L.A.'s Soho House Turns 5: Membership Rejections, Success Secrets Revealed in Oral History
For the first time, on the private club's fifth anniversary in L.A., the key players reveal how they made it a success, why the Real Housewives will never get in and the vague rules for which creative types do make the cut: "The very worst people ... doubled our satisfaction in rejecting them."
This story first appeared in the April 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
When Soho House made its Hollywood debut five years ago this month, there were some who doubted its longevity. Yes, the club's previous incarnations, in London and New York, had been very successful. And everyone loved the sweeping view from the balcony. But would Hollywood really line up for membership in an office-tower club started by a few anonymous Brits?
The answer, of course, has been a resounding yes. In a remarkably short time, Soho House has become the most important club in Hollywood — a high-wattage magnet for A-listers and dealmakers. (It easily tops the field in THR's annual Power Lunch survey of hundreds of top players.) L.A. may have no center, but the industry now does.
The club was the brainchild of a quiet 51-year-old Brit named Nick Jones, who opened the London original in 1995 as a haven for the creative types who had just started to colonize the city's Soho district. The club quickly emerged as an arty, egalitarian alternative to stuffy stalwarts like White's and Annabel's. The first stateside branch launched in Manhattan's then-edgy Meatpacking District eight years later, but by the time Jones headed to Hollywood, it had gained a bad reputation for letting in too many Wall Street suits (which they would later clean up and out "by purging 400 people," says former membership director Tim Geary).
With their mysterious admissions policies — in which a nebulous ideal of "creativity" is valued above net worth and job titles — and studied resistance to ostentation, Jones and his membership committee have seemed to delight in upending Hollywood's carefully cultivated status signifiers. Several execs were banned because they were thought to be abusive to their assistants. It's not uncommon to see a fairly anonymous screenwriter get whisked to his table while an agency heavyweight cools his heels at the bar.
To mark its L.A. outpost's anniversary, the key figures behind the notoriously tight-lipped club — which is in the midst of a global expansion to such far-flung locales as Barcelona and Istanbul, financed by billionaire owner Ron Burkle — agreed to talk exclusively to THR for the first time about the well-choreographed campaign they launched to make Soho House a full-fledged Hollywood institution and arbiter of entertainment clout. Here's the story of the most star-packed club in the world.
"People were excited to join but then didn’t know how to use the club," says Anderson (second from right). "Then they started to realize that it was a home away from home. Nobody’s going to judge you — you’re not spending too much time here. That’s the point." From left: Steve Nolte (member relations), general manager Stacy Bowers, Tino DeMartino (member relations), Anderson and Stone were photographed March 19 at Soho House West Hollywood.
NICK JONES, SOHO HOUSE FOUNDER It was nerve-racking, taking Soho House to L.A. I'm very used to going into towns and saying, "Private member club," and people saying, "That won't work here," and there was a bit of that here. So we came in and did our pop-up versions during the awards season for several years and let people know what we did.
MARKUS ANDERSON, GLOBAL MEMBERSHIP DIRECTOR Six years of Oscar pop-ups. The first was 2004; we had just opened in New York. Obviously Nick had his eye on L.A. It was his way of saying hello.
MATTHEW RHYS, ACTOR AND FORMER LONDON MEMBERSHIP COMMITTEE MEMBER Those Oscar parties, there was no better testing ground.
HILARY SHOR, PRODUCER The guest list was invitation-only — very, very select. They'd rent different fabulous locations around the city.
JOHN MCILWEE, BUSINESS MANAGER First they were at Merv Griffin's place, then the old Entourage house, then the raw space that became Soho House.
SHOR God, was it fun! At the beginning, to introduce Soho to L.A., I gave a series of private dinners. One was for Madonna, where Jamie Oliver was the chef. The year Keira Knightley was nominated for her first Oscar, I threw her a party in a house that Soho House rented on Doheny. No press! No photographers! No social media. People could just let their hair down. People go to the Vanity Fair party and other industry things because they have to. They went to Soho House because they wanted to. They felt like it was home. That's the gestalt of Soho House — it's like Cheers for fabulous people.
