A few days before Christmas, as London was being torpedoed by Omicron, I went to a party at the Notting Hill house of an interior-designer friend. Like my fellow 200 or so guests, and indeed our host, I didn’t for a second consider canceling.
We had to show a negative lateral-flow test at the door. But even if we hadn’t, would anyone have cared? I doubt it. But surely masks were worn? Please—this is London.
Actually, let me rephrase that. This is the new London, a place where a refreshed and more libertine sense of self-expression and behavior seems to be re-invigorating this ancient city once again.
It’s taken the coronavirus—and, I hate to admit it, even a little Brexit—to upset the blandness that had been rotting its way through every corner of the city since a multi-national army of the super-rich invaded in the early 2000s, a solipsistic mob gunning for recognition, desperate to participate in the atavistic rituals of social convention.
I’m not saying Brits didn’t warmly embrace all this new-world excess. But after generations of pretending money didn’t matter, they suddenly found that it very much did. Now, though, money had to metaphorically prettify itself, both physically and behaviorally, which meant that the cavorting dissolutes of old were marginalized in favor of a vanilla rabble of money-signaling and over-groomed narcissists whose greatest fear was dropping off the guest list and becoming “N.F.I.” (not f***ing invited).
And so began two decades of endless fundraisers, saving this and that, art fairs, art talks, art tours—art anything, frankly—shooting weekends in borrowed country piles, endless droning on about table-scaping and fancy lunches. Proselytizing and flaunting one’s merits became the strongest currency, and along the way, much of London’s creative originality and opinion slowly became strangled.
Then came the pandemic, and while everyone expected all the above goings-on to return to normal, they oddly haven’t yet. Even if they have a little, the old appetite has waned, and it all suddenly feels stale.
This gear change hit me in September, when I went to the opening of the Maine Mayfair restaurant-bar-nightclub, in a redeveloped town house on Hanover Square. Not another ridiculous club filled with ridiculous people, I remember thinking when the invite arrived.
Still, I was curious and decided to drop in for a quick five minutes before heading off to the first-night party of the newly opened invitation-only members’ club, Upstairs at Langan’s.
The moment I walked into the Maine’s courtyard I felt like I’d been slapped, as if I’d landed in an alternate universe. Beautiful human artifacts swirled elegantly around me, each one so curious and original.
Men in pearls and skirts, stylish women in non-label fashion, ungroomed in the old sense but all the more beautiful and interesting for it. After years of endless social diktats and homogeneity, this felt like a relief.
Until that night at Maine, where I stayed as long as I could, watching gender-ambiguous dancers (both clothed and naked) move around us, I had thought those kinds of surprising moments belonged to a lost libertine past.
Beautiful human artifacts swirled elegantly around me, each one so curious and original.
I hotfooted it to Upstairs, at Langan’s, eager to report my findings. But in the stylish and pared-down boudoir-esque red velvet box of a club above its newly reopened restaurant, that feeling of dissonance persisted. It felt more like an 80s Parisian nightclub, like the louche and ultra-sexy Regine’s.
A few weeks later, I found myself at a Halloween party at Laylow, Taz Fustok’s private club tucked away off the beaten track in Kensal Green at the foot of the brutalist Trellick Tower, where Sir Mick Jagger and Edward Enninful are regulars. It was hosted by fashion photographer Mert Alas and his husband, Tasso Góes, and it was a celebration of the launch of their Seventy One gin brand. There was that glorious feeling again, that recalibration of expectation.
It was the same at Kim Jones’s Men’s Dior Homme show and after-party in a West London warehouse in early December, where 500 danced for their lives, as D.J. Princess Julia played disco hits.
This new mood was crystallized for me when I attended the subversive production of Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club starring Eddie Redmayne and Jessie Buckley (both exceptional) at the Playhouse Theatre. The theater had been rebuilt to resemble an intimate Berlin nightclub, with a circular stage flanked by cocktail tables, where the audience was invited to order drinks and dinner. The production’s audacity and originality, its choreography, performed by a gender-fluid dance troupe, and in particular its costume design, with nods to fashion heroes such as McQueen and Galliano, left me punch drunk for days.
Granted, I attended all these events in quick succession over a matter of weeks. But something in the air just feels different. There isn’t that sense of running back to pre-coronavirus ways.
In the old days it didn’t matter if you ran with aristocrats or punks. If you wanted to be at the party, there was only one requisite: at least be visually or conversationally interesting. Say something to make the table sit up. I have been sitting up a lot more of late.
Certainly, it stands to reason that fashion, restaurants, clubs, art, film, literature, and music all naturally change when the world is forced to reorder itself.
So maybe this is not just a passing hedonistic blip. What it heralds for London, if it continues, is an unshackling and liberation from the last 20 years, a welcome return to the city’s renegade and liberal heritage that also catapults it into a more diverse and creative future.
Vassi Chamberlain is a London-based Writer at Large for AIR MAIL