It’s 2018, and the world is glued to their TV screens to watch the wedding of actress Meghan Markle to Prince Harry. In the UK, BBC presenter Kirsty Young is commentating. As the camera scans the congregation, she says, ‘Oh, there’s my husband in the church… and my children.’
That husband is Nick Jones, founder and chief executive of the Soho House membership clubs. He’s a good friend of Ms Markle: the new Duchess of Sussex regularly frequented his Toronto club while filming Suits, the TV series where she made her name. She and Harry (reportedly) had their first date at one of the clubs and she (allegedly) had her hen party at the Soho Farmhouse in Oxfordshire.
Nick Jones also made his name in suits: or rather, his antipathy to them.
‘Soho House in Hong Kong: how new private members club for creative types – no suits allowed – will be different’, ran the headline in the South China Morning Post in May 2018.
I find it highly unlikely that any suited and booted members or guests will be turned away from the doors of the club when it opens this month. But the dress code is clear: The Houses foster a non-corporate atmosphere. To preserve this casual environment, members should refrain from corporate entertaining and wearing corporate attire at the House.
That Nick Jones should be a sworn enemy of the default article of professional male attire is one of the ironies about the man. Meeting him at Soho House’s latest London property at the former BBC TV centre in White City, I am especially curious about what’s on his feet.
Let me explain. A friend who is an authority on menswear describes the past two centuries as the ‘inexorable march of casualisation’. So when Nick Jones set up the first Soho House in 1995, the battle was very much between the creatives (dress how you want) and the suits. Men of mine and Nick’s vintage learned to ditch the ties, then the jackets and embrace jeans as feasible workplace attire. But a divide remains to this day: trainers or shoes? I struggle to feel comfortable interviewing anyone with sportswear on my feet. So I’ve gone for my usual desert boots compromise. But what will Nick – a man who could have been born in brogues – have chosen?
It’s impossible to see at first, as he bounds into the main bar. It’s 10am and the whole place – gym, terrace, swimming pool, café – is packed, seemingly, with his mates and colleagues. So the few steps required to negotiate his way to my table is an obstacle course of hugs, joshing, promises to meet later, have lunch, ring.
He finally sits down. I sneakily clock the gear. T-shirt, loose cotton jacket, comfy grey trousers, an outfit equally good for a workout or a night in front of the Suits box set. As for his feet… we’ll come back to that.
In the club there are voices, skins, accents from all over the globe, which is just how the founder likes it. ‘Why are we still here and a relevant part of society? We are in a lot of cities. It makes us interesting, multicultural, diverse,’ he says. ‘We like a citizen of nowhere’.
It’d be wrong to say there are all shapes and sizes here, however. Just about everyone looks as if they are ready for a modelling contract or a TV presenting gig. Not that ageism is an issue. Today’s special appears to be elegant older mothers (no fillers or fake tan here) meeting their twentysomething daughters, the ones with the promising advertising and
‘All the clubs start with the people,’ says Jones. ‘If you walk around the club now I’d say they’re all nice, decent people. You can sit and chat with anyone.’ And he does, criss-crossing the flightpaths from Mumbai to Malibu, Toronto to Tokyo (which will be the third Asian House). A work guru once coined the phrase MBWA: ‘Management By Walking Around’, Nick’s seems to be MBSC: Management By Sitting and Chatting.
He’s proud of the fact that you could show up blindfolded at any of his properties, take it off and know instantly you are in a Soho House. But now, having reduced his shareholding and brought in two very wealthy investors in 2008 and 2013, the network is expanding – Bangkok, Shanghai and Upstate New York are also on the horizon.
Isn’t it becoming a bit like the thing that Jones, the former management trainee with hospitality group Trusthouse Forte, wanted to escape from: a global hotel chain? Perhaps it’s that – let’s not call it fear, but maybe ‘anxiety’ – that has led to the aesthetic of the new Hong Kong property on the Sheung Wan/Sai Ying Pun borders.
True, the interiors have been created by their in-house agency. But they’ve done their research: the colour palette references the work of Hong Kong film director Wong Kar-wai (you’d assume In the Mood for Love rather than Chungking Express).
The Hong Kong-educated artist and presenter Kate Bryan is now head of collections for the organisation. You can bet curating the Hong Kong house was a labour of love, as she’s brought together established artists such as Lee Kit and Tsang Kin-wah, historic works by Fan Ho, Yau Leung, Wong Wo Bik and Choi Yan Chi and younger talents like such as Firenze Lai and South Ho.
But the founder is interested in the members first and the buildings and interiors second.
‘Every city we go to I massively fall in love with the city and the people’, says Jones. ‘I didn’t know Hong Kong that well, but I always felt it had the energy of a New York.’
Still, speak to the creative classes who are SH’s core members and you wonder if Hong Kong was the obvious choice. Jones concedes that its image as the place of ‘expats and bankers’ lingers on: ‘but if you dig deep there is a highly creative culture in Hong Kong. The young, and I speak as someone who’s old, are really interesting.’
So – you’ll be wondering about the footwear. They’re brown. They’re leather. They’re super soft and rather stylish. But they are definitely, indubitably, shoes. Revolutions can only go so far.