Private clubs adapt to the modern age: Esther Oxford finds the newest version of a men's club is open to women and talks about business

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The gentlemen's clubs of the old school were places where one went to meet the boys and have a glass of port without the wives complaining. The cave functioned as a retreat from the world of decision-making and responsibility; anything to do with business was banned.

With the opening of a networking club in the City, this brand of watering-hole is set to be turned on its head. The London Capital Club will be opening the doors of its sumptuous, pounds 5m home in Abchurch Lane, near Monument, in September. Not only will women be invited to join, but business transactions and discussions will be positively encouraged.

Next to the magnificent mahogany boardrooms available for hire will be small studies where male and female members can discuss business in private. And to make the atmosphere female-friendly the decor and furniture have been designed with a feminine appreciation for light and detail in mind.

'There will be no masculine, heavy leather chairs here, said Michael Longshaw, manager of the club. 'We have cane and mixed-fabric furniture. And we've got lovely loos.

What further distinguishes the club from the many other gentlemen's clubs in London is its international flavour. The London Capital Club is owned by the International Club Company, a network which has estabished links with 150 selected private clubs worldwide. Membership to the London branch extends automatic membership privileges to any of the clubs abroad.

Particularly hot are the Far East connections. ICC owns and runs 13 clubs in the main business centres in Asia. Women and men planning a business trip are offered contacts and a personal welcome at each of the clubs. The London club's travel agent can even arrange flights.

The London Capital Club will be housed in the now-defunct Old Gresham Club, a casualty of the general decline of interest in gentlemen's clubs. It closed in 1991.

The club will have its opening party on 22 September. Already, more than 200 people have paid the membership fee of pounds 1,000, and the monthly subscription costs pounds 45. The management expects membership to increase by a further 200 over the next two months. After that the fee will be increased.

Mr Longshaw justifies the high membership fee by talking about quality service and superior facilities. The sumptuous Edwardian building, with its brasserie, restaurant and wine bar, is a treat to enjoy, he said. And compared with Tokyo, where membership costs dollars 50,000, the London fee pales into insignificance.

Dieter Klostermann, the chairman of ICC, bought the building in 1992. He had been expanding his club network in Asia since 1980. An Anglophile at heart (he has his suits made here and drives a Jaguar), he decided that a club in London might be the next natural step. More than pounds 5m was invested into the project.

The quintessential Englishness has been carefully preserved, despite the installation of air-conditioning: stone steps, mosaic tiling, huge fireplaces and mahogany panelling abound. In the entrance hall, a huge painting of London is to be hung. The painting is by a female artist, Mr Longshaw emphasised, but he could not remember her name.

Baroness O'Cathain of the Barbican has agreed to be the sole female honorary patron of the club. The service offered to women was exciting she said. She had noted the dearth of facilities for senior business women in the City. 'Entertaining facilities are very much in the male preserve, she said. 'The London Capital Club will change this. It will put men and women on an equal footing.

She is pleased at the thought of the extra business being brought to the Barbican. 'The spin-off will be super.

Nigel Meares, 42, a barrister living in Islington, used to be a member of the Old Gresham Club. He is pleased to see the premises being put to good use again. He chose to join the London Capital Club because of its convenient location and opening hours, and he welcomed the move to admit women. 'We meet them at university and at the Bar. The world is changing.

Men's clubs which exist as a place to meet the boys and have a drink without the ladies complaining have a limited future, Mr Meares said, as do clubs which ban business talk. 'It was a rule at the Old Gresham that business papers had to be left downstairs. It was ridiculous.

'We had a vote on whether to admit women just before the club closed down. The motion failed by 60 to 40. I was not surprised that the club died after that. If clubs want to survive they must change.

In the end such fustiness spelt doom. 'The old codgers who managed it tried to stop the club moving with the times. There were few young people, no women, shabby facilities. It was a slow death, said Mr Meares. 'This new club has given Gresham members a new lease of life.

Jane Dumeresque, 35, is a fund manager who works from her home in south London. She was attracted to the international ICC membership which comes with joining the London Capital Club.' It is nice to have somewhere to put your feet down when you are in a foreign city. I like the idea of a club which is welcoming, not stuffy.

In addition to Lady O'Cathain, the other patrons include Lord Palumbo of Walbrook. Names give the club status, Mr Longshaw acknowledged, but are there primarily to build a core of mentors. 'We want to encourage a system of mentors here, so that young people can learn from them, get to know them and get a foot into society.

'The emphasis is on making business contacts for people still trying to climb the ranks, he said. To ensure that members integrate, it will be the job of the host and hostess to introduce them to one another. To make this easier, staff will be encouraged to learn members' names and a brief history.

Instead of old boys' chat and boozy wine tastings, the London Capital Club includes concerts and visiting speakers on its programme of events. For the ladies, a fashion show is planned and a colourings expert will advise members on their wardrobes.

The fashion shows are not only for the women, said Mr Longshaw hastily; men are encouraged too. Indeed, the staff set an example - all of them - male and female will have their appearance analysed so that they can look their absolute best.

'I don't think there is any chance of our being patronising to women, said Mr Longshaw. 'The kind of women we hope to attract are confident and strong.

'We are looking for women members who can march through that door alone and be able to look after themselves. They must feel comfortable enough to join the members' table and talk. Anyone who cannot do that will not be suitable.

The stringent selection procedure is as much for the applicant's benefit as for the clubs, he added.

'We look for people who will fit in - there is no point in someone joining and then saying: 'These people are too old. I don't want to mix with them'. We want people of like minds, of any nationality, who want to get involved with club activities.

So far interest has been steady. Of the 30 womens' network societies invited to sample the premises - virtually all have been keen. There will be no positive discrimination in favour of women. But young people will be encouraged to join. Members between the age of 21 and 35 will be charged half-price and be asked to make up the balance later. 'We want to give young people a leg-up. They are our future. But we will wait until we first have a core membership. The transition has to be smooth.

(Photograph omitted)