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A teenage, skateboarding, graffiti artist who became pals with Kate and Naomi and ended up as a global nightclub entrepreneur - Richie Akiva tells EDGAR how he did it.
Selling t-shirts to Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell is a pretty impressive first entry to have on your CV. After befriending Kate and Naomi, the teenaged Manhattan hustler Richie Akiva accidentally hosted a club night in New York City in 1997 that set him on a path to his current position as the king of the nightlife industry with supermodel girlfriends, floor seats at the Knicks and an inner circle filled with the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Jay-Z and Puff Daddy.
The jewel in Akiva’s platinum portfolio is 1OAK, arguably the world’s most famous nightclub brand, which he has successfully launched in New York, Las Vegas, Aspen, Mexico City, The Hamptons, Los Angeles and the Maldives. In 2017 he opened 1OAK in Tokyo and this year he brought the brand to Dubai, something he described as “monumental”.
A polite, calm and softly-spoken man, Akiva contradicts the stereotype of nightclub mogul. Dressed expensively but simply in a black shirt, black trousers and white sneakers, the 38-year-old told EDGAR his remarkable story from his suite at the JW Marriott Marquis Hotel. We started by asking him about his days as a skateboarding teen galivanting around downtown Manhattan after dark, trying to sneak into clubs.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Tribeca in New York City. Age 16 I was in high school and me and my friends would get our backpacks, skateboards and spray paint and run around downtown Manhattan at night. We’d find a hole in the wall with a bouncer standing outside and I’d think, ‘I want to go in there.’ We’d talk our way in, or do something to distract him and get in. I was sneaking into clubs like Mars, Tunnel, USA, Limelight, all in Manhattan.
What did you find inside?
All walks of life! Stockbrokers, lawyers, skaters and graffiti artists, all under one roof, having a great time. I fell in love with nightlife because of New York. It was the epicentre of nightlife from the 70s, through the 80s, into the 90s and today. It’s the home of Studio 54, Bright Lights Big City. For clubs, it’s still number one.
What gripped you about those clubs?
The door! The hardest thing to do was get past the door. But once you got in, it was a different world, it was all gravy.
Do you get nostalgic thinking back to those days?
I would love nightlife to return to dancing and music and just plain old fun. But unfortunately fun doesn’t pay the bills.
What was your first job?
I started an urban streetwear clothing company with three friends. It was called Danücht, which stood for Da New S***. We made t-shirts and gave them to models. One of my friends was Davide Sorrenti. His brother was the photographer Mario Sorrenti who was dating Kate Moss and shot her for those Calvin Klein Obsession ads. Kate was friends with Naomi [Campbell] and we gave them our t-shirts. One shirt said ‘models suck’ on it. Kate loved it and wore it; Naomi wore it in the Spike Lee movie Girl That was it – we blew up.
How did you switch to nightlife?
My friend Davide passed away when I was 18. I wanted to hold an event in his memory and this lady had a space in New York that she agreed to give us for free because it was a quiet Monday night. We invited everyone we knew and the whole city came out for it, this event was so big. The lady said to us, ‘How the hell did you kids get all these models and celebrities to come to your party? If you can do this every week I’ll give you 30 per cent.’
Did it seem odd to you at the time that you were hanging out with models and celebrities?
No, I went to high school with Liv Tyler and celebrities’ kids like Robert De Niro’s son and Michael Douglas’ son. I grew up in New York City so from the moment you’re born it’s hustle and bustle.
You’re often photographed with a lot of celebrities. Are they genuine friendships?
Yeah, they’re real friendships that I hold dear to my heart. They’re not built on me playing them or us using one another. They’re just like any other person. I don’t sell them out, I don’t gossip. If they get caught out, it’s not because of something that came out of my mouth.
Who’s the most recent famous pal you’ve made?
I love G-Eazy; The Weeknd is a great guy. They’re genuinely good people. I’ve known Puff for 20 years. Jay-Z, Rihanna, Puff, Leo – a lot of my friendships are very long. I’m very particular about who I befriend.
