Private members’ clubs are a funny creation. On the one hand, a genius business model for the operator. A member has to pay a yearly fee to essentially gain access but still has to pay for all the food and drink they consume. On the other, an unnecessary luxury one might argue.
But walk around Mayfair and there are easily ten or so members’ only establishments all bustling throughout the day and night, and all with long waiting lists. These clubs don’t really exist anywhere else in the world. Nick Jones and Soho House have successfully exported their clubs to a number of international locations, The Arts Club are soon to open an outpost in LA and there’s rumours that Robin Birley is looking to take 5 Hertford Street to New York but nowhere else in the world does a cluster of private hangouts exist like it does in central London.
And there seems to be an ever growing demand for it from the different tribes that reside in these clubs. Open my Comme des Garçons wallet and a handful of membership cards will fall out – including Soho House, The Groucho, Quo Vadis and The Ned. But there’s arguably one person and club that we all owe this to. Step forward, Mark Birley. Birley founded Annabel’s in a basement at 44 Berkeley Square in 1963. Named after his then wife, Lady Annabel (now Lady Annabel Goldsmith), it’s the only nightclub to have played host to the Queen, as well as President Richard Nixon, Lord Lucan and Frank Sinatra. Along with his other establishments including Harry’s Bar and Mark’s Club, the basement restaurant and bar with a dance floor was synonymous with sophistication, exclusivity and good taste.
Fast forward 50 years and I’m standing in the entrance to 46 Berkeley Square in a hard hat and Hi-Vis jacket – admiring a spectacular cantilevered stone staircase in the entrance hall - about to walk around the Grade 1 listed property that will soon be home to the new Annabel’s. Richard Caring, who purchased the Birley clubs in 2007 for £95m, is spending a small fortune on refurbishing and restoring this 26,000 square foot, 18th century Georgian townhouse to bring Annabel’s into the 21st century.
Caring’s preferred interior designer, Martin Brudnizki, who has worked on the interiors of Sexy Fish, The Ivy and is overseeing the project and working closely with the management team including Caring himself, Executive Director of the Birley Clubs and Caprice Holdings Lilly Newell, Guillaume Glipa who recently joined from Chiltern Firehouse as Executive Director of The Birley Clubs, Operations Director Graziano Arricale, membership director Rebecca Burdess and membership manager Astrid Harbord.
The new Annabel’s has been in the making for over four years and as well as retaining the famous basement nightclub – the layout will remain the same with the members’ cloakrooms being in the same location to what they’ve become accustomed to – it’s also going to be a day club with two restaurants, a cigar shop, workspace and a large terraced garden that has a bespoke glass roof designed by Waagner Brio that will put Wimbledon’s Centre Court to shame in the speed that it will close. The club will even have two bespoke scents that are diffused throughout the whole building.
As Operations Director Graziano Arricale says, “the old Annabel’s outgrew itself and the only way to take the club forward was to move it into a new site but Mr Caring didn’t want to move it too far away from its original home and he also really wanted outdoor space.”
The new Annabel’s will be open from 7am to 4am and as Arricale notes, “the club will be more like a hotel when it comes to operations. We’ll only have a couple of hours each day to clean and re-stock the bars before it opens again.” That’s not the only thing that is changing with the reincarnation of the private club. The dress code is going change too. The club has always had a strict dress code for members – Birley only decided to relax the club’s dress code by allowing members to come in without ties in 2002.
“It’s still in discussion but it will be a little more relaxed”, says Arricale. “You have to change with the times and just because someone adheres to the dress code it doesn’t mean they necessarily look smart.” We’re all too aware that an ill-fitting suit looks far worse than a smart, well-cut pair of jeans, crisp tailored shirt and a pair of Bottega Venetta sneakers.
Music has always been an important part of Annabel’s and it will continue to be. The club are working with a brand called L-ISA who are world leaders in music and entertainment systems. And that’s not the only technology they will be using. As Arricale explains, “we have lots of tribal knowledge – information about your members – and we’re developing a way to use that behind the scenes with technology to make their overall experience better whilst still being implemented through good old-fashioned hospitality.”
And proper hospitality is what Birley founded Annabel’s on. He was after all the one who came up with the idea of covering lemon slices with muslin, holding the pips in when squeezed.
The new Annabel’s is due to open in November at 46 Berkeley Square.
Adam Hyman | @AdamMHyman
This article was first published in Issue 11 of CODE Quarterly.