LONDON — Nobody does snobbery like the Brits. They’ve had centuries to nurture it, and it persists through every supposed social revolution. Snobbery just keeps taking on new forms, insidious and adaptable, constantly morphing like a chameleon.
Its latest form, as potent in America as it is in the old country, is based on one of the oldest ways of institutionalizing snobbery: The private club.
Just listen to the burbling of the Hollywood Reporter: “In a remarkably short time, Soho House has become the most important club in Hollywood – a high-wattage magnet for A-listers and dealmakers. (It easily tops the field in THR’s annual Power Lunch survey of hundreds of top players.) L.A. may have no center, but the industry now does.”
I have just had an opportunity to see how this works – albeit a hesitant and nervous outsider’s glimmering of what is involved in belonging to such a fiercely sought-after place in the limelight.
The newest Soho House is just a block away from the original in London, in a five-story Georgian town house on Dean Street. There are many laments that London’s Soho is not what it was. A ruthless path of gentrification has driven out the dens and dives of what was a wonderful if decaying bohemia. Developers are snapping up parcels of real estate and planning luxury hotels and apartments that are totally out of scale with their surroundings.
So one virtue of the new Soho House is that, on the outside, it has preserved the façade of a building that is a classic in scale and discreet urbanity. (Every Soho House makes a point of respecting and preserving the original building.) Inside it’s another story – a phenomenon of the crazy now, a temple of frenetic networking and a carnival of the new snobbery.
But, of course, first you have to get in. And there’s the rub. Just exactly who is admitted as a member, and on what criteria?
The power to admit is also, of course, the power to exclude. And the only known rule in the Soho House admission policy is who is excluded: Bankers, lawyers, politicians being the most prominent among those who haven’t a prayer of being accepted.
The definition of who is acceptable is nebulous: “Creatives,” a nation with porous borders. Obviously it includes show business, media, fashion, architects and culture in a broad sense. But in truth, like despotism, it’s a very calculated exercise in the use of power without definition – the actual decisions are taken in secret and, judging by the results, involve personal whim and caprice on a level rarely seen since the Tudors ruled here.
Socially, the results seem to be just as devastating as being sent to the Tower by Henry VIII. London, New York and Los Angeles are full of people writhing and whining in the agony of being inexplicably rejected by Soho House – in L.A. alone there is said to be a waiting list of 20,000.
Of course, there is a brilliant marketing principle here: The more unattainable an object of desire becomes, the more desperately it is sought.
Given this operating principle it came as something as a surprise to me that actually crossing the threshold is very relaxed. The new club has no name on the door, you just press a buzzer to be allowed in. There are no haughty screeners at reception. Two charming young women take a member’s card and check ID on a computer – which, as far as I could see, displays not just a name but also a paragraph of vocational credentials.
The furnishings range from well-stuffed sofas and armchairs to minimalist banquettes. There is no unifying aesthetic. Groping for a term that would capture its essence I came up, lamely, with “homey.” It’s more authentic than a Ralph Lauren pastiche of the English country house because in the end there’s something a little eccentric about the mixing and mashing up, as though some slightly deranged old viscount has tossed out (or pawned) all the family heirlooms and bought a new lot of stuff at auctions, possibly guided by Tim Burton.
The staircases – unlike the Georgian original – are uncarpeted and echo to the clatter of many expensive heels, male and female. On the top floor there is a small terrace where, on an agreeable summer night, cigars can be smoked.
On the restaurant floor there is a striking, large open kitchen with seating on three sides, sometimes close enough to the action to be distracting – particularly when, as happened on the night I was there, the waiters had trouble keeping pace with the split-second choreography of the chefs. As a result there was a little too much audible aggravation.
What was a real surprise was the sensible pricing of the food and wine. In London these days you can pay $30 for two deep fried florets of cauliflower. Rip-off wine lists are everywhere. Here you can get a very decent bottle of wine for $35.
That reflects the ruling philosophy. Everything here, every detail no matter how casual and in every Soho House club (there are 13 at present across the globe and more to come) is dictated by the eye of one man, Nick Jones.
Jones created the first Soho House in 1995 in Greek Street in more modest premises. He did not originate the genre, just globalized it. The template was cast by the Groucho Club, also on Dean Street, founded by a group of “creatives” in 1985. The name is the clue to the quintessential ethic behind all similar establishments, taken from Groucho Marx: “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.”
This is, in other words, reactive snobbery. The founders of the Groucho were reacting against what for centuries had governed the original club life of London, the code of the gentlemen’s clubs concentrated in Pall Mall and St James’s.
These were run for and by a self-selecting elite, a combination of the aristocracy, politicians, top civil servants, bishops, judges, high-born drunks and spies. The rest need not apply. Voting to admit members was originally conducted by a committee using white or black balls to indicate a vote – even one black ball inevitably led to rejection, and any member who fell into disrepute was ejected, or “blackballed.”
The creative wave that gave Britain its new dynamic in the 1960s produced talented people who wanted to be clubbable but who could not cross the threshold of these establishments. Initially they coalesced – as certain groups still do - around a few restaurants where they had either a private room or dedicated tables but eventually they consolidated within the Groucho club.
Ironically this produced its own sense of exclusivity, the reactive or reverse snobbery of a new elite, one selected according to a supposedly more democratic method using a different set of rules but, nonetheless, ending up with the same result – a large contingent of people resenting the fact that they were left out.
Jones’s genius is to have fused that new snobbery with the world-wide admiration for branded British luxuries, whether simply worn as a Burberry scarf or parked in an oligarch’s garage in the form of a Bentley or McLaren.
Soho House astutely distils an amalgam of flavors drawn from the classic English references of class, an understated feeling of comfort that abhors the flashy and pretentious but is, nonetheless firmly autocratic in what is and is not permissible – deal-making loudly on a cell phone or taking selfies are, for example, definitely out. On the other hand, there is no dress code. Had there been one I would never have been allowed in as the guest of a member.
I left with the impression that I had just seen (and heard) the immaculate and discreet workings of an amazing money-making machine. The clubs operate on a near 24-hour schedule, starting with breakfast and ending with early morning cognacs and cigars. No wonder that in 2012 U.S. billionaire Ron Burkle bought 60 percent of the business.
Those old London clubs were (and still are) characterized by two things, some of the world’s worst food (the members all went to the same schools that bred into the pupils the irrelevance of good cooking) and the importance of a well-tailored wardrobe, at the heart of which was the club tie.
I had a friend who for a large part of his life was obsessed with being admitted to one of these clubs. His origins were humble but his intellect was formidable and he became a distinguished newspaper editor. In due course his name was on the waiting list and he waited…and waited…and waited. Admission was operated on the actuarial principle, waiting for members to drop. Some did while seated at the bar or in the tired, deep armchairs.
At last, in the twilight of his career, he was admitted. The club tie was his trophy, and he was never without it. In fact his wife told me that he would have gone to bed in his tie had she allowed it.
By the way, about that Soho House idea of “creatives.” Directly across the street from the new Soho House is the address where Karl Marx lived in the 19th century. Not Groucho. Karl. He who inspired the idea that “the urge to destroy is a creative urge.” Would that make him eligible? There’s a question only Nick Jones can answer.