the front desk, so it will serve as a kiosk as well. We’ll also have a selection of music from Other Music. We reached out to them because we curated a selection of CDs.

What do you consider essential for traveling?
Essential? Well actually, what is funny and killing my back—I always take a tote filled with magazines and newspapers because when I’m on the airplane, that’s my only time to really read. It’s a wide selection of magazines. I love The Economist. I love fashion and art magazines. I always have a hard time throwing away the magazines because there is always something in each one of them that you want to keep.

So will Alex Calderwood “everstop?”
[Laughter] Yes, definitely…eventually. It would be nice to do a hotel in Europe or on the beach somewhere where you can focus on that hotel. I could envision some kind of scenario like that.

Judging from his answer sounds like Mr. Calderwood isn’t planning on slowing down any time soon.

We look forward to checking in with the Ace crew to keep you posted on the latest developments. Until then, the Ace New York is scheduled to open in March and is now taking reservations. For more information visit their site or call 212-679-2222.