Les Bains Fait Main
Illustrations by CHRIS SHARP
The first time Jean-Pierre Marois went to Les Bains in 1978, he was an impressionable 15 year old suddenly exposed to a place unlike anything he, and most Parisians, had encountered before. Now, as he finds himself the proprietor, he is tasked with continuing its role as a provocative, decadent and glamorous oasis in the heart of the Marais. But it does seem like Les Bains always has a way of keeping up with the times.
Throughout the centuries it has attracted the Parisian avant-garde; the Impressionists took baths there, Joy Division recorded an album there and now 128 years later, the creative cognoscenti gather there once again. And according to Jean-Pierre, it may be the buildings themselves that keep insisting on their place in sun.
“My father, who was a professor of medicine, bought this building as an investment in the early ‘70’s. Initially the ground floor, the basement, and the first floor was a former bathhouse and the upper floors were apartments and office spaces.
He didn’t know what to do with that space on the ground floor and it stayed unoccupied for quite a while and then two guys in their mid-20’s walked by and saw the sculptures that are on both sides of the stoop – sculptures of women holding lamps – and it’s typical Second Empire style, so they thought, “Maybe we can buy those.”
So they went into the building and went to the superintendent and managed to get a look inside. When they saw the inside they said, “Wow, we should rather open a restaurant and nightclub in this place rather than to just buy those statues.”
In 1977, they won over my father and he leased them the space. A young guy their age who was a “self-professed interior designer,” with almost no experience, designed the place to become the new restaurant and nightclub. His name was Philippe Starck. It’s pretty unbelievable! So they opened in ‘78 which was the height of the disco era.
The popular nightclubs here were Régine’s, which was very glitter and bling bling, and then there was Chez Castel, which was more like old money but still very very flashy in terms of design. And Starck took the space completely the other way and did a black and white checkered dance floor, and he kept all the white tile everywhere. He was very post punk cold wave, and stylistically it was a shock. When it opened I was 15.
I am from a very conservative family – my parents were very smart, and very well read, and very open to the world – but still old-fashioned bourgeoisie. My father always had stacks of invites on his fireplace in his bedroom. I would always go and peruse through them because it was quite exciting to see that he was invited to all of these incredible places, and ceremonies, and parties. But usually it was an invite to the Élysée Palace, or the Louvre, or the Académie des sciences, or whatever.
Suddenly, I saw this very funky invite that was designed by Pierre et Gilles that said, ‘come to the opening of the nightclub/concert hall/bar and restaurant.’ And the address was familiar to me because I knew the building belonged to my parents.
When I saw the address I aked my dad, “What is the story? Isn’t this building yours?” And he was like, “Yeah.” And I was like, “Are you opening a nightclub there?” I couldn’t believe my eyes. And he was like, “Yeah, yeah. It’s a long story. I gave it to those kids.”
And I said, “Can I go?” And that shows you how my father was kind of a liberal in many ways. And he said, “Really? You want to go to the opening of a nightclub? You’re 15.” And I said, “Please!” And he said, “Okay.” So he gave me the invite and I went with a friend of mine.
It was a shock to me because I loved rock ‘n’ roll and I was very much following the punk rock movement that started only the year before. I went to a few concerts and everything. But still, you know, it was a cultural shock for me to see the club. It was an incredible mix. It was like what everyone would tell you about Les Bains at that time. An incredible social mix that was unprecedented.
The equivalent of that in New York was Studio 54. Really, it was a combination of Princess Caroline of Monaco, drag queens, and some black kids from the projects who got in just because they dressed really cool and danced really great. At that time, especially in Paris, everybody stayed in their own space, hanging out with people who look alike and are from the same social background.
Suddenly you saw a princess partying with a guy from the projects, or someone from the suburbs taking the train to come and dance until dawn and then catch the first a.m. train back home.
The social mix was unbelievable. People from the fashion world, from the art world, from the music world, from every walk of life, and a big mix also in generations, which for me was a shock.
