I had no intention of joining the Meghan Markle pile-on but then it happened. I was reading the recent interview with the Duchess of Sussex in the magazine The Cut. It takes place in her home in Montecito, California, and while the interview is proceeding with Markle in a cosy chair, “an invisible hand has lit a Soho House-branded rosewater candle”.
It was at this point, I thought: I am against this. There’s nothing wrong with the candle (a large one was available from the club’s Soho Home store for a mere £80 — before they sold out). But just as Amazon persuaded many of us to buy an Alexa to park itself in our kitchens, now Soho Home is moving its linens and knick-knacks into our interiors. Where does the boundary lie?
Perhaps it’s an old-fashioned view but I think of a club as an “other” place — a destination but also an escape from home and office. There’s a sanctity about a club. But Soho House founder Nick Jones, a longstanding friend of the Duchess, as she points out in the interview, has blurred the lines.
Since the first club in Greek Street in 1995, it has been wildly successful. It has colonised New York, Berlin, Los Angeles, Istanbul, Mumbai and more. Its jet-set members shuttling around the globe can find themselves in their familiar style territory wherever they go: something between mid-century Danish furniture, an English country drawing room or a 1950s poster of the French Riviera. Arguably, you might as well not have got on the plane as you are landing in the same room.
After those conquests, the next is of your home. Soho Home launched as a brand in 2016, offering up its interiors to the wider public after, they say, guests kept asking to buy their stuff. Now available to all and sundry: marble coffee tables, ottomans, dinner sets, cushions. Why go to the club when it can come to you?
Then again, some of my disdain may stem from loyalty to another. I am a member of the rival establishment, the Groucho, that has so-far failed at going global. Its New York plans have never made it to fruition and it has struggled to maintain its place as the hippest thing in town.
The Groucho was born in the analogue era of 1985, founded by a group of publishers thumbing their noses at the traditional gentlemen’s clubs of London — all polished wood, leather armchairs and portraits of dusty old men on their walls. And for a decade or two it ruled London. Its members, from the literary and entertainment worlds, would find lots of creative uses for the pool table. The press pack stationed outside ticked off the hours waiting for celebrities to fall out of its front doors.
Since the rise of Soho House, the Groucho, though still humming, has gone through a continual identity crisis. It has just been sold for the third time in 20 years, to Iwan Wirth, of Hauser & Wirth gallery, and his wife Manuela — together they run hospitality business Art Farm. Its older members pine for the old hedonistic days. Its younger members wonder if this is where it’s at. But it is a singular space that belongs to people in a singular way.
Few would want to replicate its decor — bright walls, multicoloured velvet sofas and leather banquettes — in their own home. They belong in a place of indulgence, behind the portered doors of 45 Dean Street, a contrast to the rigours of your real life. It’s familiar but not like home.
Soho House, though, invites a slight level of discomfort, even at the door, where I’ve never witnessed a receptionist know a guest by sight. You enter, as though into the home of your grandest friend, never quite happy to let your guard down — for who knows when you are going to make a faux-pas.
And that too goes with its homewares, shown off in a palatial Montecito home. They say: I am part of “the club”: are you?
What does one want from a club? A home from home, a place for laptopping, networking, socialising? Or one that comes to define you, from where you travel to your bathroom towels? Does the brand own you, rather than you owning the brand?
The Groucho doesn’t have anything for sale. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t have iconic wares too: its glass ashtrays embossed with the club’s duck logo. It used to be a game to slip one into your pocket or handbag to take pride of place in your home.
The Wellcome Collection has a picture in its library of the last one left in the building in 2007, the day the smoking ban came in. Every other one was stolen. That’s an honour in itself.
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Luke Edward Hall returns next week