Clubs Make Big Comeback

New York City has always been home to social clubs which were famously hard to get in to, such as

New York City has always been home to social clubs which were famously hard to get in to, such as the Brook Club on 54th Street or the Harmonie Club on 60th Street, to name just two. Private clubs offered comforts-meals, rooms, a gym-and the kind of status that has propelled many a P.G. Wodehouse tale. (Of course, that status depends entirely-and ironically-on non-members tacitly agreeing that membership means something. Without the envy of non-members, membership ceases to matter.) In any case, the lure of membership has recently taken a firmer hold on New York, with several private clubs opening despite an economy that has even the well-heeled re-soling last year’s shoes. The new clubs, whether nightclubs like the Cobalt Club or larger, full-service affairs like Soho House, are betting that a members-only door policy will keep their leather banquettes warm through frigid fiscal times. The new clubs are small and cozy; according to the owners, you won’t find any tarty Hilton sisters dancing atop their tables at 3 a.m. You’ll be surrounded by your peers. You’ll drink your favorite drinks. In fact, it will be a lot like … staying home.

Will the membership shtick stick?

The membership clubs are offering more than a good time; they’re offering an illusion of living in splendor. As Tim Geary, a British novelist and committee member at Soho House, told The Observer : “The idea behind the whole design and décor is, it’s the living room you dream of having yourself, the bedroom you dream of having sex in yourself, and you get access to it through the Soho House.”

When it comes to nightclubs, the trend toward “small is best” has been building for a while now. Twee clubs which have opened in the past year and proven relatively successful include Bungalow 8, Rehab, Capitale, Pangaea, Butter and, most recently, Plaid, the living-room-sized Soho spot which has hosted both Entertainment Weekly ‘s “It List” party and rap star Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Get Out of Jail Free” party. But the up-and-coming nightclubs extend that smallness to the invite list, promising to allow only members through the door. The owners claim this isn’t about snobbery, but about creating a “safer” environment where the members won’t have to jostle for drinks with unsavory types. Most of these nightclubs are doling out membership cards for free to a select list of the owner’s friends (and, most probably, to any celebrities they can find).

Then there are the clubs that seem to fall somewhere between a full-service club and a nightclub. For example, rap mogul Damon Dash and socialite/D.J. Samantha Ronson plan to have the Breakfast Club up and running in a few weeks, in Moomba’s old West Village digs. The club will sprawl over two floors filled with classic Italian furniture, and according to the New York Post , there will be a $25,000 membership fee.

Asked if the Breakfast Club would be strictly members-only, Ms. Ronson said, “Yes, that is for damn sure.”

Soho House

29-35 Ninth Avenue

Membership fee: $900

The American cousin of London’s Soho House. When Brit owner Nick Jones opened this New York branch, he hand-picked 25 committee members, including actors Alan Cumming and Griffin Dunne, and then had them choose 500 “founding” members, including Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein and fashion designer Zac Posen. Soho House likes to think of itself as a bit raffish. “They will probably choose an artist scrambling to raise 750 bucks rather than a Wall Street banker,” said committee member Mr. Geary. And don’t try turning up at the door with a model on your arm. “Most clubs have a red-rope policy that is hidden,” said Mr. Geary. “Ours is just explicit-you are either a member or not a member. We are not saying that you do not have enough money to come in, or you’re not pretty enough to come in-we’re not making those kinds of decisions.” Mr. Geary added that Soho House was “definitely not trying to build up a community of rich people. Unlike most of the members clubs in New York that are crowded with the super-rich, like the Meadow Club in the Hamptons, we are not looking for that crowd.” Others on the membership committee include Marie Claire fashion editor Lucy Sykes and her sister, Vogue writer/novelist Plum Sykes, literary agent Nicole Aragi and Marci (daughter of Calvin) Klein, who works as head of talent for Saturday Night Live . The club offers four floors filled with lounges for boozing, libraries for reading, a gym, a rooftop swimming pool, a restaurant with British delicacies and 24 hotel rooms. Lucy Sykes said she sees at least 20 or 30 people she knows there every night. “A lot of our friends in the fashion industry go there,” she said, “like [ Radar magazine editor] Maer Roshan, [socialite] Mary Alice Stevenson-even my hairdresser goes there all the time.”