TIM GEARY, FORMER MEMBERSHIP DIRECTOR We didn't expect anything of them. We didn't force gift bags in their hands. We had sponsors offering tens of thousands to put hand cream on the table, but Nick refused. He didn't want to muddy the brand. And people didn't know how you got invited, which was a good way to establish ourselves. The muster of how to get in remains one of Soho House's mysterious and attractive features. It was a well-considered system; early invites were much sought-after.
ANDERSON The delay of actually opening Soho House L.A. helped us. We had that six years of getting to know the town — the people who got it and were great.
JONES We came across the building we are in by luck, really. Lee Maen, who has BOA downstairs, phoned us up, and I immediately looked at it and I went, "Yes!" I loved that there was private valet and the view, that 360 of L.A. And I figured that everyone we want to have as a member drives down this road three or four times a week.
JULIE PLEC, SHOWRUNNER, THE VAMPIRE DIARIES So many people in this business secretly hate where we live, and then you go to the penthouse of 9200 Sunset and you go, "This is why I live here!"
NICOLE CLEMENS, SENIOR VP, FX NETWORKS That crazy view. There's not really anywhere else where you're so high up, any other penthouse restaurants in that part of town. It gives you perspective.
JESSE TYLER FERGUSON, ACTOR It's such a celebration of the city, those 360-degree views.
DAVID UNGER, CO-CEO, THREE SIX ZERO ENTERTAINMENT I went there once with Axl Rose, and he looked out over the balcony and gave me this amazing historical tour of his life on the Sunset Strip — the club where he first played, the place where he lived behind a dumpster, his first appearance at The Roxy. I was standing there, looking at this vast city below, and I felt, "This is exactly the spot where I need to be."
BEN SILVERMAN, FOUNDER AND CHAIRMAN, ELECTUS I helped Nick get the permit there. We also debated the Hollywood Athletic Club space further east. But there are a group of people out there that think you need a passport to go from Santa Monica to Burbank, so the more central you can be geographically, the more you can blend into every world.
SAMANTHA STONE, MEMBERSHIP DIRECTOR, SOHO HOUSE WEST HOLLYWOOD To establish ourselves in L.A., it needed to be where it is — particularly in the beginning. We're in the middle of everything. It almost sounds like that SNL skit "The Californians," but it's just so easy to get to. After all, we're a city where people bail all the time.
GEARY The parking in the basement is hugely helpful: People don't like to be seen going in or out.
CLEMENS It's a paparazzi-free zone.
VICKY CHARLES, DESIGN DIRECTOR, SOHO HOUSE Waldo [Fernandez] did initial schemes for the space. We design and build as we go. We did about 60 percent of the furniture and lighting in the last six weeks. I went everywhere, San Francisco, all over West Hollywood — all those regulars on La Cienega. I kind of shopped all day, with trucks following me around. Traditional hospitality groups repeat the same chair 50 times. We don't do that. It's OK if a good chair has a hole in it. It's eclectic and worn.
WALDO FERNANDEZ, DESIGNER It was, "Let's do a space that feels like a residence that's old and charming." We wanted people to feel like they were at home having drinks.
JONES When we first looked at the space on the roof, we immediately saw a swimming pool there because we'd done it in New York and Shoreditch [in London]. But some close friends said: "Nobody's going swimming in L.A. Everyone's got a pool." So we put a garden in L.A.
FERNANDEZ They could only do a pool 4½-feet deep. We said, "Let's kill the pool and put a pond."
RHYS I've enjoyed the evolution of the pond in the restaurant. People were saying early on, "This will be disastrous." But they eventually got the right mix of lighting so people wouldn't fall, as did occasionally happen. Yet in a way, I'm saddened about that. It was always a moment of potential heightened drama, especially with all of those tottering heels. It was a spectator sport!
Lunchtime on the terrace centers on the Garden Table, "our version of a salad bar," says Bowers. "The first time I saw it, I thought, 'I’m working at a place that has a buffet.' But we had six salads on the menu, and every single one was modified by everyone. It’s just mayhem. This was the solution." Adds Anderson of members' dietary specificity: "I’ve never seen more modifications. It’s another league in L.A."
MCILWEE In the garden, there are these people who value the lower area as better and there are people who value the upper area as better. I prefer the lower; it's private. But some people want to sit up top, where they can see everybody and be seen. There's definitely an Eastside/Westside thing with that.
