CONTROLLING INTEREST

GRIN AND BARE IT

  Club: Stringfellows Soho
  From: Night Magazine April 2007 Issue
  Date: Aprill 2007
   

 

Sex sells, in 2007 more than ever, as the ever-growing number of risque late night entertainment venues seem to prove. But as lapdancing venues emerge from back street alleys into the mainstream - and as burlesque continues to enthrall London - one of the genre’s founding fathers is branching out into another nightclubbing niche, as Jerry Gilbert found out.

High-roller entered Peter Stringfellow’s new Soho club recently and headed straight for the holy grail, the top table in the Gold Room. The party then ordered ten bottles of Roederer Cristal Rosé at £595 a pop and a similar number of girls. After performing a tableside dance each was festooned with £250 (after allowing themselves to be hosed down in a champenoise shower with the remains of the Cristal). Wait, we’re not done yet. Our host retained six of the girls for an extra hour’s table-time, rewarding their whimsy with a further £500 each.

Hmm ... let’s do the math shall we? No, on the other hand ...what’s the point?

Well the point to Peter Stringfellow was that he was immediately able to reallocate the hallowed table as the party, done with their frivolity, were ready to move onto the next place in their mythical journey to Cockaigne.

Since Stringfellow’s redux of the old Soho strip club, West End leisure hospitality at the ‘money-no-object’ end has become increasingly sybaritic.

I can’t help thinking that if I’d been party planning for this particular anodyne experience I would then have sent the caravan on to Amika in Kensington (review in the next issue of NIGHT) where for an additional £16K they could have chugged back a methusaleh of Louis Roederer Cristal - and then sent them on for a nightcap at Bren Magee’s Club Bar & Dining, where a slug of Hennessey Ellipse would have added further £600 per-shot to the bill.

Now that’s what I call a night out. As Leonard Cohen famously recommended, never go home with your hard-on.

But even as his girls were being laced down in liquid platinum (F1-style) Peter Stringfellow was already planning the rip-out of his brand new interior in readiness for a brand change. The wrecking crew would soon be in. The beige and neutral upholstery would be replaced with ocelot (trademark leopardskin to the rest of us); the name ‘Stringfellows Soho’ making way for ‘The Wardour’.

The edgy dynamic that had developed between Peter Stringfellow and his conceptualiser, Steve Howie of Creation Design and Build, was about to bubble over as the famous lothario abruptly changed direction. To an impressively ornate interior he added a conventional sound and lighting infrastructure and prominent DJ booth from Viba Sound - briefly threatening a return to the decks in person. It seemed at odds with the gilded thrones (that would seem moreat home in an amusement park), the pole-tables and recondite booths covered by voyeur-friendly voile curtains. But that’s because at the weekends The Wardour will transform into a conventional/aspirational A-list nightclub (it’s the rest of the week that it functions as a theme park).

We are standing in the midst of builders watching (and listening) as this old new interior - a sizeable chunk of the overall £5m investment - slowly evanesces in front of our eyes, but at the same time seeing the new shoots of what, in the final denouement, would become a powerful coalescence between the two creative heads.

Recognising that There Can Be Only One Stringfellows the egregious entrepreneur quickly sensed that Stringfellows Soho in the minds of his prurient clientele, flying into the capital, was creating confusion with the iconic art deco ‘Stringfellows Covent Garden’ he created 26 years ago. It was probably as daft as expecting that ‘Cabaret of Angels’ was ever likely to undermine the famous inscript neon signage.
He readily admits the mistake. “I was defending my position too much - I just didn’t realise how strong the brand of Stringfellows was. Quite a few people think Covent Garden and Soho are one and the same. The confusion was disastrous and I was simply battling my own club.”

Steve Howie mischieviously sent the sacred Stringfellows butterfly on a short migration to Wardour Street, where it is delicately cartouched in one piece of wrought balustrading. “He did it without my permission,” exclaims Stringfellow in faux anger, while Howie admits, with faux-sheepishness, that yes, he did make some “arbitrary design decisions.”

