Can Le Baron & André Saraiva Save New York Nightlife?

Even with a two-person crew working to tidy nightlife impresario André Saraiva’s new Chinatown apartment for the busy weekend ahead, it’s impossible to ignore the high-pitched shrieks coming from the shower in the back room. Saraiva is “having breakfast,” I’m vaguely assured, with his girlfriend, socialite Annabelle Dexter-Jones. It’s Friday, a quarter past noon.

Construction wrapped only a few days ago on 39-year-old Saraiva’s gallery-white space, just in time for New York Fashion Week. What few objects there are—a copy of Where the Wild Things Are, an unhung coat rack fitted with colorful balls—feel carefully curated. Someone has taken a black Sharpie and scrawled “Annabelle + André = Amour” on a long wooden table; a cluster of black hearts floating below punctuates the sentiment. “Either André and Annabelle were having sex in the shower,” a partygoer will say to me later that weekend, “or someone was strangling a crocodile.”

Born in Sweden to Portuguese parents who moved to Paris, Saraiva has arranged things so that the apartment can double as the semi-official headquarters of Le Baron, the long-awaited stateside outpost of the exclusive, artsy-cool Parisian nightclub of the same name, which he opened in 2004. (Another opened in Tokyo two years later.) Saraiva also runs club Paris Paris and restaurant La Fidélité in the French capital, and Hotel Ermitage in Saint Tropez, but to New Yorkers, he’s best known for his involvement with the Standard Hotel’s Le Bain and the now-shuttered, much-bereaved Beatrice Inn. Now, after months of delay and pending final permits from Bloomberg’s offices, Le Baron, édition Amérique, will open sometime this spring.

Among the handful of people trying very hard to ignore what’s happening in the bathroom—a delighted scream tears down the hallway—are Gildas Loaëc, co-founder of music and Gallic-prep fashion label Kitsuné, and Vincent Darré, the faultlessly dressed interior decorator, designer, and Parisian nightlife veteran. (Last year, he released a collection of crustacean-shaped furniture.) Darré, who arrived only moments before—the day starts late for Saraiva’s tight-knit clan—is sketching designs on a large pad of paper for the interior of the new Le Baron. What look like faux-bois bamboo poles crisscross to form a fence.

Darré collaborated on several upholstery patterns with artist Pierre Le-Tan, the father of Olympia Le-Tan, an artist and former girlfriend of Saraiva’s. On Sunday night, Saraiva will throw Le-Tan and filmmaker Spike Jonze a champagne-soaked, friends-only party at his apartment to celebrate their collaboration on the short animated film Mourir Auprès de Toi [To Die By Your Side], for which Olympia handcrafted winsome characters out of felt. (Olympia is perhaps best known for her literature-inspired accessories, which emblazon made-up covers of masterworks on book-shaped purses.) A little after 7pm, an intercontinental confederation of vaguely bohemian fixtures—some of whom accompany Saraiva on his global party circuit—will arrive: designers Charlotte Ronson (Annabelle’s half-sister), Waris Ahluwalia, and Johan Lindeberg; Oscar-nominated actor Rinko Kikuchi; Opening Ceremony co-founder Humberto Leon; and actor Clémence Poésy. Before the party is over, Saraiva will slip away to attend an event at Milk Studios called Annabelle + Andre = Love Collaboration Release. image

“Andre’s got way more friends than I have,” says Loaëc, a slight man with large ears and crisply scissored dark hair. “You’ll see, you’re going to be his friend in two minutes.” Loaëc and Saraiva recently released a compilation CD called Kitsuné Parisien featuring a line-up of mostly unknown acts based in the City of Light. Saraiva did the artwork for the album cover, and Loaëc, who releases Kitsuné compilations a couple times a year—he worked closely with Daft Punk for 15 years—took care of the tunes. “I was thinking we should do a French compilation, and then something Parisian to make it even more interesting,” he says of the dancey-druggy mix. “We get along well. I’m really a fan of his sense of style. I was never into graffiti whatsoever, but I thought his Mr. A character was fantastic.”

Loaëc is referring to Saraiva’s penchant for tagging walls, bar mirrors, and garage doors with his trademark figure, Mr. A, which looks like a cross between Jack Skellington and Rich Uncle Pennybags. Saraiva claims to have been beaten by four gendarmes for spray-painting a train as a teenager. His notoriety in his hometown, however, has made this particular type of nocturnal maneuvering a challenge. “Mr. A, he’s really chic and elegant for graffiti,” says Loaëc.

