As Nick Jones returns his teacup to its saucer, sits back and spreads his arms across the fluffy blue sofa, he looks uncommonly comfy. Of course he does. The founder of the world’s most famous chain of private members clubs, Soho House, is in his home from home, 76 Dean Street, one of 18 dotted around the globe.
Started in London at the height of the Britpop era, these obsessively upholstered havens are fertile networking grounds for the city’s creatives. Its glamorous glow has spread to major cities from New York to LA, from Istanbul to Barcelona, but never to the City of London itself.
This might have something to do with Jones’ famous aversion to “packs of people in suits”. He admits that the Square Mile “just wasn’t on my radar” and, to this day, a “no suits” sign stands behind the reception desk at Shoreditch House, striking a cross through a besuited cartoon banker.
“I know Soho House is famed for not letting bankers in, but that’s not true at all,” he insists. “We have plenty of members that are bankers, we just don’t like any group of people arriving en masse and using our places for big corporate entertaining.”
But these days, Jones is a changed man. He hasn’t just embraced the City, he’s taking the biggest gamble of his career on it. His next project, The Ned, isn’t on the outskirts either; we’re talking the City heartlands, right next door to the Bank of England.
“I’ve done all my art house movies, this is my chance to do a blockbuster,” he says. “I mean, this is nerve-wracking. I still get nervous opening another Soho House, but this is super nerve-wracking – blockbustery nerve-wracking.” So what’s behind this Damascene conversion?
“I felt that the City was on the move. There are a lot of things that have changed there over the last 10 years – it used to be that the wine bar was open until 8pm and that was it. Now there’s a vibrant restaurant scene and, if you walk around, it’s a beautiful part of London. It reminds you what real London is.”
It’s true; since City A.M. arrived on the scene 11 years ago, the Square Mile has become exponentially cooler. But that’s not the only reason for the change of heart: Jones has fallen head over heels for the former Midland Bank building. Cock-of-the-walk in Poultry, this imposing Grade I Listed building was designed by architect Edwin Lutyens in 1924 and it was one of the largest banks in the world at the time, with deposits of more than £355m.
Lutyens was a starchitect of the 20th century, too, known for his work on the Cenotaph, Hampstead Garden Suburb and the British Embassy in Washington DC. Jones says his team has worked closely with his surviving family throughout the renovation; the finished project will be called The Ned, an affectionate nickname for the architect.
Jones is positively boyish as he describes the first time he set foot in the building. “I went along and my jaw dropped. It was incredibly impressive on the outside, but as soon as I walked in and saw the banking hall, my mind was moving at 100mph about what could happen there. It filled me with a creative glow.”
Thoroughly sold, Jones went to American billionaire and main Soho House shareholder Ron Burkle to raise the finance (he’s also a shareholder in Sydell Group, the hotelier behind The NoMad Hotel in Manhattan, among others strewn across the United States).
He introduced Jones to its CEO Andrew Zobler and a partnership was born. Together, they’ve transformed an abandoned, 13-storey bank into what they hope will be the hottest ticket in town. In the 1920s, the building costs climbed to £2.2m – around £100m in today’s money – but it’s said The Ned will cost double that once it’s done.
Zobler’s proven particularly helpful when it comes to managing the 252-bedroom hotel, which is far larger than anything Soho House has handled, while Jones brings his experience to running The Ned Club and the extensive restaurant offering.
“It was never viewed as a Soho House,” Jones says. “We want The Ned to feel like it’s been there a long time and to respect tradition.”
Stepping over wires, hard hat in place, I noticed a marked difference in furnishings from Soho House when I visited in December. While the established clubs take their design cues from the genteel English countryside, the bedrooms at The Ned are finished with vintage upholstery from the ‘20s and ‘30s, modelled on rooms mail clerks and junior bankers would have stayed in while on business.
Private hire spaces reside on the sixth floor, The Tapestry Room king among them, a palatial space dominated by a restored 18th century chandelier and an enormous tapestry, the largest in the UK at the time, featuring the coat of arms of 120 of England’s towns and cities.
The Ned Club allows members to party in the bank’s vaults, complete with safety deposit boxes and a two metre-wide vault door – the very same one that stood in for Fort Knox in the Bond film Goldfinger. Swimming pools on the roof and in the basement health club – which also boasts a Cowshed spa, gym and salon – complete the picture.
Non-members can get a taste of the high life on the ground floor, where there’s a public dining hall seating 850 people in seven new restaurants, fitted around 92 green verdite marble columns and hundreds of walnut-panelled counters, originally built for the bank tellers.
Soho House staple Cecconi’s will sit alongside a New York-style Jewish deli called Zoblers, an American diner, a British steakhouse and an American-British lounge. Make no mistake, this is a transatlantic feast, with a side order of a Parisian cafe and Japanese grill.
In amongst all this grandeur, it’s easy to forget that Jones started his career in catering, opening the first Soho House Club above his Cafe Boheme restaurant. Today he runs 37 restaurants worldwide and says he’s still “obsessed with food.”
“When I started out, catering was the bottom of the ladder. You looked at every other option, then you ended up in catering. When I was a chef, it was ‘ugh, you’re a chef’ – that’s moved on a lot. Now it’s an industry people want to get into. It’s credible.”
There is an endearing shyness about him – no more apparent than when he’s posing for our photographer – that I suspect is behind his oft-misquoted aversion to brash, corporate types. “Soho House has never been about money, it’s been about the soul and the like-mindedness of people,” he says.
“The young today are much more like-minded than when I was young. People are less corporate, more entrepreneurial, and there’s a lot more of that coming up in the young of today than when I was that age.”
He stays on top of food trends by carefully monitoring menus on both sides of the Pond, and maintaining good relationships with bloggers, such as Clerkenwell Boy, London’s biggest Instagram foodie with over 150,000 followers. “I know all these guys and I find it fascinating. But when I’m not at work, I don’t want to be going, ‘woooo, look at me’,” he says, mock waving his hands in the air. “I really don’t want to do that.”
Social media may have passed Jones by, but there’s no doubt a Soho House membership still holds a certain currency in modern London society. Never one to stand still, new Houses have been opening up at a dizzying pace, leading critics to claim the brand has been “diluted”. It also reported an operating loss of £11.8m for the 2015 financial year.
When I ask him about his company’s debt, he only looks faintly rattled. “Yes, our finances have come under the spotlight of late – we’re a growing company. If we just sat tight and didn’t grow then we’d have plenty of money coming in.
"But because we’re taking something very British all over the world, taking risks on cities and sites, and we’re being very ambitious and entrepreneurial about it, it stretches things. And we are going through a time that’s stretched. But as far as our customer or member is concerned, we couldn’t be in better shape.”
If the exclusive sheen has diminished, its members don’t seem to care. Last year, the business reported a 50,000-strong membership with a further 30,500 on its waiting list – a 38 per cent increase on the year before. And there may be more Neds ahead, as Jones and Zobler are on the lookout for sites in LA and New York.
“Soho House turned 21 yesterday,” Jones beams. “And it’s stronger than it’s ever been. Everything we’ve learnt over those 21 years, we’re channelling it into The Ned.”
If all goes well, The Ned won’t only represent a new chapter for the Midland Bank building, but also for the City of London. “Let’s be clear though,” Jones says, emphatically. “The Ned is for everyone. They can turn up in suits or not, we don’t care what they wear.”
The Ned will open in April at 27 Poultry, EC2R 8AJ. Visit thened.com to find out more.