Lepidoptera-larceny is one thing but if redemption were needed Howie’s creative team - some of whom worked on the Da Vinci Code - have delivered in spades. Notably they have cast three classic winged angels from sketches, sculpted in clay and foam, and then given a fibre glass skin. The largest gold angel - measuring 3.6m high, with a wing span of 6 metres - stands incongruously in front of a booth bearing the sign ‘Heavenly Money’ right inside the door; this is where punters exchange their credit card currency into celestial cash and the suspension of disbelief begins.

The other two identical angels, positioned at the far end of the club, are the classic semi-topless Karyatids, who in Greek mythology were depicted holding up the temple. “This is a temple of sorts,” says Howie. And indeed they are well-positioned, holding up the ceiling near the classical cornice.
Peter sensed that a designer who had grown up in the world of epic film sets would be worth taking a chance on - and in truth it’s unlikely that many others could have delivered this fantasia. But Steve Howie had majored in both film set and interior design in Johannesburg and worked for Oscar winning production designer Stuart Craig.

“This guy is wonderfully talented and unique,” Peter Stringfellow had gone on record as saying. “But there’s a lot of emotion in building a nightclub - there’s a lot of passion, and so we butted heads.”
In fact the locking of horns had been in gear from the get-go although in the final denouement there is no shortage of mutual respect. Says Steve Howie: “Peter Stringfellow is a very wily and astute businessman and has been quick to adapt the nightclub concept for the weekend. Bizarrely, he also sketches really well - in 3D! Although he drew the columns a bit bigger, I knew he would understand 3D work immediately.”

When Steve Howie first pitched for the project Stringfellow inquired, “Do you do toilets?” - and instead sent him across to St. Martin’s Lane. The designer picked up the gauntlet and agreed to make over the old club’s loos “provided he gave me the first bough shot at the new place. I said ‘Don’t give anyone else the business until we f*** up.’ We left the toilets in Covent Garden looking marvellous and he was stunned with them.”

And yet when he first arrived on the Wardour Strteet site, formerly home to The Trap nightclub (in which Fran Cosgrove had an interest), he described it as “looking like a drugs den.” He explained, “I had to do Health & Safety training when we were ripping it out because we were terrified about what we were going to find. The nightmare began there - at the ripping out stage.”

Peter agrees with the designer’s assessment of The Trap. “It was a real rubbish disco - but it was too good an opportunity to miss, and one that I couldn’t turn down. Westminster Council wanted to see [the old club] replaced and said they would look favourably on my application.” Peter paid £1.6m for the lease, which would give him 14,000 sq ft of real estate and a capacity of 850 if he chose to use it.
The entrepreneur had been looking at other premises for several years [including the Astoria and The Ivy]. “But for one reason or another they all had problems. Soho was where I wanted to be - it’s real West End unlike Kensington and Chelsea. Covent Garden was my one jewel in the crown that everything else had been wrapped around, and for my last run mentally I wanted somewhere I could relax in - a 20 year lease, a compliant landlord and a 4am licence.”

As for Viba Sound’s Peter Kellet, he had merely been paying a service call to what he believed was still The Trap - and found himself more conscripted than contracted by Steve Howie. “The irony is that we had originally put a NEXO system into it as the Trap and suddenly here we were about to do the same thing all over again.” On top of that he has added full Robe production lighting on each floor, along with some projection video.

It has been Peter Kellet’s task to make the weekend nights buzz, as the pole tables disappear to reveal black polished granite dance areas, the curtains close and a video screen drops to envelope the environment. The private dance alcoves, with pouffe tables downstairs in the Gold Room, become VIP booths and the high-premium restaurant operates until 11pm before making way for the club environment.