Just then, Saraiva and Dexter-Jones appear. “It’s a miracle!” says Darré. “It’s the nouvelle vague!”

Saraiva is petite and handsome. He’s wearing artfully tattered jeans, a thickly-braided silver bracelet, and a chunky sweater over a well-muscled torso that once appeared on the cover of his good friend Olivier Zahm’s Purple magazine. Before he sits down, he amiably rubs my shoulders, points at Darré, and says, “Did you know he’s my favorite? He’s a genius. I always liked him and one day I became friends with him.” Coffee is requested. (Darré asks for green tea. Does he have a second choice? “Dirt-tea.”) Dexter-Jones, a blonde sylph in a schoolboy blazer and a bow in her hair, sits on the floor across the room near a socket into which she plugs her phone. “I had to find a reason to be in New York,” Saraiva says, peering at her with an unblinking gaze. Later, he’ll kiss the tip of his finger and wiggle it in her direction.

Darré, Loaëc, and Saraiva, in roughly descending order, speak English with the kind of French accents that linger on parts of the vocal chords most Americans are incapable of stimulating. When they use the words “nostalgia” and “naive,” which they do often, I come to realize they mean the more Latinate definitions of the words—essentially, guileless. “André is very naive,” says Darré. “He likes to go out every night, to present, ‘Oh, this is a friend of mine—he is American.’”

“Nightlife is the soul of the city,” says Saraiva. “It’s true. I think nightclubs are sometimes the most interesting way for culture and people to spread through the city.” He has a soft, lean-in-closely voice, the kind of pipes you can’t imagine barking across a dance floor. “If there wasn’t nightlife, there wouldn’t be freedom, ideas, creation, poetry. D’accord, Vincent?”

Loaëc answers first. “It’s very political.” He appears half serious, half ribbing—an orientation he often has toward Saraiva. “They close the clubs because you don’t have the right to dance.” He’s referring to New York’s superannuated cabaret laws.

“When I go to cities and there’s no graffiti and no nightlife, they’re dead cities,” says Saraiva. “There’s no creation.”

“Like which ones?” asks Loaëc.

“Every place I go.”

“Yeah, but give me a name.”

“Like, cities in Eastern Europe.”

“They have nightlife in Eastern Europe.”

“Yeah, but when do they have nightlife and a big graffiti scene? Those two go together. When they don’t have those two things, most of the time, it’s kind of a fascist country.”

Graffiti is how Saraiva first became involved in club entrepreneurship. “Graffiti takes place at the same time as nightlife. That’s the relation,” he says. Does Saraiva dare to leave his calling card on New York’s streets?

“I don’t even care about going to jail. I’ve been. The thing is, they would never allow me to come back here. Never come back? That’s tough… ” He looks at Dexter-Jones.

“You’re getting wise,” says Loaëc.

“I’m getting… mature.” Everyone laughs.

“Mature!” says Darré. “So mature.” image

Much later that night, at Le Bain, the summery half of the top floor of the Standard Hotel famous for its Jacuzzi-fueled bacchanals—the Top of the Standard (ubiquitously referred to as the Boom Boom Room) occupies the other half—Le Baron hosts its contribution to New York Fashion Week by officially taking over the space. Saraiva and hotelier André Balazs opened Le Bain together—“I really like people who have the same name as me,” jokes Saraiva. There’s a line at the door downstairs; upstairs, it’s surprisingly tame. People are having fun, but not indulging in the frenzied, flesh-baring, hedonistic behavior that made Beatrice Inn a legend. Absent, too, are the bold-faced names that the crowd, dressed in the leathery plumage of Fashion Week, most likely came here to see. That’s because Saraiva is nowhere to be found.

Around 2:30am, I venture next door to a relatively empty Boom Boom Room, where I find Loaëc and Lionel Bensemoun, one of Saraiva’s original partners in Paris’ Le Baron. Bensemoun is wearing a ’70s-era psychedelic button-up and dark glasses. He’s friendly and ready to laugh, and instructs me on which arrondissements to visit when I’m next in Paris (the 8th and 10th). Loaëc explains that Saraiva has thrown out his back. “Annabelle, she… ” For lack of the word “piggyback,” he makes a motion like he’s slinging on a large backpack and winces.

