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Let’s Unpack That

The girlbosses who girlbossed too close to the sun: The demise of ‘women’s utopia’ The Wing was long overdue

The woman-centric members’ club idolised Hillary Clinton and ate ‘Fork the Patriarchy’ poached-egg lunches. It drew the kind of publicity you couldn’t buy, the kind of scandal few could weather, and now it’s dead. Eloise Hendy is very eager to dance on its grave

Saturday 03 September 2022 13:28 BST
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The Wing was founded on a paradox: aping one of society’s most elitist institutions, yet branded in the language of feminist emancipation
The Wing was founded on a paradox: aping one of society’s most elitist institutions, yet branded in the language of feminist emancipation (Getty)

So, it’s over. Stop the clocks. Cut off the telephone. Prevent the hoards from nicking the pink pastel thrones. Notorious woman-centric members club and co-working space The Wing is dead.

Once billed by its co-founder and entrepreneurial it-girl Audrey Gelman as a “women’s utopia”, and “your throne away from home”, The Wing opened in 2016 to a flurry of fanfare and media attention. On the surface, the concept was simple: charge professional women between £170 and £240 a month for access to luxurious, maximalist, millennial-pink spaces where they could work, network, and eat poached egg dishes called “Fork the Patriarchy”. Its first outpost was located in New York’s Flatiron district, in the historic stretch known as Ladies’ Mile – it’s where well-off women shopped in the 19th century. Within weeks, it had found its place among the Lena Dunham-adjacent coterie of New York City, counting Alexa Chung, Tavi Gevinson, Emilia Clarke and Cara and Poppy Delevingne among its founding members. By the end of 2019, The Wing had 11 locations, including a five-storey townhouse in London’s Fitzrovia.

For The Wing’s members, the end came abruptly. An email sent out on Tuesday (30 August) announced that all Wing locations would be closing permanently, blaming an inability to recover financially from “the Covid pandemic and increasing global economic challenges”. Members’ access halted “with immediate effect”. Within hours of the closure being made public, the company appeared to have deleted Instagram comments from members asking about previously booked commitments at Wing locations. Then it locked comments on its photos altogether. At the time of writing, there has been no acknowledgement on the platform of the shutdown – its most recent grid post is from a fortnight ago, urging ladies of luxury, leisure and well-heeled creative labour to “treat [themselves] to a personalised tour of The Wing and stay the day!” What a difference two weeks makes.

Yet, for those looking in from the outside, The Wing’s demise didn’t feel so sudden. Indeed, when the announcement came, it seemed inevitable. Even overdue – The Wing’s kitsch corporate playgrounds had already begun to look like fossils from a bygone era. Turmeric lattes. Egg chairs. Colour-coordinated bookcases. All now as distinctly late 2010s as inflatable furniture is to the late 1990s.

In retrospect, The Wing seemed to neatly express the micro-epoch in which it was founded – encapsulating both the fetishes and deficiencies of girlboss feminism. The writing was always on the wall, attached as securely as the portraits of Hillary Clinton, Mary Beard, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Amal Clooney and other #inspirational “industry leaders” and feminist pin-ups that lined The Wing’s hallways. Truly, The Wing simultaneously slamming the locks on its Instagram comments and the clubhouse doors is too perfect an emblem for the last nails being hammered into the coffin of the girlboss. And so, let the next round of discourse proclaim: The Wing died doing what it loved, a neat symbol until the end.

It’s funny, the things that come to represent certain cultural landscapes and pockets of time. The Wing always garnered undue levels of attention, given at its peak it hosted just 12,000 members across its 11 locations. A not insignificant number, but last year Soho House – another notorious, overdesigned, expensive and exclusive club for “like-minded creative thinkers” – comparatively had 119,000 members across 27 houses in 10 countries. Even when it comes to cold hard cash, The Wing wasn’t an outlier. Membership to its London Soho outpost cost roughly the same as its nearby club competitor, with an annual fee of £1,836 to Soho House’s £1,300. Plus the £400 registration fee. Though it was practically budget when held up against the £3,250 annual rate (plus £1,750 joining fee) for Mayfair’s Marie-Antoinette-cum-British-colonial-soft-play club Annabel’s. Supposedly the only nightclub the Queen has ever stepped foot in, Annabel’s proves that, when it comes to girlbosses, there are more rungs to be climbed than the average Lean In/Goop/Glossier/Lululemon/Lena Dunham/ “But Her Emails” cap-wearing girl could ever dream of.