At Regine’s and Castel’s, people were in their 40’s and 50’s and a few people in their 30’s. The thing about Les Bains is that you would have people in their 70’s, and some 18-year-old kids, and everybody would chat and it was incredibly refreshing.
People always say, “If you remember the ‘80’s that means you didn’t really experience the ‘80’s,” but I do remember a lot of incredible parties. You would see Yves Saint Laurent, and Jean Paul Gaultier, Thierry Mugler, and drag queens, and cross dressers, and intellectuals, and writers, and Roman Polanski, who would have dinner there five to six times a week. And, of course, the Rolling Stones and whoever else was in town.
Paris was much more a center than it is right now. And what I like to remind people of is Les Bains opened right before Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in England. The economy in England was a disaster, people had no money, and London was really dark, sad, and boring. It’s what the punk movement came out of. Nothing like the way London is right now. The food was still disgusting. It was really a sad place to hang out.
Rome was provincial and then Berlin was cut into two and nobody would go there. There was East Berlin and West Berlin. Barcelona was still under Franco and was no longer a democracy and was a heavy dictatorship. And so, you know, there was no nightlife whatsoever in Barcelona.
People were eating late, of course, and having drinks, but it was really, really under the scrutiny of the Guardia Civil and so on, so forth. So no Berlin, no London, no Barcelona. The only place to hang out was Paris and there was the very convenient super-sonic Concorde that flew everyday from Paris to New York in three hours.
I was talking to Jacques Grange, the famous interior designer, and he was telling me how Andy Warhol would take the Concorde from New York and Jacques would meet him at Charles de Gaulle Airport. They would head directly to the flea market in Saint-Ouen and he would help him pick some articles because he was collecting furniture and objects for a while.
Then he would head to the Ritz to take a shower, and then he would head straight to Les Bains for dinner and dancing all night. And then he would take the Concorde the next day and come back to New York without having any really kind of jet lag or anything. You could go for 24 hours because it was only a three-hour flight. It’s like now going to London on the Eurostar. We have a tendency to forget about that. It was a very different time.
There is something about Paris that is definitely unique. I would say that the Paris of the 21st Century, you need to get out of it more often and get the vibe elsewhere and come back. Where as in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s, especially in fashion, Paris was much more the center of the universe than it is now. But it is still holding on pretty well.
So as the years went by, I went to work in film, as a producer and director, but the building still remained in my family. And then in 2010, there was a problem with one of the tenants who physically knocked a wall down without authorization, without engineers or architects, and the building almost collapsed after 128 years.
By that time, the club had been below the radar for a good ten years. The height of Les Bains was from ‘78 to 2000, I’d say, which is almost a quarter of a century. It had many different eras. We at one point had a music venue with legendary bands like Simple Minds, Depeche Mode, Joy Division, and all of those incredible bands that would play in front of a hundred people before playing in front of a full stadium a couple of years later.
There were different phases, including David Guetta as the resident DJ. In the beginning he was unknown and now he is one of the most famous artists and DJs in the world, if not the most famous DJ in the world. But it was like the Philippe Starck syndrome with Les Bains, you know, the guy was completely unknown and now he is a huge star. So it is interesting.
Soon I found out that saving those two floors would come at a very prohibitive price. Slowly but surely I came to the decision that if I wanted to save this icon of Parisian nightlife, I had to change everything.
Turning the building into a new place, rather than just restoring the club, was the way to make it possible financially, and that is how the idea came to me to turn it into a hotel and give the property a future; turn it into something unique.That is how the idea came to me to reopen the club and the restaurant but also turn it into one big place that would be a hotel, bar, club, and restaurant.
First, I emptied the building and then I came up with the idea, which was a very important page in Les Bains’ history. While I was waiting for the building permits – we needed to get the authorization from the City of Paris and it takes quite a while – I decided while I was sitting in an empty building to give it to street artists. I was at a crossroads.
We emptied the building after negotiating with every tenant and giving them a check for them to go. You don’t do that overnight. That took almost a year. And at the same time we started to do an important remodel to save the building so the building wouldn’t collapse.
