It’s midweek in east London and in a subterranean space a few clusters of thirtysomethings are tapping away on Apple laptops under the gaze of an original Banksy mural. Welcome to the Curtain, one of the latest breed of luxury members clubs proliferating across London. This is proving to be a boom year for a new kind of private club, offering literary readings, live music, accommodation and sophisticated gyms and “wellness” services.
Four months after the Curtain opened in May, Ten Trinity Square, a club appendage to a new Four Seasons hotel, was launched. It promises to do nothing less than “reinvent the shape and scope of meeting and exchange between nations and cultures of the world”.
The operator of the Hoxton hotel group has lodged a planning application in Mayfair for a new Gleneagles private members’ club as a London shop window for the luxurious Scottish hotel and estate. Next month sees the opening of a private members’ wellness club, 3 St James Square, for those willing to part with an annual membership fee of £4,000, plus a £2,000 joining fee.
At a different level, a cohort of millennials are finding the cash for discounted membership of clubs such as Shoreditch House as gym membership and add-ons are included. “It’s just nice to bring a friend along on a Saturday morning for a swim and have a coffee,” said one member of the east London club. The 32-year-old, who works in the creative sector, said that she pays about £80 a month.
“You can rationalise on the basis that the gym is included, and if you visit to use it or the pool, you may not buy anything else, so it can work out cheaply enough. It’s also a place where you can bring a laptop and work with a bit of privacy that you might not get in, say, a bar or a cafe, or even bring clients for a meeting.”
Discounted yearly rates for under-30s are common: £210 at the Chelsea Arts Club, £515 at Covent Garden’s Hospital Club, £300 at Quo Vadis in Soho.
The Curtain, which will introduce a discounted fee for younger members next year, has also undercut Shoreditch House by setting its basic membership fees at £1,000 rather than £1,150.
Under-30s membership at The Ned in the City of London, a creation of Soho House owners, partnered with a US hotel group, comes in at a higher price – £1,500 with a £250 joining fee.
In west London, newer arrivals are having an effect on older names. Before a reopening later this year, a few doors away from its original venue in Berkeley Square, Annabel’s has relaxed its dress code to permit denim and trainers – albeit with caveats. “Sports shoes should not look like they’ve actually been used to play sports,” stress the new guidelines.
Others are expanding to include accommodation in response to member requests. There is demand, too, for “wellness” facilities, the focus of plans at the Arts Club in Mayfair. “We opened our hotel rooms as a response to people saying ‘I wish you had rooms,’ and we do have members who say, ‘This club is perfect – if only you had a wellness space’. So we listen to what our members want and then deliver,” said Alice Chadwyck-Healey, its executive director. Founded in 1863 and counting Charles Dickens among past members, the club is also exploring locations for global expansion, including in Los Angeles.
Investment by London’s new east European and Asian elite is also changing the face of the capital’s clubs. At the South Kensington, a health-conscious sanctuary for the area’s affluent residents, a selling point is a lavish bathhouse with Russian banjas (steam rooms), private plunge pools and a saltwater Watsu pool.
“It’s very international here, but the majority of people who come here are within walking distance,” said Milos Popovic, its general manager. “It’s true that there are quite a few Russian people – the Russian church is just down the road – but with the banjas I would say that they are a ‘Londonised banja’. They will be familiar to people who use them in Russia, but with differences.”
Away from banjas or Banksy-decorated bars, however, the oldest clubs of all remain the true centres of power, according to Dr Matthew Bond, a sociologist at London South Bank University who has studied their membership.
“A lot of the new elite, such as Russian money or hedge fund managers, can be tricky to trace. They won’t tend to show up in Who’s Who, for example. But it’s important to recognise that clubs which we might think of as being the classic elite establishment have not gone away and young members of the elite might be equally eager to join them. Just take a look at places like White’s, the oldest London gentlemen’s club, very Etonian, very Tory,” he said.
Bond cites the case of George Bridges, a peer who was in charge of pushing Brexit legislation through parliament until quitting earlier this year amid reports of a disagreement with Theresa May. Bridges is a member of both White’s and the Beefsteak, where he is likely to rub shoulders with members including Boris Johnson.
“Old club structures have not gone away,” he says. “The younger members of Britain’s elite are still out there, seeking each other out and wanting to have a foot in everywhere.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010