Inside the secret world of Clubs and Speakeasies
It was 1999, and I had one of the most massively coveted (and therefore equally massively under paid!) jobs in the world. I was in charge of all the press accreditation for London Fashion Week at one of the world's biggest PR agencies, Ketchum (formerly Lynne Franks of Ab Fab fame). This meant that it was my job to decide who goes to the shows, who interviews who and, perhaps most importantly of all, who gets in to the after-parties. An unfortunate by-product of this role was that I frequently had to attend said parties and 'look after' hoards of fashion models. "Hello Met Bar, it's Will. I know you've got Liam Gallagher's party in tonight but I have seven models from the Julien MacDonald show who want to come, please can you make sure we're on the list? With a couple of bottles of Moët?" I never had a problem but I suppose it was technically cheating!
The Met Bar in it's heyday
I also presume I have the dubious honour of having the biggest expense account in Ketchum's long and illustrious history. Not because I was constantly out entertaining pretty girls but because at one such official party, for the British Fashion Council in Soho, I got more carried away than normal and forgot to retrieve the company credit card from behind the bar. Until I realised, half way through the following day. Whoops!
I blame this on Sophie Anderton who was one of the world's top models at the time. Until that night, my favourite models (well, the ones that were on my school study wall) were Nikki Taylor and Laura Bailey, both blonde and both in another league from the Rugby School sixth form girls I so enthusiastically pursued! But tonight I was breaking with tradition and going brunette.
On this (very typical) Fashion Week evening, I was responsible for the enjoyment of the guests (hence my company card being behind the bar - route one!) as well as the guest list (as nothing kills a party like the wrong people). In those days, if you weren't on the list, you really weren't coming in, which doesn't seem to be the case any more, does it? (Maybe I'm just too important to notice? ;-)
Anyway, I was on the door that night as party host and guest-list guy, a potent mix (or so I thought). We were at Soho's K-Bar, which was one of the cool clubs at the time along with China White (still around), Tokyo Joe's (became Pangea and now gone), Rock (did a Robbie Williams party there but it was still gone a year later), The 10 Room (now gone) and The Met Bar (then the undisputed leader in the cool clubs stakes but now just an expensive, deserted hotel bar - which is all it would have been had the ‘slebs’ not chosen to frequent it due to its door policy and location on Park Lane for Paparazzi purposes - technically, gone). So I was manning the door when I sensed a vision of loveliness cat-walking (prowling sounds better) up the long entrance tunnel to take her position next to me on the door, arm extended seductively against the wall. For no apparent reason. Not believing my luck, I began to chat to her whilst my mind raced ahead to what I was going to say to everyone once I'd kissed her. The conversation ensued for several minutes as most of the guests had arrived and we were largely left to ourselves. It hadn't crossed my mind that she was waiting for a friend. I genuinely convinced myself that she had chosen to come and stand at the entrance with me rather than enjoy the cool party, the male models and the free Champagne (courtesy of my company credit card). I was 24. Anyway, I digress. I was nearing making my move (having been satisfied I'd done a reasonable amount of ground-work) when someone appeared at the door. Looking first at me and then at Sophie, he decided she was the door lady and asked her if this was the Vidal Sassoon party? With a look of confusion quickly followed by wrinkle-nosed disgust, she looked first at him and then at me, and then it came. "Do I look like I'm on the door with this fucking guy!" In an instant, I'd become ‘this fucking guy’, in totally the wrong context. And, with that, she spun and marched back down into the party and I never saw her again. Hmmm...my bravado suddenly had limits. Hope she enjoyed all that Champagne I was almost fired for!
Sophie Anderton (pre-kiss!)
In fairness, a few months before it had been my birthday and I'd had the audacity to email the whole PR agency, inviting them back to my riverside Putney flat (just how much I took that for granted I'll never get over). Amazingly (for an agency that had so many parties to go to and so spent our lives trying to get out of them all), over fifty colleagues piled onto the District Line during rush-hour at Embankment to head back to my unsuspecting flat mates. There we stood, hundreds of bodies thrust together involuntarily in undignified silence, when the coolest guy in the office (whom I was secretly thrilled was making the effort to come to my party) shouted from the other end of the carriage "Hey, Will Broome! Is it your birthday?!" Upon which the entire District Line carriage burst into a raucous, rush-hour rendition of "Happy Birthday". That would have been the highlight of my day but a few hours later I was being photographed in bed with the four prettiest girls from the office in their bras and knickers...I just don't know how I talked them into that one but the images (on floppy disc, remember those?) are sure to crop up in the Daily Mail if any one of us becomes famous. Hope so anyway.
So that leads me nicely on to ‘Clubland’. Just where did all this vying for access to seemingly (and often momentarily) cool places begin?