AMY ADAMS, ACTRESS I love the idea of transforming an interior into an exterior, and the space itself is just so enchanting.
FERNANDEZ It's become more than a club; it's a workplace. I don't think Nick had that in mind. A lot of people don't have office spaces; they just use a computer. People can use it as office space, and it feels like a home. A big company came to me not long ago — I can't tell you the name, worth $40 billion. They said, "We want the feel of our space to be like Soho House feels."
PAUL HAGGIS, WRITER-DIRECTOR-PRODUCER When Soho House opened in L.A., I burrowed my way into one of its booths in the bar and almost never left. I would show up around 10 a.m. with my computer and have breakfast, lunch and sometimes an early dinner while writing. My one small criticism would be that writers tend to stay all day and take up the booths.
DANNY STRONG, CO-CREATOR, EMPIRE I show up, I'll order breakfast, I'll return emails for an hour or an hour and a half, then I'll write for three hours, then order lunch, then write a little bit more. And then sometimes I'll reward myself. In the New York one, they have candy jars; there's not the same sort of candy around in L.A. — they're so healthy!
MICHAEL LOMBARDO, PRESIDENT OF PROGRAMMING, HBO It's like a fancy Starbucks. When I go in the middle of the day, most tables are taken up by writers on laptops who want nothing more than to be left alone.
STRONG I like the inside booths. The ones facing the windows are ideal — although they are often taken, so it can feel like a war. There's less of a chance there that someone's going to spot me and want to pitch me something. It's hard to get into the flow when people are pitching. Sometimes there's so many industry people there, and everyone wants to turn it into a meeting.
STONE We tell people to stay from 8 a.m. to close and order just a glass of water. We don't care if you order a bottle of champagne. That struck people. People [in L.A.] were used to having to order bottle service to hold a table. Which is so, eww.
The club’s homey, worn furnishings were personally curated by Charles and Fernandez.
JENNI KONNER, SHOWRUNNER, GIRLS I joined Soho House for one reason, which is the Sunday brunch. I have two kids, and we go every single Sunday with my boyfriend, pretty much. It's a dream. The kids go to a movie in the screening room; we leisurely read The New York Times. We run into people we know all the time. The kids have friends to play with. It's where we camp out.
CLEMENS When my kids were little, we'd go every Sunday for kids' club.
CHAD HODGE, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, WAYWARD PINES My partner and I hosted Thanksgiving for 14 at Soho House. They had arts and crafts for the kids. It's not the first thing you think when you think of Soho House, but it's so homey there.
KONNER A dad we see there all the time will go to the screening room on Sundays with his kid and nap.
STONE We have few rules. Obviously, we limit the places you speak on the phone, and no photos. Essentially we expect you to be a good person. And should any of those "rules" — I hate that word — but should those be broken, it's just not worth it to us. Because we ask so little.
HODGE The rule of not being on the phone: At first it felt rigid, like a rule in school, and then it felt like a release. You concentrate on your work instead of your Twitter feed.
FERGUSON Often in a conversation at my table at other places, I'm fixated on someone clearly attempting to take a picture of me from somewhere else in the room with their phone. They think they're being subtle, and I'm thinking about how they're going to catch me midbite. Here, with the no-camera rule, it's not going to happen.
PLEC It's equal-opportunity scolding. They'd yell at Zac Efron just as much as you. It's the egalitarian dynamic: Nobody wants to feel like a douchebag.
SOPHIE LOPEZ, KATE HUDSON'S STYLIST I celebrated my 30th birthday here, and I got hammered and there was no evidence!
STONE If someone — or, more likely, their guest — posts something, I'll call them and say, "Wow." There's good-naughty, and we're all about that. The camera thing is bad-naughty. It's enforced.
ASHLEY LENT, FORMER CULTURAL PROGRAMMING DIRECTOR, SOHO HOUSE WEST HOLLYWOOD People need to be able to drop their armor. It's a place where it's OK to be experimental: That's the environment we were trying to create from the start. We've done all sorts of things — a live reading of the Shampoo script with Warren Beatty, Prince playing. One year, for Halloween, we did an installation where we had a closet with "VIP" inscribed on the door, a red rope in front of it and a girl with a clipboard. Behind the door was a strobe light, and we had recorded laughter and people talking, so it seemed like it was the most fun part of the entire space. You'd go up to the woman with the clipboard, and she would say, "I'm sorry, you're not on the list." The piece was called "The Fear of Rejection."
