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Tuesday, Oct 22, 2019

Rude Travel by Vir Sanghvi: A relaxed kind of clubbing

The Brits invented the stuffy, snobbish member’s club. But they are making up for it with a new generation of laidback clubs.

brunch Updated: Oct 14, 2019 13:00 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
Soho Farmhouse intends to combine the values of the city clubs with a farm-themed hotel
Soho Farmhouse intends to combine the values of the city clubs with a farm-themed hotel
         

I have never been one for clubs. I think it is a combination of factors. First of all, clubs always seem to me about keeping people out as much as they are about keeping people in.

And then there is the whole social acceptability thing. At many, if not most, Indian clubs, there is a committee of members who check you out and decide if you are the right sort of chap and fit to join their exalted ranks. I can just about understand people who want to judge my professional competence or my intelligence even.

But social acceptability?

That’s a really objectionable concept.

I suspect I inherited my views from my father who had contempt for most Indian clubs. As somebody who remembered pre-Independence India, he associated the clubs with the Raj. Many of them were set up to make the sahibs feel at home in an environment where only white people were allowed and the natives were kept out. When the brown sahibs eventually took over from the white ones, they abandoned the colour bar and replaced it with their own ideas of social acceptability.

The most notable revolt against the English club culture came with the foundation of the Groucho Club in London
The most notable revolt against the English club culture came with the foundation of the Groucho Club in London

I accept, of course, that my views are not entirely reasonable. People who join, say, the Bombay Gymkhana, are not necessarily trying to recreate the glory days of the Raj for a browner elite. They like the club’s sporting facilities and don’t always remember that the club would not allow Indians to enter it in the heyday of the Raj.

The Brits love Clubs.... The Carlton Club for instance, was the Conservative Party in a relatively relaxed mode.

I have to say to my father’s credit that his influence was strong enough for me to retain his prejudices into late middle age. They even survived an English education!

The Brits love Clubs. For decades, real power was to be found in the gentlemen’s clubs of Pall Mall. The Carlton Club for instance, was the Conservative Party in a relatively relaxed mode. White’s was the centre of the establishment.

Later, in the 60s, London clubs became less stodgy and more glamorous. The late Mark Birley, who founded Annabel’s, went on to start other clubs that gave the Establishment a chance to let its hair down. His old clubs are less picky now that the rag trade millionaire Richard Caring has bought them but the British culture of rejecting applicants or even, of black balling them, is not entirely dead.

Nick Jones opened Soho Farmhouse four years ago
Nick Jones opened Soho Farmhouse four years ago

The most notable revolt against the English club culture came with the foundation of the Groucho Club in London in 1985. The Groucho was named for that old Groucho Marx quote about how he would refuse to join any club whose standards were so low that it was willing to admit him. It marked a rebellion against the stuffy old establishment clubs and drew its members from advertising, publishing and the media. 

A decade after the Groucho had changed the rules, a restaurateur called Nick Jones opened Soho House, a stone’s throw from the Groucho. Initially regarded as a media club, it soon grew to encompass all ‘creative’ types (including fashion people) and quickly eclipsed the Groucho.

Places like Soho House have become trendy hotels blurring the distinctions
Places like Soho House have become trendy hotels blurring the distinctions

Eventually, Jones sold a controlling interest to Richard Caring (him again!) who sold part of his shares to American billionaire Ron Burkle. At present Burkle is the largest single shareholder but Jones has stayed on to run the group and it is his vision that guides the group.

The original Soho House on Greek Street in London still remains amazingly popular because it has remained true to the values it was founded on. To become a member you have to be part of a creative venture. No matter how rich you are, they will not admit you unless you can demonstrate creative credentials. Businessmen, bankers, corporate types and stock market whiz kids are actively discouraged from applying.

The club will also not allow you to make phone calls or to take pictures in public areas. This has made it a favourite with celebrities who do not want their privacy invaded. You are not allowed to go up to a person you do not know on the club premises. And obvious networking is frowned upon.

Mumbai Soho House is loved for its buzz by the youngsters and for its privacy by the stars
Mumbai Soho House is loved for its buzz by the youngsters and for its privacy by the stars

Ever since the Caring-Burkle money came in, Soho House has expanded around the world at a frantic pace. A New York outpost took a little time to get going but it is now a huge media hub. In Hollywood, the House is a favourite with the movie business. Branches in Istanbul, Barcelona and Amsterdam have become the hottest places in town.