The next night, Saturday, Saraiva’s back is healed—but that doesn’t make him easier to find. The Boom Boom Room is packed to the gills for a Purple and Zac Posen party. The coat room is too full to accept any more winter parkas, and there’s more pushing, squeezing, spilling, and groping than usual. Sharply-dressed men slip the bathroom attendants money, then vanish together into one of the ladies’ rooms. “The music sucks,” says one jostled invitee.

But here, at last, are the celebrities. Jared Leto is wrapped in what looks like a patterned Slanket, wandering blankly with a coterie of model-types in tow. There are many actual models. Actor Chloë Sevigny and the Misshape’s Leigh Lezark pose for photos and then check the results. Artist Francesco Clemente and actor Paz de la Huerta, in a silvery liquid-tight dress, rush by conspiratorially. Designer Alexander Wang dances with characteristic abandon. Despite Purple’s reputation for well-oiled loucheness, there’s nothing particularly sexy about this party. There are too many cameras for that; everyone is too self-conscious. A little after midnight, Tolga Al, one of several Le Baron employees managing the event, shuts off entry to the Boom Boom Room, hoping the crowd will thin out. image

According to Saraiva, Le Baron will be different. “It’s going to be even more tough,” he says of continuing his clubs’ notoriously discerning door policies. “The club is going to be empty. Everyone’s going to be waiting outside.” While he’s half kidding, Saraiva does admit to a lifelong obsession with legendary nightclubs like New York’s Studio 54 and Paris’ Le Palace, institutions that for a generation not only reflected but defined those cities’ subcultures. Studio 54’s owner, Steve Rubell, was known to leave his dance floor desolate as flocks outside crowed for entry.

For many young New Yorkers, Beatrice Inn was a similarly elusive and directional club. “I don’t know the people I want,” says Saraiva of the new Le Baron. “I know the people I don’t want. I don’t want any people who do TV. I don’t want any people who have cars. I don’t want any people who go to Marquee or 1Oak. If you go to 1Oak, never come to Le Baron.” Consider yourself warned.

A close friend of Saraiva’s, DJ Rachel Chandler, helped start a weekly party through Paul Sevigny (another close friend) at the Beatrice, as it was called, possessively, in 2007. “Hopefully it will give back some of what was lost when Beatrice was shut down,” Chandler wrote of Le Baron in an email. “It won’t ever be the same, nor should it, because Beatrice happened at a specific time in a specific place.” Says Saraiva, “I miss Beatrice. When people used to say, ‘Let’s go to Beatrice,’ it was sincere, like, ‘Let’s go to a place we like.’ And New York is missing that. We go to places where it’s okay to go, but there’s nowhere we feel is ours.”

Saraiva explains that his idols past and present—“Most of the artists I like are dead”—are nightlife people. Experience, however, has taught him that sometimes it’s better not to meet the people you most admire. Darré agrees. “You know the stories of Proust?” he asks. “It is this: You dream about something and you think it’s the best in the world, but after you meet it, you’re very disappointed.”

I haven’t seen the real Mr. A all night. “He’s here,” a publicist insists. But I’m reminded of something Saraiva said to me earlier: “I always tell the people who work with me to never say that I’m away, to always say, ‘I just saw him, he’s somewhere.’ It works.” I toggle over to Le Bain, where Olivier Zahm is performing a mashed potato-like twist with a young woman. Paul Sevigny occupies the DJ booth, where Tolga Al later tells me he will stay for nearly four hours spinning “New York music.” As I’m getting ready to leave, I spot Saraiva in the liminal zone between the two clubs. He kisses both my cheeks and disappears into a sea of revelers.

Back at Saraiva’s apartment, coffee has finally arrived. Dexter-Jones has removed her blazer to reveal a navy shirt striped with red, which perfectly matches Saraiva’s own navy sweater with red stripes. She buries her face into his neck, the two murmuring to each other. “I think André is a brand also,” Loaëc says. “When you go to Le Baron, you actually know you’re going to see André there, living in the place.”

“He’s in New York, he’s in Paris,” says Darré. “I don’t know how he has time to do it. Maybe there are many little Andrés. A clone.”

Photography by Ruvan Wijesooriya.

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