“On Friday and Saturday night there is no girl business in London,” rationalises Stringfellow. “But at the same time I could see what the new A-list clubs were doing. Chinawhite started it all, now Mo*vida and Crystal are the two front runners, along with Pangaea, the Cuckoo Club and Bouji’s as well. That’s where the ridiculous money is spent. On top of that there are still places like Chinawhite, View Lounge (formerly Penthouse) and Paper, which are all performing well. I have loaded up with a sound system that will compete with any of them.”
With the champagne stakes now ramped up to Magnum and Jeraboam levels in The Wardour’s Showroom (which also features a dance cage), Stringfellow is witnessing a return to the 1980’s era of ‘conspicuous consumption’. “In the 2000’s we are definitely seeing a return to those values,” he acknowledges. “People are now arriving with chauffeurs and we have brought the car jockeys back. It’s super-flash and super-rich now - which suits me fine.”
But to achieve this fantasy island, Stringfellow’s designer has needed to provide more than a brace of Karyatids and a statue with the wingspan of a giant condor.
Other Creation Design and Build signatures include the Arabesque Barley Twist wood turnings, the high epic scalloped backs in the gold booths. “The curved cornice which mirrors the shape of the curved seating below are the spectacular bits of design - everything is circular to keep the flow going.”
Steve Howie also managed to reinstate the original 1922 shop frontage in art deco form and was delighted when Westminster Council approved it on the spot. “I felt this was important. I like to leave a legacy and I hope it will become a listed feature, so it survives long after The Wardour has gone.”
Peter Stringfellow agrees that down the years, he too, has had good experiences with the notorious Westminster Council and in early 2002 was awarded his Nude Table Dancing licence with little of the expected kerfuffle.

“But there’s also a lot of things we don’t agree on,” he adds portentously. “For instance I believe the policy of holding the West End down to late licences is wrong. The reality is that London has to open up its licence.” He says that some of the 5am licenses granted have imposed such onerous conditions that they are hardly worthwhile.

“Binge drinking is only caused because people need to drink quick. Once people can have a drink when they want to there will be no more binge drinking.”

The move to full nudity had been an important watershed, he believes. But what do the terms of his license mean? Essentially: no touching of a sexual nature and no physical contact.
There are similar rules for this pool of 240 girls banning the taking up of lewd, provocative positions as well as smoking and chewing; all are strictly forbidden.

“It will be policed in a commonsense manner. It’s a fantasy game if it’s done properly. If touching is allowed to continue it becomes tantamount to a brothel and the business is dead,” proclaims Peter.
The Stringfellow concept has also been franchised, but whereas Dublin failed, the Paris venue, operated by Alain Cannone close to the Arc de Triomphe continues to prosper.

“Last year I withdrew the license from Stringfellows Dublin,” he explains. “The city is very pro Europe yet there was an old Irish culture clash with the new. Paris remains fantastic, and we’ve had a good relationship there for five years.” While Cannone owns the club, Stringfellow supplies the girls.

Peter Stringfellow’s enterprise today is still supported by long-serving directors like Roger Howe (whose son is also part of the management team) and Julian Russell (his executive in Paris) while they have recently recruited Chris Shaw from Luminar as general manager of The Wardour, who has been “busy learning the girl skills”.

Every new recruit is given the same dark warning. “This is a relationship killer. If guys come into my business married, they will leave divorced.”

A staunch Conservative, Peter Stringfellow has recently been lobbying David Cameron to straighten out both the gambling laws and the licensing laws. “All you need to do is allow every club to have a few [gaming] tables. Why can’t I have a little area for blackjack and poker and a couple of roulette wheels at the back end of the Gold Bar? It would be great, and an addition to the entertainment programme.”
And in many ways The Wardour is likely to be Peter Stringfellow’s last roll of the dice. While on weekend nights he can usually be found in his new emporium with 24-year-old fiancée, and former Royal Ballet dancer, Bella Wright (who is 42 years Peter’s junior), the couple spend frequent amounts of time in Ibiza and Majorca.

As for Steve Howie, the Wardour project is likely to sit atop his portfolio for sometime to come. “I’ll be surprised if I get another project like this in my career,” he said. When the contract completed he left behind a personal talisman for Peter Stringfellow in the form of a miniature moquette/statuette.

It’s a gold-winged angel

Words: Jerry Gilbert
Images: Jim Ellam
From: Night Magazine April 2007 Issue


 
 
 
 
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