Soho House Is Taking the Party Global
via NYTimes Style
Soho House has been successful in Miami and West Hollywood, Calif., but less so in New York. It is opening in Toronto, Chicago, Mumbai, Istanbul and Barcelona.
WHEN the London-based members-only social club Soho House opened a branch in New York’s meatpacking district almost a decade ago, it seemed to confer a sense of exclusivity and festivity to a neighborhood that was radically reinventing itself. Raucous parties were held at the rooftop pool, where an invitation to lunch made one feel puffed out with self-importance; Harvey Weinstein showed films privately in the screening room; attractive women tottered toward the entrance in Jimmy Choo shoes.
Nick Jones, at the Soho House in London, is receiving help in the form of $383 million from the billionaire Ron Burkle.
The billionaire Ron Burkle.
But over the years, the club has struggled to settle into its identity in a night-life scene that has become more laid-back and roughhewn, with entries like the Ace Hotel in Midtown and Roberta’s over the bridge in Bushwick stealing much of the buzz.
When Soho House became inundated with bankers and other social undesirables, a sign was put in the lobby showing a red line through the image of a suit. Some memberships were not renewed in 2010 as management attempted to purge the club’s image as a happy-hour hot spot for hedge-fund managers on their way home to New Jersey. (A visit at 5 p.m. on the Friday of this past Memorial Day weekend found men in sweat pants joking with the lobby staff, and one stocky woman exiting carrying a Lord & Taylor bag.) And the death of the designer Sylvie Cachay there later in 2010 seemed an especially dark coda; it resulted in more news coverage than the club had received in years.
Soho House’s chief executive, Nick Jones, who founded the club in 1995, now oversees 10 Soho Houses (six in Britain, three in the United States and one in Berlin), all of which adhere to a strict, Royal-Geographical-Society-meets-Dwell-Magazine design aesthetic. (One echoed in his finely tailored but untucked shirts and designer jeans.)
He believes the membership overhaul, which has been accompanied by an overall refurbishment of the club, has been effective. “We’ve made great strides in New York,” he said in a recent phone interview. “To me, it’s a much nicer club than it was two years ago, even a year ago.” Still, he called the experience “our biggest mistake” and said, “I’ll never let it happen again.”
His caution is understandable as his company, adding to a portfolio that includes restaurants and more successful clubs in West Hollywood, Calif., and Miami, prepares to introduce five more outposts around the world: in Toronto, Chicago, Mumbai, Istanbul and Barcelona. By 2014, Mr. Jones said, jet-setting members will be able to sip Tanqueray and tonics overlooking the Arabian Sea. The expansion is being bankrolled by Ron Burkle, the supermarket billionaire and former close friend of Bill Clinton, who sank $383 million into the company in January to become a majority stakeholder.
In addition to his $3.2 billion fortune, Mr. Burkle, 59, is known as someone who enjoys a lively scene. The godfather of Sean Combs’s twins, he reportedly once shared a crash pad with Leonardo DiCaprio and last year held an after-party for Kanye West and Jay-Z following their “Watch the Throne” concert in Los Angeles.
But as for his impact on Soho House now that he is an owner, not just a member, Mr. Burkle (who has fallen out with Mr. Clinton over business, he told Bloomberg BusinessWeek) wrote in an e-mail: “I’m not short on opinions, but my style is to back the C.E.O. This is Nick’s vision and his company.”
On the phone, Mr. Jones laid out some of his vision, giving a virtual tour of the Toronto club, which opens in September.
“There’s a club bar and drawing room on the ground floor, and we’re putting reclaimed wood paneling on the walls,” he said. “We have found an old 19th-century bar in Pennsylvania. There’s white and black tile as you walk into the reception area, the ceiling is a painted coving ceiling. We found an old fireplace. …”
The Proustian precision with which Mr. Jones, a boyish 48, described his new showpiece was impressive considering he was speaking over the telephone from Oxford, England, where he has a home (with his wife, the BBC hostess Kirsty Young, and their two children), to a reporter in Los Angeles, about a property in Canada.
