The Interview

Soho House And The City

Meet Mr Nick Jones, the man behind the world’s largest members’ club group as he takes on his biggest challenge yet

  • Cecconi’s Bar at The Ned. Photograph courtesy of The Ned

What does a man wear to a lunchtime appointment in the City of London with Mr Nick Jones? Meeting the founder of the Soho House group in the Square Mile presents something of a tricky sartorial dilemma.

Mr Jones has said, on certain occasions, that he doesn’t really approve of men in suits. Soho House’s club rules even have a special dress code section requesting that its members “refrain from… overtly corporate attire” at its venues in London, New York, LA, Barcelona, Berlin and beyond. Then again, we are in the money-monstering City where bespoke pinstripes and foulard neck ties are pretty much de rigueur. So, does one go banker smart or casual?

In the end, it doesn’t matter because Mr Jones turns up in an extreme dress-down-Friday ensemble of chinos tucked into steel-toed work boots, a high-vis waistcoat and a yellow hard hat. “I do have five or six suits,” he says, his grin big, toothy and boyishly Mr Ed Sheeran-esque. “I get them made for me by Ozweng [his nickname for Savile Row tailor Mr Ozwald Boateng], but I feel at my most comfortable in this kind of clothing.”

Dusty builder duds are wholly appropriate attire for the working day. Mr Jones has spent the morning wandering around the vast halls and labyrinthine corridors of his latest and greatest venture, The Ned, London EC2. Accompanied by his design team, he’s been “pointing at little things that I don’t like. I’m annoyingly good at that.” That said, even Mr Jones’ meticulous talent for detail has been stretched to its limits on this project, due for completion at the end of this month. Mainly because everything about The Ned is on such a titanic, high and handsome scale.

  • Mr Nick Jones. Photograph courtesy of The Ned

The Grade I-listed, former Midland Bank building was designed in 1924 by Sir Edwin “Ned” Lutyens and it is vast. From the outside, it has a Gotham-ish magnificence. Walk through the front door and you enter a room the size and height of an aircraft hangar. With its 92 African verdite columns, lead and glass-paned ceiling and maze of wood-panelled screens, the Grand Banking Hall invokes gasps of delighted awe from even the most lobby-centric world traveller.

This huge space, Mr Jones explains with some pride, will be home to not just The Ned’s concierge and bell hops, but also an open-plan food court for up to 850 seated diners at eight different, internationally-themed restaurants: Zobler’s Delicatessen, Cafe Sou, Millie’s Lounge, The Grill Room, Kaia, Malibu Kitchen and a branch of Soho House group’s Cecconi’s. That’s Japanese, French and British, plus healthy Californian, Jewish comfort food and round-the-clock Americana all under one roof. The Nickel Bar will be open 24/7 while the bank’s central reception desk is to be converted into a cabaret stage.

If all goes according to plan, even at half capacity, The Ned’s foyer will hum like a cross between a 1980s trading floor and a show-stopping, Vegas-proportioned gastrodrome. “I guess you could say that what we have done with Soho House in the past has been lots of little art-house movies,” says Mr Jones. “This is more of a blockbuster.”

Elsewhere, there are two swimming pools (one on the roof overlooking St Paul’s Cathedral), a spa and the members only Ned’s Club, which has a cocktail bar in the old vault, lined with thousands of safety deposit boxes and hidden behind a 20-tonne, Fort Knox-style armoured door. If Mr Ian Fleming had designed a private, City bolthole for James Bond, it would have looked like Ned’s Club. Needless to say, applications for membership to “a modern take on old gentlemen’s-club glamour with all the pomposity removed and a much more cleaner gender split” are already very nearly at capacity. FYI, Ned’s Club isn’t linked to the Soho House Every House programme.

  • One the the hotel’s 252 rooms. Photograph courtesy of The Ned

The hotel, run in collaboration with the New York-based Sydell group, has 252 rooms, including suites, four-poster doubles and “crash pads”, decorated in the “relaxed grandeur” aesthetic of a 1920s cruise liner. There are bedside tables in wicker, chocolate velvet armchairs, palm tree chandeliers, mahogany sleigh beds. Mapping it out was quite simple, says the proprietor. “Because the upper floors were originally for senior bankers, you’d have a large director’s office with a smaller room next door where his secretary would sit with her typewriter,” says Mr Jones. “Immediately, it seemed like a quite natural bedroom and bathroom layout.”

