Inside the Most Exclusive Clubs on the Planet

Words by
John Arlidge

6th April 2023

Luxury brands all over the world that were once proudly open to all are pulling up the drawbridge and declaring themselves private members’ clubs. John Arlidge explores this new and growing club cachet, and discovers the hefty joining fees and premium subscriptions that go hand-in-hand this new ultra exclusive social scene.

The Aman New York is the grandest new hotel in one of the grandest hotel cities in the world — and it comes with the grandest price. Its cheapest room will set you back a record $4,000. For that rate — the price of two hotel suites in the next door Peninsula or the St Regis across Fifth Avenue — you’d think you’d have access to the best the hotel might offer. Not so. If you fancy enjoying a Cuban cigar on the terrace, as many Aman junkies do, it will cost you $204,000, plus the cost of the stogie. Yes, you read that right; it’s the price of an apartment in the suburbs.

Cohiba lovers have to join the Aman Club, which includes membership to the humidor. Membership costs $200,000 up front, plus $15,000 every year thereafter. If you live in New York and simply want to pop in for a coffee or a bite to eat without booking a room, you will also need to join the Aman Club.

It would be easy to dismiss the Aman Club as an outlier for that curious breed of customer who wants to be ripped off, and wants to be seen to be ripped off because it shows that they’re so crazy rich they don’t give a fig for any notion of value. But its members-only approach is the most extreme example of a trend that is as far removed from the cost-of-living crisis as it is possible to imagine.

Aman Club Cigar Terrace
Aman Club Cigar Terrace

Take restaurants (if they’ll take you). A few blocks from the Aman in New York on Manhattan’s Upper East Side is Casa Cruz. Its coveted top-floor dining room is reserved for the 99 members of the restaurant’s “investor group of partners” who have paid between $250,000 and $500,000 to join. A two-hour hop south in a Gulfstream G650 is Haiku, a new Japanese restaurant in Miami, which accepts members by invitation only, for an annual fee. It asks them to commit to at least four reservations annually for a kaiseki-inspired omakase menu of 10 to 12 courses.

High-end fashion brands are dipping a toe in the water, too. Giorgio Armani’s private club, Giorgio’s, was founded in 2016 and has around 1,000 members worldwide. It had its own pop-up at Harry’s Bar in London to host one of the British Fashion Awards after-parties. Prada has launched Prada Mode, the Milanese luxury label’s roving private members’ club. It has already landed in Miami and Hong Kong during Art Basel, and in London for Frieze. Alfred’s is Alfred Dunhill’s invitation-only club adjacent to its menswear flagship store in Bourdon House in London.

Italy’s Loro Piana offers clients entry to private-club-style meetings with other kindred spirits. “We like to bring our customers together in groups of 20 or 50 people,” says Fabio d’Angelantonio, the label’s CEO. “It’s a networking opportunity for people with similar economic situations. They can be Chinese, British, American, Russian, and in 15 minutes they realise what they have in common.” D’Angelantonio uses the gatherings as an opportunity to talk with his best customers and gather feedback.

Giorgio's St Moritz
Giorgio's St Moritz

“Our entire proposition is to create products that sweeten their lifestyle,” he says. Some designers are turning their homes into private clubs or salons. Brunello Cucinelli, founder of the eponymous label, has hosted Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and other tech entrepreneurs at Solomeo, his medieval hilltop town in Umbria.

The dynasty behind Ermenegildo Zegna entertains top clients at a family villa in northern Italy. Ralph Lauren is looking for a new site for Palazzo Ralph Lauren, a members-only club that started life in the fashion house’s Art Nouveau palazzo, Casa Campanini, in Milan. Members will be able to shop exclusive collections, enjoy perks such as dining on the club’s outdoor terrace with food prepared by a private chef, and get priority reservations at any Ralph Lauren restaurant.

The trend is particularly well advanced in China. Here, Chanel, Dior, Dunhill and Louis Vuitton are expanding their offerings to ultra-high-net-worth VIP clients by opening private boutiques inside their flagship stores, as well as in first-tier city malls and department stores such as Beijing’s SKP. In these “salons” the brands’ most loyal high spenders can access one-to-one sales and consulting services, trunk shows, private pre-orders, exclusive events and even education courses. Western department stores are getting in on the act. Harrods has launched The Residence, its first permanent private shop in Shanghai.

The skyline of Solomeo
The skyline of Solomeo

Getting into these hallowed spaces is not as straightforward as merely donning the label’s clothes or spending a lot of money. For Prada’s Paris salon, 1,000 invitees were handpicked by the label, including Gigi Hadid, French actress Adèle Exarchopoulos, and British artist Jake Chapman.

You might think calling time on mere civilians would be a bit awkward, especially
at a time when many people are struggling. Not a bit of it, says Vladislav Doronin, the St Petersburg-born former squeeze of Naomi Campbell, who somehow found himself the owner of the “zen” Aman hotel brand. The $200,000-plus fees to join the Aman Club might “for some people sound like a lot of money but you’re paying to be among certain people, paying for unique locations, unique design, and unparalleled service,” he says.

There are more of these “certain people” around than you might think. Flexjet’s European boss Marine Eugene, who has created a fractional ownership club of high-fliers, says: “Covid has changed many people’s priorities. Many wealthy people look at private services, including private jets, and instead of saying, ‘That’s nice but I can’t afford it’, they are now saying, ‘I’ve got the means and I want to do this’. Once you go down the private route, it’s very hard to go back.”

Giorgio's in Milan
Giorgio's in Milan

A McKinsey report on private aviation confirms that before the pandemic only 10% of those who could afford to fly private were doing so. Eugene is now enjoying new interest from the remaining 90%.

Putting up barriers to business can, of course, be good business. As the late Sunday Times restaurant critic A A Gill used to point out, no one goes to a restaurant because they are hungry. They go to enjoy themselves and signal status. Where you go, how you arrive, where you sit, and what you order says so much.

Telling people they cannot eat, drink, dance or shop where they want to unless they join a club confers another kind of status — that you can be a connoisseur among a very small number of connoisseurs.