Well, it all started with the traditional members clubs in the eighteenth Century, which were, by definition, aristocratic hang-outs for (legal) gambling and drinking. They were almost exclusively ‘men only’ and membership to such an establishment was crucial if you were to be seen as a ‘Gentleman’ on the London scene. Indeed, many young aristocrats would quite literally live in their Club when they first moved to London, as their second home. Expats use their Clubs in this way to this day.
I love the fact that the word “Unclubbable” was invented to exclude those who were technically Gentlemen but were somehow undesirable. Even better was the notion that anyone who was ‘forced to earn a living’ such as doctors and lawyers were the epitome of “Unclubbable” specimens!
Members Clubs have changed considerably since I frequented them as a fashion PR (let alone since the radical eighteenth Century!) but in an age where clubs come and go mostly before they even have a chance to become cool, I think they can be split into three core categories, all equally desirable in their own rights.
White's - the grand-daddy of all Clubs
Firstly, you have the gloriously aloof and shamelessly elitist old-school Grand Masters:
- White's - The original high class, almost impossible to become a member, Gentlemen's club. Even Downton’s Lord Grantham's a member! From an era where country gentlemen needed to be associated with their London club, White’s has, quite remarkably, stood the test of time and held its position as the most desirable and refined club of all time. Effectively, it's the Eton of Clubland and, in fact, Old Etonians still hold an annual dinner here. Old Etonian, David Cameron, famously quit his membership in 2008 because they wouldn’t let girls in (political correctness finally got the better of him!) The only Lady to have ever been permitted was the Queen – that’s how strict their policy is. Oh, and Prince Charles had his first stag night here in 1981. No strippers then!
- Naval and Millitary Club - Proper military stuff, the ‘In and Out Club’ is a classic Gentleman's club who's members (pretty much) all went to Sandhurst. Surprisingly, this place is pretty big and you wouldn't know it from the unassuming St.James’ Square corner portico. There's a big courtyard, some impressive state rooms and even a first floor swimming pool! Don’t you dare use your phone or ipad in here though…
- The East India Club - The original Public School Gentleman's Club (which, amazingly, even used to be called that!). This is a properly Imperial place, which I remember one of my best friend's grandfathers used to virtually live in (like all the proper Clubs, it has boarding-school style accommodation) – and if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me (he was the MD of Massey Ferguson).
- Brooks's - One of my favourite back-stories. The notorious Eighteenth Century Playboys, Boothby and James, were blackballed from White’s in in 1762 and so, in true cavalier style, set up their own establishment instead. A genuine den of (proper) inequity for dining boozing and gambling. The original BBC (Bad Boy’s Club).
- The Beefsteak Club - Now this is a cool concept. Possibly the strictest rules in London and old school to the hilt! No women or guests are permitted and you eat steak at all times. Brilliant! I would love to boast about being a member here. Stephen Fry is. Historically, members wore blue coats and waistcoats with brass buttons bearing the Club’s unwavering Whig philosophy "Beef and liberty!". After dinner, the evenings descended into to ‘noisy revelry’. Naturally.
Brooks's & The Beefsteak Club
Then you have the new-age, boundary pushing and defining classics of the Twentieth Century:
- The Lansdowne Club - An interesting one, this, mainly due to it’s late establishment (1935) and it’s immediate acceptance of women members. With it’s avant-garde art deco styling, the Lansdowne was, ironically, until recently, not open to non-members' events. It was originally billed as a 'social, residential and athletic Club for members of social standing' and their families, and unusually, had no vocational, artistic, or political bias. This Club not only has an art deco swimming pool, but it’s also the only Club with it’s own ‘Fencing Salle’ where the resident coach is also the coach for the British Olympic Team! Proper posh and the original ‘forward thinking’ Club!
- Annabel's - Still the benchmark, without doubt. Christened with the same (modest) name as the founder’s wife “Lady Annabel Vane-Tempest-Stewart”, Annabel’s remains (perhaps along with White’s) the most famous and most desirable membership in town. Former members include Richard Nixon, Frank Sinatra, Prince Charles and Aristotle Onassis. Lady Gaga has even sung a few songs on the piano here and it’s the only Club in London that the Queen has actually enjoyed a night out at (allegedly)!
- The Groucho Club - Dean Street's timeless classic. Every time I go, I think of the story of Blur Bassist, Alex James (now a cheese-making Cotswold neighbour of ours), drinking £1 million quid's worth of Champagne here (not in one sitting) and waking up to a blowjob. From a man. Oh, and they don't take kindly to non famous people asking for photos with famous people, even though they mostly (secretly) go to Soho to be spotted (obviously!). Great fun place and a timeless classic.