We fixed a lot of the structural problems of the building. We started cleaning it up, emptying it out, and knocking down the walls that were not structural walls. At some point, standing in this building that was empty for the first time in 128 years, I walked around up and down the seven levels, and it is a very impressive building.
It was very powerful and it really struck me that for the first time in 128 years the building was empty. It has such a strong history. Over three centuries. And it sat empty for another four months. It looked like a haunted house. Suddenly, I put two and two together, and I said, “My God! This place has such a strong history. An artistic history.”
The Guerbois family put in the spa and owned the Café Guerbois, which was the hangout for all of the Impressionists. There is a painting of the Café Guerbois at the National Gallery in Washington D.C. There is a portrait of Mr. Guerbois at the Musée d’Orsay. Zola wrote about it, everybody wrote about it: Sisley, Monet, Renoir, Manet. They were all hanging out there. So that’s when they built the spa and this artistic crowd came, including Marcel Proust.
But when you are walking around this empty building and thinking about its incredible past, this icon of artistic life, and it is sitting empty. I thought about street artists because I thought about artists who could create directly on the façade of the building, on the walls, on the ceiling, on the floor, as if it was a giant canvas. I had this epiphany alone that afternoon in that building.
I decided to contact the gallerist best known for street art in Paris, Magda Danysz. She said, “Yeah, it’s a good idea. I can see a Space Invader here, and over there could be a Futura from 1983, so it would be very inspiring for street artists. Let me give it some thought and maybe I can draft ten names of a wish list and maybe we can get half a dozen of them. Let’s see.”
Next thing we knew it became a huge phenomenon. She selected major artists from all over the world. They came from everywhere. They came from Los Angeles, they came from Rome, Sao Paulo, it was unbelievable. They came from London. It was a huge list. That was amazing. That was an incredible experience.
In 2010 Les Bains was in the newspaper with an article stating it was closed down, and was messy, and was going to collapse. It was really a sad moment, but two and a half years later we were getting a double page spread in the cultural section of Le Monde, full page spread in Le Figaro, prime time TV news. It was ridiculous, every newspaper, TV, and magazine talked about it. It was huge and it was really exciting.
That is really when I grasped that I was going to turn it into a hotel. It was a legendary club and restaurant and I realized that what I had to do with it was turn it into both a cultural label and lifestyle brand. I’d say we pretty much succeeded in doing that.
I had a competition to find the best architect and the one who won was the one who was the most “disrespectful” with the place because he completely changed the layout of the club. So now you have the restaurant which was done by Denis Montel who was famous for a lot of incredible places, like the new flagship store of Hermes on the left bank in this Art Deco classified swimming pool, which is why I thought of Tristan Auer who was working on the The Crillon.
I did the whole project just like I would do a movie. I became an independent hotelier the same way I was an independent producer. Suddenly, instead of producing Abel Ferrara, I was producing Les Bains.
When I opened the hotel and people googled me, they would find my film credits. And suddenly people were like, “That’s a major stretch.” Especially the journalists, they were really curious about a film producer turned hotelier. I always said that it wasn’t that difficult.
First of all, I never really made commercial films so every project for me was a labor of love. Les Bains for me was a labor of love, for many reasons. First because it was a family asset. It was a building that my father bought when I was a kid, and my father passed away in 2004, so I was to be the only one responsible for the future of the building when all those problems appeared in 2010. Also it’s a club in which I partied so hard. Although I spent a lot of my adulthood in America, in between New York and Los Angeles, I always had an apartment in Paris.
Each time I came to Paris I would go to Les Bains every night. It was such a strong part of my life. Imagine, me, as a big devotee of Les Bains, who spent hundreds of nights there, and having to be the one responsible for saving it or closing it down forever.
Les Bains has an incredible story and we need to adapt it to the 21st Century. So it is almost like a new medium for me. It is like taking a novel and turning it into a screenplay. So it was really that.
Next step was to hire the appropriate talent to tell that story. That is why I went to Tristan Auer, because I knew he understood what it was to be both chic and rock ‘n’ roll. Also somebody like Denis Montel had a complete understanding of what is French artisanship. I only invited talent that I knew from their body of work could have the answer.
