photograph by marco pedde
The Exclusivity Game
New York Clubs Round One

From the line of bouncers who look like action heros (Vin Diesel, the $20 million blockbuster hero, was a New York club bouncer for 15 years), to the VIP rooms that lead to VVIP rooms that snake to cordoned-off inner celebrity rooms, to the champagne that flows freely and the Amazon models that roam hungrily, to the music that thunders in your ears, New York clubs sell the ultimate product : glamour, rock n’ roll, and the most potent, the most addictive of them all – Exclusivity.

So how do they do it? How do they make me, a fairly good-looking, charming, Harvard-educated young banker pine away at all the layers of metal doors that stand between them and me? First stop on this investigation: HIRO, the new “it” place on the list of every New Yorker who can respectfully call himself a socialite. Infamously stripped of bouncers, velvet ropes, and guest lists, it has only a metal door with a round window.

Open since March 2004, the darkly-lit Japanese-themed subterranean bar counts Mick Jagger, U2’s Bono and Kate Moss as regulars and has hosted private affairs for British magazine Dazed and Confused, 70’s rock photographer Mick Rock, and hip hop producer Damon Dash. Admittedly, when I walked in, I was blown away. Paper lanterns warmly illuminate the interior, sleek red cushions line the walls and Japanese paintings hug the hallways. Weaving your way through waif- thin models and bronzed Greek Gods, you arrive at a bar prominently sprinkled with Japanese drinks like sakes, schohu, and awarmoir. How do you create such an atmosphere in a bar with no name on the door and no trappings of being a club of any sort?

Marked with tattoos on both arms and dressed in military fatigues and a black sleeveless Bruce Lee shirt, half Pakistani/Turkish and French/Irish co-owner and operator Nur Khan dresses like the rock stars he entertains. He has little trouble drumming up enthusiasm from celebrities; he knows them intimately from his days owning NYC spot Sway and the Connecticut music venue Marquee, where Radiohead and Nirvana jammed post-New York shows and from his long habit of dating supermodels. Having recently returned from a trip to China where he studied Shaolin kung-fu, Khan designed the bar with Maritime co-owner Eric Goode in two hours working off the Asian theme in Maritime’s breathtaking white and bamboo sushi restaurant, Matsuri.

Khan describes the place as having a signature “Nur feel,” which at Hiro means there are no theme nights, no outside promoters, and no large groups of guys. Instead, every night is meant to feel like an intimate party where people who likely already know each can get reacquainted. If you don’t know the owners, looking the part is the criteria for entry and even hotel guests must press their luck with the doorperson. Khan says that he only wants to create a party that he would want to be at himself.

Michael Ault, the supremely successful owner of 65 clubs around the world, including New York’s Pangaea, Nocturne and Chaos, said in an interview, “The trick is to keep these secrets a secret. The top A-crowd, they want to be with each other. Unfortunately, the Press follows them so they’re constantly moving around, trying to find a new little place for themselves. They don’t want to be adored by all these hoards of pedestrian people. ”

The most impressive element of a successful club is, of course, environment. Club Pangaea, opened by Michael Ault two years ago, is furnished like a North African harem. Large couches sit against red walls and enormous white cotton drapes billow above. The main lighting comes from thick white candles that illuminate African masks and animal skin prints. Michael Ault spends a month in Africa at the end of each year traveling in places like Zimbabwe, Zambia, and South Africa. On returning from one of his trips, he decided to a tribal theme. “I always said that I’d love to do a tribal theme, like you’re in a weird, fantasy tent.” The idea was novel and a great hit with everyone from Justin Timberlake to P. Diddy.