But the conversation also suggested a crucial challenge. How will Mr. Jones maintain the social cachet of the original Soho House — a boho-chic enclave that attracted a glamorous cast of film types, literati and rockers (these days, Lady Gaga and Prince William are regulars) — as his clubs become the night-life equivalent of Starbucks?
And might there be some brand dilution, or at least confusion, in the process? Considering Soho House’s prized demographic of people from the “film, media and creative industries,” according to its Web site, and its origins as a younger, hipper alternative to the storied Groucho Club in London, isn’t Soho House Chicago a bit of an oxymoron?
Mr. Weinstein, a longtime member and fresh off another Oscar for “The Artist,” is not worried. “Two guys like this who know how to party and have incredible business savvy are bound to succeed,” he said of Mr. Jones and Mr. Burkle. (He added jokingly that Mr. Jones had the added benefit of having “an English accent, even though we all know he comes from Brooklyn.”)
YET Mr. Jones will need more than a seductive accent to succeed, given the mixed track record of his non-British clubs.
Even in its glory days, the New York house never managed to achieve the cultural currency of its British predecessor, according to Michael Musto, the longtime New York night-life observer.
“If you got invited to the right private party or screening, that was delightful, but it was not a place you would want to belong to on a regular basis,” Mr. Musto said. “As far as the cachet of fabulousness over all, I think it eluded them.”
He continued: “In New York, we don’t tend to like things that announce themselves as elitist. We like to be the ones to find something and stamp it with specialness, as opposed to being told: ‘Get on line. You might qualify for entry.’ ”
In Hollywood, however, where authenticity is perhaps less of an issue, and where velvet ropes and V.I.P. sections are par for the course, Soho House’s unveiled social Darwinism has been a hit. Since opening in 2010, the West Hollywood space, designed by Waldo Fernandez, has gone over surprisingly well, not just with members of the entertainment industry, but with celebrities (and their publicists) who appreciate the club’s no-cellphone or camera rule and its paparazzi-free entrance through an underground garage.
On any given day, Justin Timberlake might be taking a meeting in the lounge with jaw-dropping city views, or Demi Moore might slither into the outdoor restaurant, which, after hours, has the feel of an Ibiza nightclub. Noticeably absent are agents (the equivalent of New York’s bankers), who are rarely admitted.
THE question for Mr. Jones, as he sets out to Soho-ize the globe, is whether he can replicate the success of Los Angeles while avoiding the pitfalls of New York. “We have to do this expansion slowly and carefully,” he said, “but I think every new city we’re announcing is very exciting. I think, and our members think, that every new club we open is better than the last one because we’ve learnt more.”
In preparation, he has spent years reaching out to local tastemakers. In Toronto, there have been Soho House pop-up parties — one took place on a subway platform — during the Toronto International Film Festival.
And in Chicago, where Soho House will open in a former warehouse in the spring of 2014 (including an infinity pool, a 12,000-square-foot gym and a “grooming area and blow-dry bar”), Mr. Jones has been having tête-à-têtes with people like Brendan Sodikoff, 33, the chef of the moment there.
Mr. Jones bristled at the notion that, grass-roots marketing aside, expansion carries the distinct whiff of corporatization. “It’s an easy thing to say, ‘Ooh, we’re getting bigger, Nick, is it gonna lose its whatever?’ But I think the opposite happens. I’ve been faced with that question from the moment I said I’m going to open Babington House,” he said, referring to a club in the English countryside he opened in 1998.
“We’re absolutely not becoming a franchise,” he said, emphasizing that last word with disdain. “Our team does get bigger, but I still wrap my arms around every single bit that goes on in Soho House. I’m just more of an octopus now.”
Indeed, last week, even as he was in the middle of a publicity blitz announcing the new clubs, Mr. Jones was fretting not about corporate strategy, but about barstools. “I’m not happy with the ones we have at the moment,” he said of the stools he’s been looking at for the Toronto club. “The back isn’t quite right. You know, you’ve got to feel comfy in it, it can’t be too upright. Or, I like a swivel in a bar stool. I like my feet to be able to sit on it.”
“I’ve had more barstools arrive at my office. I’m toiling around, and then I mark them up and they go back to my team and they have to change them. It sounds sad, doesn’t it?”
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