Soho House, the exclusive London-based members’ club, has gambled $8 million on a Simcoe Street outpost that’s the surest place in Toronto to bump into celebs
On Wednesday, July 25, a group of 30 people gathered for a secret meeting in the boardroom of a nondescript office building on Adelaide West. Among them were the heiress Trinity Jackman, indie record exec Jeff Remedios, TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey, interior designer Anwar Mukhayesh, Sony Music president Shane Carter and the society queen bee Ashleigh Dempster. Together they represented a cross-section of the city’s new establishment—a group that had been carefully corralled by the organizers of the London-based Soho House to help decide who deserved to be a founding member of the private club’s new Toronto outpost.
Tim Geary, Soho’s membership czar, opened the meeting by explaining why the club was coming to Toronto: the city is a creative hotbed, it’s vibrant and growing, it has come into its own. In the weeks leading up to this meeting, each person on the committee had been asked to nominate 20 or 25 people for potential membership. The roughly 700 people on the resulting list had then been invited to apply to Soho House Toronto, and now it was time for the committee to vet the applications. The process was as precisely choreographed as a production of Swan Lake.
The original Soho House London was opened in 1995 by the English restaurateur Nick Jones. It has since expanded to 10 locations, including New York and Berlin. Founding membership at the Toronto club is $1,200 a year (or $2,000 if you want access to international venues). The House, as it’s known, is targeted at globe-trotting “creative types”—young fashion designers, filmmakers, writers, artists and entrepreneurs, as well as famous musicians and movie stars. From the start, part of the allure has been bragging rights—the ability to claim membership to the same club as Kate Moss or Kristen Stewart, depending on your vintage.
In other cities, to ensure that the initial membership is diverse and not just the extension of a single clique, the selection committee was composed of a disparate and previously unacquainted group of artistic influencers and tastemakers. A sound theory, but a tall order in Toronto, given its incestuous social scene. Committee members exchanged air kisses, and the names of would-be members were greeted with multiple nods of recognition. Geary—who has overseen the openings of four Soho Houses in North America—couldn’t resist making a crack: “Does everyone in this city know everyone?”
Before Soho House, the majority of London’s private clubs remained the stuffy domain of white-haired, pinstriped gentlemen, the sorts of places where Darwin could exchange witticisms with Dickens over a dry sherry. In the early ’90s, Jones opened a casual French bistro called Cafe Boheme in the trendy Soho neighbourhood. When the space upstairs became available, he assumed the lease and opened the first Soho House. Jones decorated the 12,000-square-foot club in an haute hobo style carefully calibrated to make his members feel comfortable putting their feet on a table—or dancing on one. The banker boys of The City were unofficially unwelcome, but otherwise an anything-goes attitude prevailed. The club counted among its members Hugh Grant, Chrissy Hynde, the Gallagher brothers and David Bowie. In the spring of 1996, Jones took the party mobile to the Cannes Film Festival—long before “pop-up” was a ubiquitous marketing term, he chartered a yacht so that Soho House could host the hottest party on the Riviera. By that fall, the club had a waiting list. It has ever since.
Soho House was New London in all its pill-popping, electro-thumping, mid-’90s glory. British glamour girls like Kate Moss and Sienna Miller came for the privacy afforded by a members-only scene. There were no photographers or (worse) autograph seekers to witness the revelry. The House grew in notoriety when, in 2002, Jude Law’s two-year-old daughter swallowed a discarded ecstasy tablet while attending another child’s birthday party at the club. Following a four-month investigation, the Westminster Council ruled that, in order to keep his licence, Jones would have to enforce random bag searches, provide a kids-only washroom and remove flat surfaces in all toilet stalls. It was a setback, but there was no use crying over spilled pills. Following successful satellite outposts—one in the English countryside and one in the heart of Notting Hill—Soho House was taking a leap across the pond.
Before it had even opened, Soho House New York was earning the kind of PR you can’t buy. Thousands of aspiring it-people eagerly applied for membership. The secret selection committee included Nicole Kidman (who spent time at Soho House London with her then-husband, Tom Cruise), the director Stephen Daldry, the actors Alan Cumming and Griffin Dunne, and the fashion designer Zac Posen. The grand opening was predictably star-studded: Julianne Moore, Demi Moore, Rachel Weisz, Debbie Harry and the Coen brothers attended. In its first year, the new venture received the era’s ultimate pop-cultural plug—a Sex and the City plot line (Samantha is furious to find herself on the waiting list).
Still, there were growing pains: Soho management loosened its no-suits stance—this was New York, home of Wall Street, after all, where every Carrie Bradshaw had her eye on a Mr. Big. It wasn’t long before the club was known as a place where bankers and hedge fund managers spent happy hour. Jones, who usually dresses like a cool dad heading up to the cottage, has called the failure to maintain Soho’s original ethos the biggest mistake he ever made. Starting in 2009, a thousand banker types (almost a quarter of the club’s members) were enraged to find that their memberships would not be renewed. Those allowed to stay were asked to leave the corporate wardrobe at the office—the irony of a dress code at a supposed hub of creativity was lost on Soho’s brass.