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.
Jones opened three more satellites in 2010—in Los Angeles, Berlin and Miami. The international expansion was financed by the English hospitality billionaire Richard Caring, who bought an 80 per cent stake in the company for £105 million. Soho L.A. is where George Clooney brings his dad for birthday dinner and where a camera-phobic Robert Pattinson recently went to drown his post-breakup sorrows. A second buyout at the beginning of 2012—this time by the American billionaire Ron Burkle, who bought 60 per cent of the company from Caring and Jones for £250 million—provided the booty for yet another forward march.
Jones has been sniffing around Toronto since at least 2007, and he began to plant Soho House branding seeds in 2009, holding a one-night pop-up TIFF party for the movie Harry Brown on the lower Bay subway platform. The actors Clive Owen and Michael Caine attended, and the underground party was among the most buzzed about at that year’s festival. The following year, a Soho House lounge opened for five nights during TIFF, this time in a small unmarked retail space down an alley off Spadina. The King’s Speech star Colin Firth celebrated his 50th birthday there along with Harvey Weinstein, Geoffrey Rush, Atom Egoyan and Michael Ondaatje. Last year, a society reporter could capture much of the TIFF celebrity scene simply by crashing on one of Soho House’s temporary couches.
The club’s new, permanent location, at the corner of Adelaide and Simcoe, is in a three-storey 1830s Georgian building known as the Bishop’s Block. The structure is attached to the Shangri-La Hotel, where Soho members will have pool and gym privileges, as well as reduced room rates. The building’s façade was taken apart brick by brick and then carefully restored to its original glory by Soho House Toronto’s landlord, Westbank Project. Jones has spent $8 million on renovations, decor and various other expenses associated with launching the club.
Much effort has gone into creating Soho Toronto’s effortlessly chic aesthetic. During his visit to the site in June, Jones decided he didn’t like the wood panelling on the walls—it looked like new wood trying to look like old wood, he complained. The panelling was torn down and replaced with a new shipment of authentically aged lumber, reclaimed from a church in upstate New York. When Jones deemed the 20-foot-long antique table in the second-floor restaurant a hair too wide (he didn’t want his members to be forced to shout across it at their dinner companions), it was shaved down to the desired width. The 19th-century bar on the main floor was bought from an antique dealer in Pennsylvania, and velvet chairs were sourced from Paris.
I met Jones outside the building last August, when it was still a hard hats–only zone. He has the unfussy confidence of a man who makes his own luck. He explained that he had looked at a bunch of Toronto sites but didn’t feel the urge to pull the trigger until he saw the Bishop’s Block building a year ago. “I hope it works—we’ll see,” he said, as if contemplating the outcome of a soufflé.
He may act like he’s entering the Toronto market on a whim, but team Soho has studied the city’s demographics and crunched the numbers. Do enough people have the money and the inclination to keep Soho House afloat after TIFF’s stars head back to planet Hollywood? Jones says yes, or rather he says, “I fink so,” pronounced in a defiantly non-posh London accent.
He wouldn’t be in Toronto if it weren’t for the success of TIFF, the city’s strong economy and the vote of confidence by newly arrived international luxury hotel chains like the Ritz-Carlton, Shangri-La, Thompson and Trump. Toronto has also become a major stop on the movie map, with celebrity-studded projects shooting here year-round and blockbuster movies—The Dark Knight Rises and The Hunger Games, for example—now scheduling official Toronto premieres as part of their promotional tours. Ten years ago, this would have sounded only slightly more plausible than a premiere in Yellowknife.
The Spoke Club on King West, which was opened in 2004 by Galen Weston Jr. and his sister, Alannah Weston, initially rode a similar wave of exclusivity-based hype, and remains Soho’s only direct competition in Toronto. The original mission statement of the Spoke was almost identical to the Soho sales pitch: a boho party paradise for “like-minded people.” No suits. No douchebags. (The similarities were no coincidence—Weston Jr. dreamed up the venture while visiting a number of London clubs, including the original Soho.) After a couple of years, the realities of filling the club set in, and today the Spoke, with its once-prestigious rooftop patio, is largely the domain of digital marketers and PR people, and plays host to client meetings and product launch parties—financially stable but certainly not Kate Moss–cool. As one former Spoke member tells me: “You could swing a wrecking ball through the dining room on most nights.”
A Soho House membership was the social litmus test of the summer. Official invites were mailed out in batches, to help milk the white-knuckle period. Since nothing is less cool than desperation, cocktail party chatter on the subject was marked by feigned indifference. The same people who checked their mailbox every morning would, when the subject was raised, act surprised at the news that the invitations had been mailed out. “I’m going to wait and see what the club is all about” was code for “I haven’t gotten anything yet.” Invitees bragged about knowing people on the secret membership committee and, in an obnoxious #signofthetimes, tweeted, Instagrammed and Facebooked photos of the telltale blue and gold information booklet (no caption required—anyone who needed to know what it was already knew).
