VIP clubs - you're not getting in

Two more exclusive clubs have just opened in London. But why, asks Luke Blackall, are we so keen to get past the velvet rope?
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That little velvet rope might seem insignificant, but for many of us it is the barrier between the beautiful people and the masses, them and us, a boring evening and the best night of your life. However ridiculous it seems, thousands are willing to queue up each week to see the rope lift and give them their chance to be somewhere exclusive.

This month has seen the opening of two new nightclubs in London, both of which hope to be the most exclusive of all the exclusive clubs. First up is The Box, a New York import, which has already seen Kate Moss and Prince Harry exiting bleary-eyed afterwatching risqué shows. Then there’s the Wyld Bar in the W Hotel in Leicester Square, which is being pitched as the coolest enclave in a hotel that considers itself the coolest in town. Those behind it say it is styling itself on the last big, cool hotel hangout The Met Bar.

In the late 1990s this small bar rode the Cool Britannia waves to become the most written about venue in the country. The Met overtook the Hacienda in Manchester, which in the late 80s and early 90s helped to define the “Madchester” era. Before that Studio 54 in New York, where Andy Warhol mingled with music stars and those deemed attractive and chic enough to get in, ruled the roost.

All these venues have been etched into recent history, as places where a hip, cultural elite gathered, but also because they were seen as extremely hard to get into. Psychologist Dr Linda Papadopoulossays that at a very simple level, humans are drawn to these exclusive places. “The velvet rope is basic human psychology, making something seem so special that you have to queue up for it,” she says. The fact that only a small number of us can gain access to a hard-to-get-into club or a VIP area is not only appealing, but also important in defining us, she adds. “This concept of ‘hierarchy’ appeals to our sense of narcissism, and contains us.

It defines the situation and the rules, so you know yours and everyone else’s place.” If that’s the case, it’s becoming harder to discover everyone’s place, as the hottest place in town can change from week to week. Over the past few years, places such as 24, Pangaea, Volstead and Kabaret’s Prophecy, all of which received much press fanfare, are now empty or have changed their names. Even Bungalow 8, a New York import that was once seen as the hottest venue in town seems to have fewer paparazzi waiting outside. Part of the reason is increased competition.

Ten or 15 years ago places such as the Met Bar and Chinawhite had few upstarts to contend with in the capital. Now there are upwards of 20 clubs in central London, all trying to compete for the same small crowd. Nick House owns and runs some of the most written-about venues of the past ten years, including Mahiki, Whisky Mist and the Punch Bowl pub. He believes that it takes a number of factors to create a venue that everyone wants to go to. “It’s so much a combination of the right address, the right concept and the right people endorsing it,” he says. “Cool is too subjective a word, exclusive is better, as you are effectively excluding the masses to make a place for a small, niche crowd.”

Among the small, niche crowd you are likely to find a celebrity or two, as almost every nightclub in town is keen to have the publicity that comes from having a well-known star photographed arriving at, or leaving, the venue. While for some, these visits are spontaneous, many of the venues end up paying for celebrities to sashay past the bouncers. But Joseph Ryan, director of Aura nightclub in Mayfair, believes the technique is no longer enough to keep your club considered cool. “Having a celebrity photographed visiting the club will drive a certain amount of out-of-towners to your venue,” he says. “But so many clubs have tried and failed with that technique.

You have to offer a little bit more. You have to retain relationships with your regular customers.” Most of the so-called exclusive nightclubs officially describe themselves as “Private Members Clubs” in order to satisfy licensing authorities. It also means they can turn away who they like. In reality, if you are rich enough, good looking enough or know enough of the right people, any need to “be a member” goes out the subterranean door. Part of this is because money has taken the place of cool.

The most exclusive venues are often situated in the most expensive sites. And rocketing rental fees can’t be paid off with cool vibes and a sharp-faced doorgirl. As one director of a London club says: “the cool crowd doesn’t pay for drinks”… but someone has to. This means targeting big spending foreign customers and diluting the “cool” element by enticing city bankers to blow their bonuses on bubbly. And it’s not a trend confined to London. While the Hacienda attracted the biggest music stars of the era, many of the hardest to get into clubs in the North now are geared towards big spending financiers and footballers. Are you sure you still