As much as we might hate to admit it, we all love to feel a bit superior on occasion, don’t we? Like when you’re given a special shout-out in an exercise class. Or given a free coffee by your barista. Or let into the club ahead of the rest of the queue. There’s something deeply reassuring about knowing that you’re somehow separate from everyone else, that you’ve earned a special privilege, that you’ve been allowed to watch others from behind the velvet rope. Hence why many people regularly spend thousands of pounds each year to do just that.
But the private members’ club, a once much-sought-after stamp of societal approval, seems to be on the decline. At least, that’s the impression you get from the latest news about Soho House, the exclusive, arts-centric members club founded by restaurateur–about-town Nick Jones in 1995. Over the weekend, a spokesperson issued a rebuttal to a report by GlassHouse Research that suggested the brand had expanded too quickly and left members experiencing a “decline in service quality”. In December, the chain announced it would stop accepting new members in London, New York and Los Angeles following complaints that the clubs were becoming too busy.
According to an article in The Times, Soho House members have had issues with service for some time, with one person claiming to have cancelled their membership as the chain had “let in so many new members” that the clubs were becoming “overwhelmed”. Meanwhile, another ex-member who joined a decade ago told the publication that overcrowding at the bar in Babington House, Somerset, had become “mob-like”.
Membership to one local club starts at £850 a year but stretches to almost £3,000 a year for global access to the chain’s 41 clubs, which are stationed everywhere from Mexico and India to Turkey and Amsterdam. Frequented by the likes of Taylor Swift and Rita Ora – and the venue of choice for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s first date – Soho House has long been associated with high-end, celebrity clientele. It also appears unbothered by the latest headlines, saying in a statement to the New York Stock Exchange that it is “confident in the strength of its business and is focused on executing its strategy”.
But the GlassHouse report indicates that the once-prized members’ club format could be falling out of fashion in general. While new venues are opening all the time – see The Twenty Two in Mayfair and The Pavilion in Knightsbridge – many are clinging on for dear life, if not already defunct. In 2021, The Conduit’s Mayfair venue was seized by Metro Bank over unpaid debt – it soon announced plans to open a new venue in Covent Garden. That same year, the 130-year-old Chelsea Arts Club emailed its members asking for “voluntary financial support” in light of lockdown-imposed strains. According to a report in the Financial Times, out of 103 members’ clubs in London in operation during the pandemic, seven had since shut down.
And yet, more continue to open each year. I’ve lost count of the number of times friends have suggested meeting at a “new trendy members’ club” they’ve just joined. What started off as a sexist, classist institution for men – gentlemen’s clubs reserved for those in the upper classes began popping up in the 18th century – has become a ubiquity in cities around the world. Offering access to the upper echelons of whichever industry it’s appealing to (clubs tend to focus around specific workplaces), often with the option of food, accommodation, and even a gym and a bustling nightlife, the modern-day members’ club is certainly appealing. But is it exclusive? And how could it be when there’s a new one opening every week? (Trust me: I receive the press releases.)
All the recent furore around Soho House begs the question: in 2024, what is the point of a members’ club? If you live in London, it’s arguably much harder to get into some of the best restaurants than it is to wrangle your way into a private members’ club. Hotspots like Sessions Arts House, Rita’s, Mountain, and The Devonshire are practically fortresses unless you know somebody who knows somebody. And if your incentive is to be somewhere other people aren’t, you’re better off trying to get into one of those places than a members’ club.
It seems to me that some of the established clubs such as The Groucho, which opened in 1985, represent a relic from another, more debaucherous era. Frequented by famous party-goers such as Kate Moss and the Gallagher brothers, clandestine bacchanalia used to be synonymous with the members’ club. But I’m not so sure that exists any more, particularly when you look at the branding around some of the latest members’ clubs opening in London today.
There’s The Other House in South Kensington, which has a major wellness focus – there’s a “vitality pool”, for example. Surrenne, a new opening from the Maybourne Hotel Group (which owns Claridge’s and The Connaught), boasts a “longevity clinic” and a swimming pool that includes a sound system for in-water mediation. Even though the newly opened Upstairs at Langan’s boasts a gorgeous bar with a small dance floor, the whole thing shuts at 2am on the weekends. Isn’t that when the party’s supposed to get started?
If you live in London, it’s arguably much harder to get into some of the best restaurants than it is to wrangle your way into a private members’ club
It’s hard to say what the future holds for the not-so-humble members’ club. Will our wellness-obsessed society stamp out the hedonistic hideouts from the past? Is it only a matter of time until the hottest private club is actually a juice clinic, or a fasting retreat?
It seems like we’ve come a long way from the purpose the members’ club was designed to serve. Gone are the days of looking to buy your way into some dark corner to do darker deeds with impunity. You might be able to get away with more in a private club than in, say, your local pub. But is there much point in trying to keep anything behind closed doors when all people are doing on the other side is, erm, getting an LED facial? We have beauty clinics for that.
Then there’s the mere proliferation of it all. Sure, we all want to feel something when we flash our member’s card at a haughty receptionist, watching their hostility switch to pseudo-warmth within seconds. And I’m sure there will always be those who are willing to part with their cash to validate the fact they think they’re special. But you have to ask just how special it is to be a part of something that is rapidly expanding, giving everyone the illusion of superiority without actually making anyone superior at all.