The first wave of invitees included many of the usual society page suspects: the director Deepa Mehta, Roots founder Michael Budman, chef Susur Lee, musicians Feist and Emily Haines, CBC executive vice-president Kirstine Stewart, Metro Morning host Matt Galloway and fashion designer Jeremy Laing. In addition to the boldfacers, membership is a mix of gonnabes (Soho House’s pet term for artistic up-and-comers) and make-it-happen people—art collectors, movie producers, talent agents, editors, cheque writers and script green-lighters. The club’s chosen ones are evidence of the recent shift in the city’s social establishment. After more than three decades of Yorkville-based Glitter Girl supremacy, members of the next-gen cool crowd spend their social hours on Queen West and King West, and are more inclined to brag about arts organization affiliations than designer handbags. They are the same tribe who go to Art Basel every winter, they have in-depth conversations about burrata, and they understand branding and networking in ways that would make an ’80s-era party girl’s head spin.
Nick Jones often says that his “favourite member” is a hungry, 20-something screenwriter who has yet to sell his first script. Soho is the place where this ambitious whippersnapper can cavort with the next Harvey Weinstein (or maybe even the real Harvey Weinstein). True to this vision, Soho House Toronto has made a concerted effort to bring in the younger demographic: there is a membership discount of 40 per cent for those under 28. Yet it’s the rare hungry young screenwriter (or working Toronto arts professional of any age for that matter) who will gladly pay an annual $720 fee for wine tastings, lecture series and networking opportunities. “It’s not like this is the only place you can meet people with money,” says the theatre director Elenna Mosoff, who declined her invite because she found the cost prohibitive.
That Soho House Toronto would be the hottest ticket this September was a foregone conclusion. During the first weekend of TIFF, flashbulbs seemed in perpetual pop mode as stars hurried inside. Kristen Stewart, Kate Hudson, Matt Damon, Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Bruce Willis, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Dustin Hoffman, Naomi Watts, Zac Efron and Jennifer Lawrence all turned up, and the parties raged until 4 a.m. every night.
There were a few glitches: on the first night, Jones and his team were furiously moving furniture and installing fixtures an hour before the party for the opening TIFF movie, Looper, was due to start. (The smell of wet paint lingered; the women’s washroom was missing one tap; the third floor and rooftop were still under construction.) Some Toronto members were irritated when they got an email in late August informing them that their memberships would not commence until after TIFF—unwelcome news if you’re someone who joined Soho based on the promise of unrestricted celebrity schmoozing.
The founding members were first allowed into the club on September 15, when Soho Toronto hosted its inaugural party. The fact that the Brazilian Ball (for decades the biggest ticket in town) held its final bash on the same September night provided an almost eerily perfect metaphor for this changing of the guard. The new kid pulled out all the stops—three floors of free cocktails and food, live music and DJs. And of course the everyone-knows-everyone nature of Toronto was on full display: Ben Mulroney and his wife, Jessica, hung with their usual crowd of socialite friends; the Harbord Room golden boy chef Cory Vitiello was there with his new squeeze, Citytv fashion plate Mary Kitchen; the MTV VJ count was high, as was the tally of CBC talent. The first-floor library bar turned into a high-octane dance party, one that topped TIFF festivities on the reckless abandonment scale: Jeffrey Remedios, Kirstine Stewart, Susur Lee, National Post society reporter Shinan Govani, CBC host Jian Ghomeshi and socialite dentist Ken Montague all cut some hardcore rug to Whitney Houston’s anthem “How Will I Know?”
At the third-floor bar, known as the Pretzel Bell, the mask-wearing Brooklyn-based performance artists The Bumbys were offering their signature service: on-the-spot appraisals of people based solely on their appearance. It sounds like a high school nightmare come to life, except that this group couldn’t wait to be evaluated and scored. Nobody I spoke with at the party got less than a nine out of 10.
In the next two years, Soho House will open four more locations, in Mumbai, Chicago, Istanbul and Barcelona. The bigger the club gets, the more it risks brand dilution: how does a business that promotes itself as exclusive succeed as a chain? Jones says he will never repeat the mistakes of New York in Toronto. When I asked Soho’s membership director Markus Anderson about the club’s dress code, he said that there is no way anyone in the corporate world will be allowed to join. Jones is less definitive: “There is a difference between a suit and a suit,” he says. Bay Street may have a chance of getting in after all.