When the Mumbai Soho House opened a year ago, they invited me to join. I thought long and hard about it. Did it fall under my loathing of socially-minded clubs? Or was it okay to join because nobody cared about how you dressed or what your table manners were?

Dishes like this Poke Bowl star on the menu of Mumbai Soho House
Dishes like this Poke Bowl star on the menu of Mumbai Soho House

Eventually, I did became a founder member but because I live in Delhi and am rarely in Juhu, where the Mumbai Soho House is located, I have hardly been there. But I know people who love it. Film stars like the House because it guarantees their privacy. Young people like the buzz. And English friends of mine who stayed there over the winter enjoyed its air of lived-in chic.

When it opened, Soho House, like most London clubs, was an urban affair. Then Nick Jones bought Babington House, a country estate and turned that into a success. Around four years ago, he opened Soho Farmhouse with the intention of combining the values of his city clubs with a farm-themed hotel.

It was a difficult gamble but as I discovered when I went there last fortnight, he has pulled it off. Most British country house hotels are quite formal. This one is even more informal than the city houses. It has 109 rooms and the vibe is determinedly laid back. You are forbidden from wearing corporate attire and nearly all of the men I saw wore round neck T-shirts and jeans. There were few mobiles and no photos in the public areas. Breakfast went on till noon. Services were available around the clock and families were welcome along with their dogs. 

Many of the services are provided by wandering floats at Soho Farmhouse
Many of the services are provided by wandering floats at Soho Farmhouse

Some of the accommodation was pretty basic (the entry-level rooms, called the Piglet rooms are not very welcoming) but over half the property consists of beautiful cottages, villas and large, garden-facing rooms that have been designed to look residential, while providing all the services you would expect from a hotel.

I noticed the little touches that have always characterised Jones’ style. Transport is by converted milk vans (‘floats’) and many of the services are provided by wandering floats. The large cottages have kitchens and should you so require, a breakfast float will arrive and the staff will cook you breakfast in your kitchen. If you are in a partying mood, a cocktail float will draw up and a bartender will set up his operation in your cottage and make drinks for everyone.

The food is good and focuses on high quality local produce. There are innumerable activities from riding to boating to clay pigeon shooting. But if you just want to lounge around all day in the main, largely open air, hospitality space, you will be encouraged to do that too.

By British standards it is not particularly expensive (I paid  £380 per night for a lovely garden room). This may explain why the Farmhouse is always full. Occupancy exceeds 90 per cent around the year and you need to book months in advance to be sure of getting a room.  

The Farmhouse is open, in theory, only to members and their guests but it is, at the end of the day, a hotel with five F&B outlets and full hotel services. Most Houses now offer rooms and though Soho House is a club (around 100,000 members around the world in 24 Houses), it is also a hotel chain.

The food at Soho Farmhouse, like this shepherd’s pie, is good and focuses on high quality local produce
The food at Soho Farmhouse, like this shepherd’s pie, is good and focuses on high quality local produce

In some senses, it offers a modern take on what Adrian Zecha did with Aman hotels two decades ago. Just as the Amans followed no set pattern but each one grew out of Zecha’s vision, the Houses are pretty much what Nick Jones wants them to be.

The difference, of course, is that while Aman was aimed at the financial community and the rich, Jones is targeting successful professionals and his prices reflect that. (For the record, I don’t think Zecha’s Amans with their famously spartan style were any more luxurious than the Soho Houses.)

So does Soho House count as a club? I guess it does. Certainly, Jones treats it that way. But it is larger and more globally spread out than any club would be which makes it – at the moment at least – the largest international chain of hip hotels.

Would my father have approved of my joining? I guess he would have. Soho House is actually the antithesis of everything the old British clubs stood for. And as it expands around the globe (Hong Kong has just opened) it will become less British.

In fact, I wonder, now that Jones has ventured into co-working spaces at some of the Houses, will Soho House really be a Club at all?

I don’t mind. The less clubs, the better!

From HT Brunch, October 13, 2019

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First Published: Oct 12, 2019 22:08 IST

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