How do you make Les Bains in the 21st Century? By ignoring the past. Sure enough, he did something unbelievable. There are incredible floors with 1.8 million tiles in total. They did this incredible Japanese lacquer on the walls – it is insane. Only guys like that who dedicated a lot of energy, thought, and knew how to bring the French chic, with a twist, to our contemporary world could do it.
When I did the competition I pitched the architects and I pitched the interior designer. Then I pitched the nose to make the fragrance that you can smell in the corridors and everywhere. Then I pitched the chef. It was really like being a filmmaker because whether you are the director, or assistant director, or producer, it is basically that you sit down with a writer and you say, “Read this book. How do you see the screenplay?” And you go through the different drafts until you think it is right.
It is really the same thing. “How do you see the light?” You sit with the director of photography and you say, “How do you choreograph the scene with the camera and the actors and everything?”
That is really what we did, except that you sit with a three star Michelin chef. It was very intimidating but very exhilarating. You sit down with one of the best chefs alive, who really is considered a genius, and the guy sits down with you and he says, “What do you see with your place at Les Bains?” And I was like, “You tell me!” And he was like, “No, no. This is your vision.” So it is really like being a filmmaker.
When you sit with a director of photography, he is like a million times more talented when it comes to life with camera movement than you, but it needs to be your vision. It is very similar. When you sit with a decorator for a movie set it is the same. For me it was kind of like business as usual, except that it was refreshing to work with a nose, or a chef, because that is not part of filmmaking, but the rest was very similar.
I am sitting here in my office and I have a picture of Basquiat in Les Bains and I have another one of Keith Haring standing in a corner of Les Bains. Andy Warhol launched Interview magazine at Les Bains for Europe. The heritage is all of these artists from Futura, to Space Invader, to Basquiat, to Keith Haring, to Warhol, to Monet and Manet, you know, so part of the heritage is the arts.
Then the music is a huge heritage, needless to say, with all of those concerts that took place and all of those rock stars that hung out forever. So I wanted to make sure that I would revisit those very important elements of the heritage.
I was really empowered by the artist residency of 2013 so I said, “We have to keep the torch burning.” I commissioned a new curator, Jérôme Foucaud, to invite young artists and commission art pieces that are all over the place, in the corridors, in the bedrooms, there is this giant exploded disco ball that is insane by Joachim Sauter. There are huge pieces in the patios.
Working with Lars Krueger, the music director for the club, he is also like working with a music composer to score a film. So that is why, again, I was feeling very comfortable.
The most important thing I need to mention is that when you get all of these incredible talents, whether they are the curator, they are the architect, they are the chef, they are the musician, they are the nose, whatever, they need to be the right person to contribute to the story.
It was also part of honoring the parts and the heritage. Which is also why we revamped Les Bains Guerbois, the old brand from 1885, and now we launched the fragrance and the candle.
We are going to launch another four beauty products and three perfumes, probably for next fall. It is very important to us that we are reinventing Les Bains Guerbois.
And also we looked at contemporary art, hospitality, food and beverage, we are the most acclaimed cocktail bar in Paris, winning an award and everything. Incredible food, incredible music, and then before we opened, all the big fashion houses and small, independent houses, came back.
So we had huge parties for Raf Simons, we had huge parties for Dior perfume, we had huge parties for Louis Vuitton, for Vivienne Westwood, Courreges, Givenchy, and we had Balmain twice. Olivier Rousteing, he loves it here, and Nicolas Ghesquiere from Vuitton, he spent nine months with us.
So the same way when I was a teenager or in my 20’s, I would go to Les Bains and see Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld. It is happening again here so it is amazing. And that is our next step with our own shop in order to experiment and do a collaboration with Pierre Hardy and Thierry Lasry for the sunglasses.
It is very exciting. It is a mini Colette, you know, like with the coffee shop and the concept store all in one, you can sit with your cappuccino and read the latest issue of the Culture Crush. That is the full experience. We put thought into everything.”