GEARY We imposed a value system on a community that celebrates financial success over morality. Someone would put forward a name and note that their movie just made $200 million. But someone may have known they were cheating on their boyfriend with a woman and were widely known to be an asshole. That happened more than you would know. It was discussed in committee meetings. There was a great sense of doing the right thing. The very worst people, it mattered tremendously to them, which doubled our satisfaction in rejecting them. People denied would say there must be a mistake. "When do I get my membership card?" There was no recourse.
RHYS I was on the membership committee when I was 24, after the original had been up and running and debauching in London. Having done membership at the club about 16 years ago, where it was Nick and a pile of membership forms and if you weren't an ex-lover you'd probably get in, you'd come to L.A. and they'd read out these names — "Sylvester Stallone!" — and you'd come out of these meetings pinching yourself black-and-blue, thinking how glamorous it'd become. You elbow your friends and see who's across the room. It's this fantasyland among the clouds.
MCILWEE They don't take all of the usual suspects. It's not snotty. That's why it works.
GEARY Secretly I'd hear of great joy that people would have in knowing friends, colleagues and neighbors who weren't admitted. People whose bosses were incensed that they weren't let in while their junior executives were.
CELINE KHAVARANI, VP VIP RELATIONS, PRADA I was part of the founding membership committee. They didn't say to me, "You work in fashion, so introduce us around." It wasn't structured like that. It was people who were fluid and fun and open and interesting. It was a leap of faith, and it grew from there.
GEARY Brits are not good at celebrating success. Anyone who crows about their success or trades on it is quickly brought down. There's a celebration of subtlety. It's very British to undersell. People who undersold themselves were likelier to be admitted.
MCILWEE There's self-policing. They don't want any assholes in there. If they start to let them in there, then you have to sit with them.
GEARY I [imagined] a scheme where we would tell numerous people that they could vote for someone not to get in if they'd pay for their annual fee. I could have collected 20 times for certain people.
SHOR There were lots of debates about whether to allow agents. It was a fight, but gradually they figured out not all agents were awful.
The club boasts striking 360-degree views of L.A. “It’s this fantasyland among the clouds,” says Rhys.
STONE There's no ban on agents, there's no ban on publicists. It's about finding the right ones. We're just particular. That said, if an agent does get in, and they're wearing a tie, tightly, I am going to go right up to them and say, "Loosen it." Seriously, I will go up to them and tell them to bring it down a notch. And by the way, the no-assholes rule is for every single creative sector. It's not just agents.
GEARY We denied access to every Real Housewife who applied. Kim Kardashian has unsuccessfully tried numerous times. Kobe Bryant showed up and chose not to join. We didn't let him up. There was a debate over Britney Spears. Not sure how that played out. We tried not to give membership to people who would fuel paparazzi or bring press. The hardest memberships to deal with, though, were the headmistress of the school you wanted your kids to get into and the coaches of my sons' baseball and soccer teams.
JONES After about 14 months, I knew it was working, after the newness had rubbed off and the renewals had come in, and you know you're going to be around.
FERGUSON I don't think you realize that something was missing until you have it. I was always surprised that there wasn't a Soho House here, particularly with how highly they prize privacy in Los Angeles.
UNGER It's spawned a lot of copycats. Its DNA has been replicating everywhere. The Ace Hotel is modeled on Soho House: design, food and the communal vibe. But none of them has the mix of talent and contacts and timing to make it work as well as Nick has.
CLEMENS There had been canteens like The Grill, but nothing of this generation. Morton's and Chasen's had closed. Soho House is this era's glamour spot. In L.A., there's no center. It provided a place for everyone to congregate, an anchoring center: the town square.
GEARY It's a celebration of understatement, antithetical to this culture of superiority and celebration of accomplishment. It was very carefully studied and planned, a fantastically interesting social experiment.
Additional reporting by Jane Carlson, Stephanie Chan and Maer Roshan.