Lighting in the rooms is user friendly (Mr Jones says he hates anything in a hotel room that is controlled by an iPad), linen is of a high thread count, the mini bar shows a preference for British booze and snacks, and there are plenty of complimentary goodies that anyone staying at a Mr Jones-run hostelry has come to expect.

“My idea of hotel-keeping is to have a sense that nothing is mean or pared back,” he says. “Imagine that you are staying with a really nice granny who gives you lots of little treats and doesn’t hold back on the luxuries. I think a sense generosity is important.”

Mr Jones, who must have had a really lovely granny, first came across the empty, 13-storey building at 27 Poultry five years ago when the landlord of Little House (Soho House’s Mayfair outpost) invited him in. “It was in the City,” says Mr Jones. “A bit out of my comfort zone, socially and geographically speaking. And vacant because somebody had tried, and failed, to turn it into a six-star hotel – an idea that filled me with absolute horror. I’d said yes, mainly because I didn’t want to seem impolite, but when I walked through the front door into this extraordinary 3,000sq ft room, what I saw was absolutely jaw dropping. I thought, ‘I just have to do this. I have to see if I can make this work.’ Why? Because it’s a different area. A different size. I wanted a challenge, to see if I could do something different.” Mr Jones, now 53, allows himself a rueful grin. “You can probably put it down to some sort of mid-life crisis.”

  • The exterior of The Ned. Photograph courtesy of The Ned

  • Cecconi’s Bar at The Ned. Photograph courtesy of The Ned

The notion of opening a £200m hotel and club in the City, an area of London notoriously quiet during the evenings and at the weekends, doesn’t concern him. “The City is no longer regarded as east London,” he says. “It is the centre of London.

“This is old London, Dickens’ London. But it is also super-modern London, the buzzy and interesting and incredibly well-connected part of town with Tate Modern and Borough Market [over the river]. Its social landscape has changed, too. There used to be just the odd wine bar that closed at 8.00pm, but now key restaurateurs are all wanting to open up here. People from all over London will want to use it, increasingly, as a seven-days-a-week place.”

Who would bet against Mr Jones, a mild mannered, but apparently fearless, venture hospitalitalista who seems to have a sixth sense for happening cities and hot locations? He left school at 17 with few qualifications and worked as a chef, apprentice hotelier and nascent restaurateur before opening the first Soho House club on Greek Street, Soho, 21 years ago. The Soho House group is now an 18-property-strong, worldwide empire, with new clubs in Mumbai, New York’s Lower East Side, Amsterdam and London’s Shepherd’s Bush set to open in the next 12 months. In 2016, global membership was more than 61,000 with another 33,000 on the waiting list.

With Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Hong Kong now on Mr Jones’ and billionaire investor Mr Ron Burkle’s radar for possible future Soho House locations, does he ever feel like he is in danger of over-expanding? “I’ve had people suggesting that ever since I moved the Soho House brand out to Babington House [in Somerset, southwest England] back in 1998,” he says with a shrug. “Generally, people don’t like the thought of a business growing too fast, but they love the benefits that come with a bigger business. Actually, it’s our members who have been leading the charge with our expansion. The fact that we will have 22 houses makes the membership very desirable. People love the idea that they can rock up in, say, West Hollywood or South Beach Miami and have somewhere to hang out.”

Back in the City of London, The Ned promises a more democratic offering and a less prescriptive dress code than its Soho House half-siblings. The reason why Mr Jones and his management team took an initial dislike to the idea of men in suits was, he says, “because the members didn’t like it”. In reaction, Mr Jones’ fashion policing board conducted a so-called “bonfire of the bankers” at Soho House New York in 2010, terminating the membership of almost 1,000 suit-wearing Manhattan members, most of whom worked in finance.

  • The decor of the bedrooms harks back to the 1920s. Photograph courtesy of The Ned

“We didn’t like people coming after work and corporately entertaining in our clubs,” says Mr Jones. “No one wants to sit next to a group of eight men, often in suits, having after-work drinks and being loud and interrupting a group of four on the next table who might just want to have a quiet, civilised dinner. It just doesn’t work.”

Seven years on, a different postcode and a new type of member have prompted a less authoritarian approach. “I want The Ned to be for everyone,” he says. “It may be a big, multi-layered hotel project, but it retains a boutique sensibility and spirit. We don’t care about where people work, how people work or what they wear when they work. What we do care about is how people use our clubs.

“What we do like,” says Mr Jones, warming to the idea of the elegantly attired, Square Mile lifestyle “is a well-cut suit, a beautiful MR PORTER suit.”