Zoe Strimpel

The curious rise of Soho House

The curious rise of Soho House
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The San Lorenzo neighbourhood of Rome, a short walk from the murderous environs of Termini, the central train station, is not particularly old or beautiful. A working-class neighbourhood once connected to the Wuehrer brewery and freight yard, it was bombed heavily during the war, the only massive bombing in Rome. But like Wedding or Neukolln in Berlin, San Lorenzo’s old working class roots have translated neatly into arty cool, and the area, still scruffy, is now a left-wing hipster paradise, its walls cheerily scrawled with anarchist graffiti.

That Soho House, the preternaturally on-trend, voraciously expansive private members club (now trading under the blandly global name of Membership Collective Group) has chosen a big mustard-yellow building right in the middle of it for its first Italian opening is confirmation of San Lorenzo’s rapid ascent from arty to wealth and gentility. Soho House has that kind of power. The Points Guy, the cult figure who helps millions of fans maximise credit card benefits, recently shared his tips on 'how you can tell if your city is likely to get a Soho House in future'.

Soho House, Rome

Despite emerging from a distinctly ebullient 1990s moment, the allure of the group has not only clung on, it has crested since the first house on Greek Street in Soho was opened by Nick Jones in 1995. The curious flipside to its appeal is its well-publicised financial trouble linked to over-zealous expansion. It has never made a profit – a vicious circle driving still more expansion, with 18 new venues forecast by the end of 2023 in addition to the 28 it already has – and haemorrhaged cash during Covid lockdowns. But membership retention only dipped from 94 to 92 per cent, and at the start of last year, the waiting list for membership exceeded 48,000, company reports said.

Airbnb has capitalised on a trend for the distinct and local, the authentic and unique. Why, then, does the millennial soul cleave toward the reassuringly expensive, franchise-friendly attractiveness of Soho House? How, as Rome proved it can, does it draw the well-heeled out from urban centres into peripheries?

I took a millennial and Rome enthusiast and went to see the Rome house – membership of which costs €1,650 per year, with rooms starting from around €200 – shortly after its terrace opened. I was curious about how it would engage with the most storied city in the world, whether it was thumbing its nose at old hat travellers keen on antique beauty, or whether it had managed to integrate with the city in a meaningful way.

We arrived in the stifling evening heat of early June. The lift opened onto an Edenic terrace, abuzz with young people sipping cocktails under a web of olive trees. Round the corner, tables were laid for dinner. Around another, the pool was a dark red rectangle next to which more tanned and tattoed bodies lounged and flopped, their feet in the water, drinks in their hands.

From the terrace, Rome was visible in a meta, remote sense: the view was framed by the hills rearing up, the urban landscape far below dotted with minor basilica but the sights of centro storico firmly out of view. We had a cocktail, limey and tart, and dinner under the open sky on the edge of the terrace, high above what looked like an abandoned building site – the heat, bottle of Etna bianco, a surprisingly excellent spaghetti vongole and bulging wedges of pizza the only remaining trace of Rome in this nocturnal pleasurescape. Mid price-point rooms (around €280 per night) are large, minimalist and luxurious. They are not particularly Roman, apart from, in our case, the balcony looking onto a typical apartment building draped in rainbow-coloured peace flags. Some lovers sat in its doorway with a beer, giggling in the midnight heat.

Between terrace, bath and pool, the spell was cast. Despite being in Rome, we found it hard to leave, even for a few hours. We managed two excursions, separated by a swim and a lounge on towel-wrapped beds looking straight out over eastern Rome. It was a bubble, but an irresistible one - is it any wonder seasoned travellers turn to Soho when it enables them to flit so comfortably from city to city? The danger is that the appeal of staying in - an art we all mastered during lockdown - starts to trump the charms of the city on your doorstep.

Global, urban expansion is Soho House's mission right now, but the source of its elixir is in deepest, darkest England. With that in mind, I went to try the pastoral side of its business model too, spending a night each at Somerset's Babington House and at Soho Farmyard in the Cotswolds, a playhouse for Kate Moss, the Beckhams and Gordon Ramsay (Tom Cruise held his 60th birthday there last week, with Ramsay a guest of honour). They are not particularly expensive retreats by five-star standards – 'Piglet' cabins in Soho Farmhouse start at £295 for members, while large, luxuriant cabins hover around £550. The secret sauce lies elsewhere. And secret sauce there is.

Babington House, the group’s second property and site of the first Cowshed spa, was opened as a countryside retreat for its London members, weighed down by the excesses and strains of life in Blair-era media and entertainment. We took a train to Bath, and then a taxi through a ripple of Somerset hills until, at the end of a long, tree-lined drive in a large park, with a jewel-like chapel at the top, we drew up in front of the mansion, built in 1705.

Babington House attracts a more mature crowd

 If the urban outposts have a rather manufactured aura of youth, Babington shows off Soho House's mature side. The younger end of the clientele were subdued 40-something couples pulling off quiet lengths in the outdoor pool. The bar at apertivi hour was dotted with people a decade or so older with cool silver hair and an authoritative air, while at dinner, the restaurant roared with boisterous boomers.

At Babington we were under the average age, as felt fitting for a place of this grandeur. At Soho Farmhouse, by contrast, there were no grey heads whatsoever. Photoshoot-ready bars had a relaxed flow of Diesel-jeaned people networking hard, most of whom looked like they were in advertising. The Oxfordshire outpost, which is fully booked months and months in advance, is the most intense mixture of the studiedly rustic with the primped; the relaxed with the clubby. It’s an odd place: as the name suggests, it has an agricultural theme, complete with farm animals, its luxury 'piglet' huts, arrayed in rows reminiscent of a Black Mirror episode, are modelled on the curved shelters used for pigs. Our bigger cabin, overlooking a stream, looked rough and ready on the outside, but was, of course, plushly upholstered in moreish fabrics with a wood stove and timber framing. It pushed all the buttons us millennials didn’t even know we had, and we loved it.

The Soho Farmhouse pool

Before settling in, a young, decidedly non-agricultural man drove us slowly round the pristine paths of the site in a gleaming SUV suited to deep mud, and introduced us to a chic old farmer who runs the House’s stables and started the UK’s first horse-milk business, maintaining that the milk has special properties. The spa is magisterial, an expanse of mellow aromatics; the outdoor swimming pool the perfect temperature even in February, and in the evening a cocktail van drew up in the darkness in front of our cabin, ours for half an hour. After drinks, we dressed and crossed the muddy field on the cabin bicycles for a Japanese-themed dinner at Pen Yen (fun, if strange, and arguably a mashup too far). It was a bit like being on the set of a kind of benign Truman Show where everything is bright and easy, comfortable, sexy and very, very pretty.

It is surely this that captures a demographic that – at least abroad – might otherwise be more adventurous. It’s fun to risk it in foreign cities, but easier, and nicer, to stick with the devil you know. Soho House has figured out that familiarity breeds devotion, not contempt.

It costs £100 to become a Soho Friends member, which allows you to book rooms at all Soho House properties around the world.