- Home House - One of the most famous members' Clubs in London, this beautiful Club, consisting of three large-scale Georgian town houses was originally commissioned in 1773 by Elizabeth, Countess of Home, in London’s Portman Square. It was to be a “Palace of Pleasure” and an iconic destination for gracious party animals. With an eclectic mix of classical and ultra modern interiors to suit all tastes, this highly desirable and flexible series of venue spaces is open for (corporate event) business. Their legendary members' events are strictly exclusive to their 4,000 members though. And even then, only 1,000 get in!
The Groucho Club
And finally, the current day interpretation, designed to attract a whole new generation of (previously “Unclubbable!”) members:
- Soho House - Famously popular with fashion, art and media types (mostly under 30) and, in fairness, it's pretty inspiring and cool as a result. Founded by the now legendary Nick Jones (married to newsreader and Crimewatch presenter Kirsty Young), it’s very ‘New York’ and they do permit external events. There are now a variety of Clubs in the group and all can be hired for private and corporate entertaining.
- The Hospital Club - One of my favourites, this place is on seven floors and has such a cool relaxed feel about it. I've had loads of meetings here and a friend of mine who I think is single (are you Andy?) seems to be going to boy’s nights and cinema screenings here almost every weekend (yep, he must be – well jealous!). Loads of fabulous event spaces and check out their glitzy Christmas Packages too!
- Broadway House - A new kid on the block and my local! This place is brilliant because it successfully (and somewhat uniquely) combines a great gastro pub (which has a gazillion screens for the footy), a stylish restaurant with amazing flame grilled steaks and, up top, an elegant, renaissance style club complete with roaring fires, chesterfield sofas and not one but two fantastic roof terraces. Appropriately (and coincidentally), my membership number is the same as my Prep School number, 104.
- Eight - A truly up to date members’ Club, Eight Moorgate is a cool, contemporary, relaxing and modern space in the heart of the City. With a library, studio gym, lounge bar and beautiful terraces overlooking the City, Eight is a successful modern take on the classic London Clubs of old. And girls can be members, of course!
- Whisky Mist - God, I remember launching a dot.com brand in this place so well when it was Zeta Bar! At the foot of the Hilton on Park Lane, Whisky Mist is an extraordinary example of a low- ceilinged seemingly unremarkable place, which has become the talk of the town (not the 80's nightclub, because that's now the Hippodrome Casino, itself an amazing new venue!) because they have an awesome PR girl who lets it slip (via twitter and fb) every time Harry Styles is there. Oh, and I've had an amazing night there where Kelis was performing and, I can confirm, her milkshake did indeed bring all the boys to the yard!
- Paramount - Relatively recently opened up to corporate events (and famously pissing off members like Stephen Fry – but he’s got over it now!) this club is an incredible events venue atop Centrepoint, with sensational views of London in every direction. Their sister Club, Century, on Shaftesbury Avenue is a great media hang-out too and their amazing covered rooftop is an excellent place for a relaxed meeting amongst the chimney pots!
- No. 41 Mayfair - I recently discovered this palatial new club in the bowels of the Westbury Hotel, Bond Street. It really is a lavish, decadent looking place. Suitably chilled yet gloriously elaborate and dripping with gold. London’s newest Club, founded in 2013.
Soho House / The Hospital Club / Paramount
The line drawn between Members clubs (originally Gentlemen's Clubs and a select few actually still are) and 'cool', (that is to say popular with cool people and seemingly difficult to get in to clubs), has in recent years become somewhat blurred. The main difference is this. You don't have to be cool to get into a true Gentlemen's Club, but you do have to be connected. On the other hand, if you want to get into a top club, it does help if you're cool. There is another way though. The Darwinian rules of economic engagement dictate that all of these places need to make money. But how do they do that without pissing off their paid up members (of which, by definition, there are never enough as that would defeat the object of their exclusivity)? The answer, of course, is one-off events. As little as five years ago, events in many of these clubs were exclusive to members but that's all changed (in most cases) nowadays. Members are mostly old (and getting older) and Clubs are therefore having to radically re-invent themselves to appeal to a new generation of relatively high net worth (or at least cool) individuals who, in a hi-tech world, don't have quite the same reasons for joining as they did a hundred years ago (although, whatever anyone tells you, status is always a factor)! There are simply not enough Public School boys to keep them all going on such an elitist basis, so they've had to diversify in two distinct ways. Firstly, they've had to appeal to a new market and that's the far less flush media sector (although more lucrative than the dwindling old money of days gone by) and secondly, they've had to open their doors to new revenue streams, the most obvious of which is outside corporate events. Events are, effectively, the temporary way in for the corporate masses and the Clubs are therefore an intriguing and exciting destination for corporate delegates who have a chance to experience these coveted venues they perhaps haven't been to before and, perhaps most importantly of all, aligning their brands with them...ultimately resulting in a higher turn out.
Annabel's - Still the benchmark
Of course, if you're seriously considering an event at a private members club, then you might as well do some research (milk it) and try the place out for the evening?