What do you talk about?
Culture, music, life, art, fashion – things that go hand in hand with what we do. Those things all feed off each other and set trends.
1OAK has had negative press in the past [rapper Suge Knight was shot in the New York venue in 2014]. How do you handle that?
I was taught early on that all press is good press. I’ve had times when I’ve been totally stressed about things that have happened but it’s here one day, gone tomorrow. If you don’t feed it and don’t let it get to you, it’ll go away pretty quickly. The problem is, if you address it, the story gets bigger. I learnt from my celebrity friends how to deal with it and how not to deal with it. I’ve watched some people deal with it perfectly and some deal with it badly.
Leonardo DiCaprio is famously tight-lipped, isn’t he?
Leo is one of the best people in the world in terms of not addressing press and commercialised pop culture. He’s kept his private life pretty private and his business life is his business life. Same thing with Jay-Z, he’s done a good job. I’ve watched them and learned a lot.
When you launched 1OAK in 2007 what were you trying to create?
It was about the party first, the fun, the atmosphere. It was never about bottle service and I didn’t implement a minimum spend. We wanted to show people a good time because when people have a good time, that’s when they spend money. Every club in New York at that time concentrated on bottle service but that’s not how nightlife was born. In the age of Studio 54 bottle service customers followed the trend of cool celebrities, not the other way around.
Was 1OAK New York an immediate hit?
No, no, no. The first two years we weren’t even 60 per cent full. But we weren’t losing money because I didn’t have a big overhead so there was no panic. I was getting the right people in the club, every celebrity and supermodel was there. I kept it cool and built the buzz. I go by one rule: slow and steady wins the race. I didn’t do a grand opening in New York, just like I didn’t do a grand opening in Dubai. I wanted it to grow organically and peacefully so we could work out the kinks. I didn’t want a headache.
You don’t seem like the stereotypical nightclub owner…
[Laughs] No, I do things differently to everybody else – that’s why I called it 1OAK: one of a kind. I didn’t just build four walls with a DJ booth and speakers. I had art on the walls, I had fireplaces, I had an orchestra playing along with the DJ. Nobody else was doing these things.
What do you think when you see the nightlife scene today?
[Sighs] It’s become too much of a business. Nightlife was born out of people letting their hair down, taking off their necktie, getting loose, escaping the trials and tribulations of work, or fighting with your wife or losing money on the stock market. Once you get through the door of the club it should be the gates of heaven – ta dah! – a world where everything is easy. You shouldn’t have a waitress asking for your credit card – it’s hassle. By the time you get seated you’re stressed out.
How often do you go to your clubs?
I pick my days. I never go out Sunday to Wednesday but I’m out Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
Do you sometimes just want to go home and climb into bed with a cup of chamomile tea?
Yes I do! During the day I work in my office, building projects, so to also be out at night is burning the candle at both ends. I have to balance that.
You said opening 1OAK in Dubai was “monumental” – why?
Dubai is so important because right now it’s one of the epicentres of nightlife. People are bringing restaurants and bars from New York, LA and London to Dubai. Dubai is n the top three nightlife cities right now, along with Vegas and New York obviously.
What do you think about the clubbing landscape in Dubai?
It’s oversaturated at the moment; there are way too many nightlife brands here. When I started the process of 1OAK in Dubai seven years ago there weren’t that many brands here.
What was key to launching in Dubai?
Finding the right local partner and the right location. Everyone wanted 1OAK, you have no idea how many groups I met with – they all wanted it because of the name. I'm very protective of the brand. The 1OAKs I’ve opened have taken time. I don’t open them like chop shops. Nightlife comes naturally to me, I guess, nobody’s been able to compete with me. I don’t want to say I’m an artist, but I do consider myself a conductor of the nightlife world. I want everything to be perfect.
END OF INTERVIEW