But it was never really just about the money. The thing that distinguished The Wing – and launched a thousand column inches and cemented its status as a millennial burlesque – was the very public nature of a supposedly private members club, and its worthiness. At heart, both amounted to hypocrisy.

Audrey Gelman interviews Jennifer Lawrence at New York’s The Wing Soho in 2018 (Monica Schipper/Getty for The Wing)

The Wing was founded on a paradox. Its business aped one of society’s most elitist institutions – the private members’ club – while its brand was steeped in the language of feminist emancipation and empowerment. “They’ve tried to make it mean a million different things,” said Scarlett Curtis, Wing member and editor of Feminists Don’t Wear Pink (And Other Lies), in 2019. “There were mums with side hustles, and journalists, coders and people in tech.” Curtis claimed that The Wing’s ethos was “more of a political stance. They are left wing: very pro-diversity, pro-inclusivity. It’s very intersectional feminism.”

Except, of course, it absolutely wasn’t. How could it be? Exclusivity was as essential to The Wing as the marble chips in its terrazzo tables. When a racist incident at The Wing’s West Hollywood location came to light in 2019, it set off a spiral of revelations about the company that, while not exactly surprising, undermined its “intersectional feminist” ethos to the point it was unrecoverable. Asha Grant, the director of the Free Black Women’s Library of Los Angeles, reported that she had arrived at the group’s Hollywood location only to encounter an angry white woman in the parking lot, upset that Grant had snagged a spot she felt “belonged” to her. Grant alleged that the woman – a guest at The Wing – followed her inside yelling insults and threats. She also added that, after the harassment, Wing staff didn’t ask the white woman to leave, telling her they didn’t feel “empowered” to do so. “It was another example of White women’s comfort prioritised over Black women’s pain,” Grant said.

Yet, while this is plainly and evidently true, there turned out to be some further truth in the claim that Wing staff didn’t feel “empowered”. Indeed, many subsequently reported that the company’s working culture was rooted in fear and exploitation – that working class, immigrant and Black staff were disrespected, underpaid and used for marketing clout. In June 2020, Gelman resigned from her role as CEO. Shortly after, staff organised a digital walkout in protest over The Wing’s prioritisation of public appearance over working practice. Roxanne Fequiere, who took part in the digital walkout before resigning from the company, said that The Wing’s “response was at once affirmative and lacklustre, as though our leadership couldn’t be bothered to convincingly feign any more enthusiasm for accountability”.

The Wing’s closure hasn’t changed this pattern. Naydeline Mejia is assistant editor at Women’s Health but previously worked for The Wing. The morning after members received the shutdown email, Mejia tweeted that she was “just thinking about all the immigrant, non-rich & non-white women who ran that place that are now without jobs”. Women who had been working for the company quickly replied to Mejia, thanking her for acknowledging them. One said that, after Tuesday night’s email, she found herself “randomly unemployed without a plan”. Again, a neat symbol until the end – now of malpractice and the avoidance of accountability.

Exclusive, while preaching inclusivity. Sermonising about the value of women’s work, while practising workplace exploitation. Claiming intersectionality, while allowing racism to go unchecked. The Wing modelled itself on Britain’s elite, old-money hang-outs, while also declaring itself an antidote to old boys’ networks and the politics of Trump; it wanted community and equality and to always, above all, be market-friendly; it was a confused, hypocritical recipe doomed to fail.

Gelman often told The Wing’s origin story roughly as follows: she was working as a press secretary, and later as an aide to Hillary Clinton’s election campaign, dashing from city to city and between meetings and parties. It was a lifestyle that supposedly forced her to change her clothes in the bathrooms of Starbucks and train stations, places she said she found “semi-degrading”. She dreamt of having a more dignified place to go, where like-minded women could find one another, get changed and charge their phones in peace.

It’s a story that also reveals the roots of The Wing’s downfall, and the essential nastiness behind the glossy “be kind” facade of girlboss feminism. Today, Starbucks workers in the United States are fighting to unionise, while labour movements on both sides of the pond are reinvigorated. Yet here we have a story about a centrist it-girl on her way to a political party, detecting “degrading” conditions in Starbucks bathrooms and other public spaces mainly utilised by the working classes. Her big solution? To create an untouchable haven for herself and her social circle that would be as far removed from them as possible. What could be less radical, progressive or intersectional than that?

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