Core Club

60 East 55th Street

Membership fee:

$25,000 plus $1,000/month

The Core Club would love to be the East Side version of Soho House. Will Buckley boys and Chapin girls eschew the Brook and Colony clubs and be drawn instead into the Core Club’s restaurant (food by Craft chef Tom Colicchio) and its spa, with mineral baths and cascade showers? Currently under construction on 55th Street between Park and Madison avenues, the Core Club will charge a high membership fee; in return, members get a sort of life coach-a “Core Consultant”-who will help them plan an exercise regimen and diet as well as steer them to a show at the Met or book a helicopter to the Hamptons. “Clubs have always been historically significant in New York,” said Jennie Saunders, who is the Core Club’s president and chief executive and previously worked as a consultant for Reebok Sports Club/NY. “We’re modernizing it and really making it relevant.” When she worked at prior clubs, said Ms. Saunders, “I heard from members who always wanted more, and always believed that a perfect world could exist if a club was devoted to this extraordinary lifestyle. There’s a lifestyle that exists that is absolutely overtaxed and overstimulated. These people are incredibly demanding because there are incredible demands placed upon them. If you really analyze and dissect what an extraordinary lifestyle needs and wants and loves, you can edit in what all those people want in a club.” Ms. Saunders declined to name any prospective members. “They are all extraordinary people that would be the quintessential representatives in every category, from media to business to fashion to entertainment,” she said.

“We are much more than a social club, more than a business club and more than a leisure club,” she added. “Our members have been carefully chosen.”

Cobalt Club

2 Lexington Avenue

Membership fee: Free

Princeton graduates in khakis and sea-blue Oxford shirts have been seen whipping out their membership cards outside this new nightclub in the Gramercy Park Hotel, which, like the hotel, is owned by portly, white-haired financier Steven Greenberg. The Cobalt Club has stocked itself with niceties-Russian Osetra sturgeon, flasks that were owned by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, 1940’s-era furniture that once belonged to fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld. Since opening on June 4, the Wednesday-night-only club has hosted parties for Virgin Atlantic founder Richard Branson and Condé Nast editorial director James Truman. The usual party types-rock star Moby, artist Andres Serrano, designer Nicole Miller-have all made their requisite appearances.

Mr. Greenberg said he wants his guests to dress up a bit.

“We’re asking people to make an effort in lieu of having to pay a huge fee,” he said. “The demographics of New York have changed dramatically. Music that exists today, and role models, set a tone for the way people are dressing. I don’t think it’s a particularly good tone. I like the way Sinatra dresses. What I’m trying to do is to create something where people don’t wear baseball caps flipped around and make more effort when they come out. We have very expensive furniture and objects inside. We make the effort.”


50 Gansevoort Street

Membership fee: free

Waitress outfits designed by Diane von Furstenberg. Public relations by Naomi Campbell’s firm, NC Connect. A V.I.P. bathroom. Décor: Haiti as 1940’s-era colony. The owners of this meatpacking-district nightclub, which is set to open in September, are already pumped about turning you away.

“We have to know who you are,” said owner Frankie Unik. “You have to have some kind of credential to get in. It’s going to be basically all high-end people-movers and shakers, jet-setters from the movie industry.”

And unless you’re a super V.I.P., you can’t use the first-floor bathroom, which will be stocked with freebie perfume bottles and guarded by a bouncer. “If you get through the ropes, then you are somebody,” said Dimitri Hyacinthe, another owner. Those deemed not important enough to pee in the V.I.P. stalls will have to climb the stairs to the mezzanine, where the hoi polloi’s bathrooms will be located. The club’s owners are hoping that Prince Albert, Justin Timberlake, Denise Rich, Harrison Ford and Patrick Ewing will unzip with the hip. According to Mr. Unik, membership entreaties have also been sent to “a host of fashion models, designers, stylists, influencers, photographers and people who have made it.” Mr. Unik promised that P.M. members will not be “bothered by the regular run-of-the-mill nightclub people, where they have to worry about the paparazzi.”

Mr. Unik and Mr. Hyacinthe, along with their partner, Keke Conille, were previously party promoters. This is their first club.

“We want to make people comfortable. People want to go to where their peers are,” said Mr. Hyacinthe.

“It’s like a watering hole for jet-setters who travel all over the world,” added Mr. Unik.

-additional reporting by Shazia Ahmad Clubs Make Big Comeback