When Soho House first came to the U.S. in 2003, founder Nick Jones was petrified. “Most people come over and get spat out again, sent back to Britain,” he told Observer. “I was convinced it was going to happen to me.”
But two decades later, fourteen of Soho House’s more than forty outposts are in North America, with more to come. The private members-only club aims to increase this figure to twenty by 2025, with houses already in the works in more cities, including Portland and Charleston.
Soho House’s genesis was a happy accident, according to Jones. “There was never a plan,” he said. In 1995, while working as a restaurateur overseeing Cafe Boheme in London’s Soho district, Jones’ landlord suggested he make an offer on the space upstairs—a townhouse with an entry door that was too small for an eatery. “It just seemed like it could only be a private members’ club,” said Jones, 59. “Thankfully, people liked it. It sort of worked.”
With membership only open to those in creative industries, Soho House quickly became the place to be. As it expanded in the U.K. with locations like Electric House in Notting Hill and the more rural Babington House in Somerset, the lounges and pools of Jones’ venues were frequented by the young, hip and famous. Soho House and its facilities weren’t just outdoing other clubs but also gymnasiums, bars, restaurants and hotels, said Jones. “It wasn’t all under one roof. And it wasn’t created like how we did it.”
As the club enjoyed continued success in the U.K., Jones was inundated with requests to expand into the U.S. “Gullible me, I thought, okay, let’s go and have a look,” he said. While his neighborhood of choice was, of course, Soho, Jones struggled to find an appropriate building in the area for a New York outpost. He instead landed on a 45,000-square-foot warehouse in Manhattan’s gritty but trendy Meatpacking district.
The challenges were manifold. “We didn’t have hot water, didn’t have a roof. We kept running out of money,” said Jones. Setting up shop in New York also meant the founder had to adapt to a new set of licensing rules, all while attempting to convince residents to give his private club a shot. “Lots of people were saying New York doesn’t need private members’ clubs.”
A new Soho House outpost in Rhinebeck, New York
Despite naysayers, Soho House New York opened to great success, even featuring in a Sex and the City storyline. As depicted in the show, the club’s lengthy waitlist and restrictive fees, which today can be more than $4,000 for an annual membership, are all part of the appeal.
Since 2003, two other houses—Dumbo House and Ludlow House—have opened in the city. Now, a fourth New York venue that will give members a more rural, but equally luxe experience is in the works. Located upstate in Rhinebeck, the Grasmere House will transform 250 acres of former farmland into a club complex complete with hiking, biking, a spa, wellness facilities and more than 50 guest rooms. The new club will offer an experience similar to that of the U.K.’s Babington House, according to Jones.
“We’re very conscious that our members have many options,” said Jones. In the past few years, private clubs like Zero Bond, Casa Cipriani and the Aman have entered the market. “We’re always trying to make our existing houses better,” he added, noting that rooftops, pools and outdoor spaces have been particularly popular with members, along with pre-release screenings and exclusive events.
The Soho House empire also encompasses several other projects. There is Soho Works, with co-working spaces geared toward creatives, and Soho Home, an interior design line featuring the clubs’ furnishings.
The proliferation of exclusive members’ clubs in New York is a relatively new phenomenon, according to Jones, who is “surprised it took as long as it did.” Despite a recent influx of competition, he remains confident in Soho House’s standing. “There’s not more people doing it in numerous cities—I mean, we’ve got forty-one houses now. I think it will take a bit of time for someone to catch up.”
The private club sector isn’t the only thing that’s changed over the decades.
Historically, Soho House fielded its membership applications by selecting applicants with backgrounds in fields like art, media and music. But the lines between creative and technical or administrative careers have blurred in recent years, when seemingly “everyone’s in a creative industry,” said Jones. The acceptance criteria are still somewhat shrouded in mystery, by design, and Soho House’s membership committee is selective.
Club members have also skewed slightly younger over the years, according to Jones, who noted that Soho House has “worked very hard at under-27 memberships,” which are offered at a discount. And there have been significant leadership changes at the storied private members’ club; Jones stepped down as CEO last year following a bout with prostate cancer.
As Soho House celebrates its 20th anniversary in the U.S., Jones believes his growing empire will stand the test of time. “Fundamentally, people still love getting a warm welcome, being looked after, having something nice to drink and eat and being surrounded by people they want to hang out with,” he said. ” I don’t think that’s ever going to change.”