Once the space is set up, then it's time for the club owners to rip out their rolodexes. Luckily, many of them start out as party promoters which mean they've been in the business of promoting other people's clubs for years. Michael Ault who started out promoting parties while a bored young banker once boasted that he had a rolodex of 40,000 people. Richie Akiva, the owner of restaurant/uber-bar Butter and the boyfriend of Estonian supermodel Carmen Kass, was a club promoter for many years before he started his own businesses. Akiva is one of a string of promoters that have morphed into the new elite of club entrepreneurs. New boys Noah Tepperberg and Jason Strauss started out as party promoters too and now have opened their own club Marquee in New York and often run Jet East, the celebrity club in the Hamptons. According to one estimate, a successful club can make about 75 thousand dollars on a warm-weather Saturday night in the Hamptons. Along with active promotion, hosting post-fashion week parties, private birthday events for the likes of P.Diddy, Vikram Chatwal and Giselle Bundchen and organizing charity events have also become staple ways of promoting a club when it first opens up. One of the best keys to the golden chest is close connection with modeling agencies. Where the hot women go, that's where everyone goes. In the esoteric world of night club business, modeling agencies such as Ford Models, Q Models, and Boss Models can help triple the revenue of a club. At any given night, you'll see a hoard of these English-as-a-second-language models, currently mostly Latin American and Eastern European, at a successful venue.

At the end of the night, it's all about the party: beautiful people, great music, flowing alcohol and a great space. For the kind of money people pay, it's the job of the club owners and promoters to give them this atmosphere. And they work tirelessly. Most owners are at their clubs every night at least for a few hours. Given how stressful the business can be, I'm surprised they're all not raging alcoholics. But I think that's what's very interesting about all the owners. They are very astute businessmen and they are smart entrepreneurs. They are always everywhere on a club night, on the phone, mingling with people, bringing new marketing ideas and creating new business relationships. Ian Shragger said that Jason Tepperberg and Noah Strauss were hired to promote his exclusive Shore Club in Miami because they brought New York concepts such as bottle service to Miami. Bottle service means that if you buy a bottle, you're let into the club which means the club makes guaranteed $350 to $500 off you when it lets you into the door. Such marketing concepts have transformed the club scene into an ever changing chessboard of new tactics and strategies.

While the celebrities are coming in, the rest of the crowd is dying to get in but is mostly kept out. But every celebrity hotspot runs out of steam as new places come up. Eventually, they have to open their doors to everyone else. As one clubgoer put it, the lifecycle of a club goes through the following turns: first it's the models and the celebrities, then the preppies, and finally the bridge-n-tunnel crowd (Manhattan-speak for those who come from Brooklyn and New Jersey). The lifespan of a club can range anywhere from a year to five years. To keep the hype up once the A-List crowd has moved on, the club employs many old-school tactics. One classic case: the club may be empty but the bouncers won't let anyone in till the line is a long list of hopefuls. When the white hot club Lotus was in full swing, it was impossible for anyone to get in. One friend of mine, a derivatives trader who made a million at the tender age of 25, decided to have dinner there every Thursday at 8pm. The dinner was a prefix menu of over $60 per person but that's ok: if you stick around till 12 and keep ordering food, you get to be part of the party that starts at midnight. Pathetic? Not to the man that gets to boast on the trading floor that he hangs out with Ford Models at Lotus every Thursday.

There is no end to the things men will try to get into the uber club of the day. Seven out of ten times, having hot women on your arm is a sure way to get entry. Given the high ratio of men to women in the city, there is always an astronomical demand for young beautiful women. But that can be problematic too if you don't have the right girls. Once a friend of mine was with two chubby girls and he wanted to get into a club. He told the bouncer, "Come on man, what's the problem? I have two girls with me." "You call those girls?", the bouncer sniffed condescendingly and just pushed my friend out of the line. "Sorry", he said, "Private party".

But ask any of these club owners and they say that exclusivity is just one part of the appeal of the place. It's all about creating a fantasy world full of energy, fantasy, drama and fun. Michael Ault says, "When you go into these clubs, they have an energy. They breathe on their own. They're like a life force. And it's very wild." And club owners can take you there like no-one else. As Noah Tepperberg once said in an interview "we know how to make an old potato barn on North Sea Road cool, so cool that there are tons of celebrities and 1,000 people want to get in." It is precisely this ability to make a place cool, exclusive and fun that makes these clubs successful.

After a while, every club packs up and leaves but not before many revelers have had fun, the club owners have made a lot of money and the whole game starts again with their next new thing!

By Anya Mahen & Rahul Verma