Meet the Duo Behind the Best Parties at Art Basel

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Every era in Manhattan’s Clubland has its indelible strongholds that define the social-coaster moment. There was the heyday of the Jazz Age and Harlem Renaissance (The Stork Club and The Cotton Club, respectively). And the snowballing ‘70s disco era of Studio 54 and Maxwell’s Kansas City. The ‘80s had its mega-clubs (Limelight, Palladium, Tunnel, all helmed by the eye-patched raconteur Peter Gatien), as well as its performance-artistic innovative “theme” and circus clubs (AREA, Club USA). The ‘90s had Nell’s, Bowery Bar, and a lively–imagine!–SoHo scene (such as WAX and Spy). Not to mention, the celeb-and-modelizing third floor of the West Village’s uber-exclusive Moomba–the subject of Page Six items daily. In the 2000s, night crawlers moved away from the thundering “super” clubs, and went more intimate, artsy, selective. There was the art-rock star hangout Passerby, the gallery-cum-social club Lot 61, the Old Hollywood posh inner circle of Bungalow 8, and, later, gritty speakeasy-style spots, all about civilized debauchery. The Beatrice Inn defined it like no other. Not a bad time.

Now things are… different.

We won’t say directionless. Contrarily, more in flux, changing as fast as the next Apple iPhone. Somehow, the understated duo behind the 2002-opened Butter, the 1 OAK franchise (founded in 2006), and Chelsea’s three-year-old lounge-meets-blastoff spot Up&Down have managed to keep their nightclub anchors secured by adapting to the social climate like chameleons–yet somehow not overtly beholden it. That would be nightlife icon Richie Akiva and Ronnie Madra, this December 5 through 9, taking over SIXTY HotelsNautilus in Miami for Art Basel, as they have done for the past two years.

 Richie Akiva

Richie Akiva at Up&Down. Photo by Atisha Paulson.

The two understated-but-worldly guys met in the early 2000s at the Bleecker Street club LIFE, and a partnership was born. With Akiva jetting from the Butter Group’s 1 OAK outposts in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, with special event pop-ups in-between, Madra–a former DJ, set designer, and protégée of club icon Eric Goode–took the mic for them and spoke to us recently about their secrets to endurance, as well as the new rules engaging club-goers, and keeping it real but loads of fun.

“What sets Up&Down apart, as well as 1 OAK, is that we always reinvent our approach and keep it fresh on people’s minds­,” says Madra. “That includes us doing relating pop-up and off-site events, locally and globally, which is what we’re doing with Nautilus.”

As for the crowd, Akiva says it’s about bringing together “a melting pot of all types of people, from all walks of life. Up&Down attracts seasoned celebs, young Hollywood, musicians, models, artists, and more.” Madra continues, “We pride ourselves on keeping the equilibrium of the culture in nightlife. Variety is what creates the vibe, and I personally believe that term ‘B&T’ [Bridge and Tunnel] is outdated. We embrace challenges and that’s how we are always on the forefront of the industry. ”

“Nightlife has changed a lot in many ways, but essentially people still just want to congregate and mingle. Social media played a big role in the transient nature of the nightlife business as people are never at one spot for too long. We all take inspiration from the past, of course, and redo it in our own style,” says Madra, nodding to the iconic “super” clubs of the past. “But in today’s nightclub scene, we just like to keep layering on the fun and curate the experience for today’s Generation Z.”

Ronnie Madra

Ronnie Madra at Up&Down. Photo by Atisha Paulson.

That said, Madra’s and Akiva’s outlook is ingeniously simple. “I don’t think we are trying to reinvent the wheel so much as make sure the road is smooth and the drive is fun for the journey,” Madra says. For instance, at Up&Down, the approach is duplicitous. “The reasoning behind the two floors is to have a less clubby vibe below and at times keep it underground for those not into bottle service and such” he says. For activities above ground, Akiva notes, “The upstairs is more of an Uptown vibe with bottle service, drawing more models, socialites, etc.”

Asked what was their mission was bringing Up&Down to Nautilus, Madra said it would be organic and come instinctively. “Just set the stage and design mood, and the rest will follow. It’s second nature to us. We’ve done two years back-to-back at Nautilus. It truly brings out the right art and media crowd. It’s extremely fun and successful, as the A-list feel more at ease under a tent with access a few feet from the ocean. The lobby and the entrance is curated by [SIXTY Hotels founder and Nautilus principal] Jason Pomeranc, and he brings in a different artist and sprinkles some events around it to give some sex appeal. Richie, myself, and our respective team know how to activate on a drop of a dime.”

Both are excited to spend some time at Nautilus. “It’s a great place to stay and would recommend it to any of my close friends and family,” says Akiva. “I’ve stayed many times at the Nautilus since it opened, and I’m a firm believer in keeping it in the family,” Madra adds. “The Nautilus is well-located, simple, cool, and functional. Less is always more. I respect and love Jason like a brother. He truly is immersed in his work and his love of art, food, and wine. To say I can relate is an understatement.”

the butter group

Richie Akiva and Ronnie Madra at Up&Down. Photo by Atisha Paulson.

“Art Basel has become more than an art fair. It’s an intersection of art, culture, music, and, yes, celebrity. And Butter Group is at the forefront of this movement in the nightlife world,” says SIXTY’s Jason Pomeranc. “For the past two years, it’s been a great partner in bringing this narrative to life, with a highly curated, almost ‘electric,’ social experience.”

Calling the city his “backyard for fun,” Madra, who lived in Miami in the early ‘90s, says it has only gotten more-so, with the broadening of the nightlife scene into new corridors, such as the white-hot Wynwood District, which the Nautilus buffers. “Miami has definitely gotten much bigger than South Beach,” he say, “so there’s a lot more culture in and out of a nightlife setting. It’s being developed at a rapid rate, which history has shown, could be a bad thing too, if not executed right.”

While he favors Miami in the winter, New York is his home. His favorite restaurants there include Blue Ribbon Brasserie, Sessanta, Lure Fishbar, Mercer Kitchen & Hotel Lobby, The Waverly Inn, Carbone, and Salinas.

Of the cities he and Akiva have clubs in, he says that Las Vegas is the toughest nut to crack, as he can’t stay long enough. “In Vegas, I’m susceptible to bad behavior, and after three days I’m dying to leave. One needs a certain mentality and control there.” And although Manhattan he now owns, he says, “it’s very hard to make it there. Yet if you’re surrounded by good and smart people, then inspiration will flow, and success will follow.” As for how Akiva and Madras take on Miami–you’ll just have to head down to Art Basel this year and find out.

Photos by Atisha Paulson for SIXTY Hotels

Steve Garbarino

Steve Garbarino

Steve Garbarino is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and a culture reporter for The Wall Street Journal. He is also the author of "A Fitzgerald Companion."