Almost a century after the dark days of Prohibition, so-called speakeasy culture lives on — though you might not know it. The Secret Society: Modern Speakeasy Style and Design takes readers on an indulgent, voyeuristic tour of a secret world that exists all around us, where the nightlife elite revel in their exclusivity, hidden in plain sight.
From a converted synagogue where Parisians can enjoy late-night sacrilege and debacle, to luxurious members-only clubs that cost thousands of dollars annually and require finger-print scans for admittance, nightlife connoisseur Christian Alexander takes you through back alleys, pawn shop basements, refrigerator doors, and neon-lit sex shops, past the man asking for the secret password, and into the decadent underworld of the night.
Part interior design book, part nightlife cult bible, The Secret Society features over 300 never-before-captured photos of unseen venues around the world, along with revealing interviews with the scene’s most iconic figures. These spots are so cool that even David Lynch’s secret club didn’t make the cut.
Let’s let the author speak for himself.
ANIMAL: How did you come up with the idea for this project?
Christian Alexander: My publisher, Patrice Farameh, had this concept of modern speakeasy style and design. I explained to her how that whole world is like a secret society, and that became the title of the book. It’s never been done before, and I’ve worked in nightlife 25 years, since I was 15 years old… I used to throw private clubs in my basement in high school, and charge kids a couple bucks to get in and sell them beers for a dollar, so you know, it was natural for me, just sort of evolution, I guess.
How did you find out about/select the locations featured in the book?
I worked with a lot of the people who work at these places. There’s sort of a network that extends. It branches out, so we’re all connected. I’m kind of the only one that could actually do this book. I have relationships with all these people, as opposed to being a competitor. They would never come together otherwise, but I brought them all together, so I see the project as sort of unifying nightlife. It’s sociology. It’s anthropology. It’s not just an interior design book. It is a beautiful interior design book, but it’s not a “nightlife” book. That’s the thing. I just felt it would be good to tell the stories of the designers, door people, the music, the owners, these places, and how these places became.
Did you come across any issues, trying to expose these clubs that pride themselves on their secrecy?
Not really. I give you the city, and the latitude and longitude, but I don’t give you the address, or the actual location. I mean, it’s an interior design book, you’re not like seeing people do anything actually inside them. The photos don’t have people in them. I’m not really exposing anything that people don’t already know.
From an interior design perspective, are there any aesthetic qualities that these places have in common?
Aesthetically, it’s just the vision of the owners. They each have their own sort of vision and concept, but the exclusivity of them is the real commonality, the fact that you can’t just roll up and get in. You have to know someone to get in. They all kind of respect each other, there’s a mutual respect, but they’re all unique, too, like the designer or the owner.
How long did you spend working on the book?
Six to seven months. It’s hard to find these places, first of all, cause there are places in, Buenos Aires, Tokyo, London, Paris, Mexico City, Berlin, Miami, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, they’re all over, you know? And Prohibition was an American thing, but the whole idea of just, people having a refuge, away from the masses and that sort of thing, watchful eyes on everyone, is everywhere. I would say that might be something, aesthetically, but even more, physically, that they have in common, that you can hide, in plain sight.
I noticed that a lot of the locations featured in your book are in New York. Do you think that New York has a special significance within the “speakeasy culture”?
New York is, well, think about Prohibition. We have that whole culture now, and it’s always been kind of based in New York. You see it in Boardwalk Empire, things like that, you know? But it’s not just “speakeasies.” It’s private clubs like Core: Club on the Upper East Side, which is $50,000.00 for membership, 15 annual, and they have a finger print scan. You have Soho House NY, Soho House Berlin, Home House in London, so it’s not just speakeasies, some places are known about but you just have to be a member to get in. So, in that way, they sort of block certain people, that makes it exclusive.
Would you say that financial wealth is a common requirement for admittance to all these places?
No, not at all. That totally has nothing to do with it. Some of those places, because they’re members-only clubs, and you pay a membership fee, well, yes. But for, like, Electric Room, you have to just, be cool, you know? Or like, Le Baron in China Town, or at La Esquina, which is a restaurant, you just have to make a reservation, but you can’t just walk up and go in there, unless… There’s a way you have to go about doing it. So, money is not an issue, for a majority of the places, you know? It’s speakeasy culture.
When you say that for some of these places you just have to “be cool,” does that mean that if you’re cool enough, you can just go up to the door without any connections and get in?
Well that all comes down to doorman discretion. Your vibe, your energy, you know, like Megan Ronney, Disco, and Mina Soliman, and Fabrizio [Brienza], you know, those are all like legendary door people that are featured in the book. And they get more into that. They talk about, like, their experiences with how people treat them, how they get spit on, or punched in the face, by people that get turned away. So it’s kind of dangerous being a doorman, you know? You’re kind of setting yourself up for a lot of drama.
You call doormen the “gate keepers,” right?
Yeah, the “Gate Keepers,” yeah. But I also have some of the iconic nightlife people, like Nur Khan, Amy Sacco, Serge Becker or Richie Akiva, I call them “The Order of the Midnight Sun,” because in Scandinavia they have this season where it’s daytime at night, like 24 hours of sunlight for weeks, and it’s called the “midnight sun”. So those are the people that bring light into darkness, they illuminate the night. I have “The Sounds of Silence” for the music people. The Sounds of Silence. And then you have the “All Seeing Eyes”, those are like, the visionaries.
Am I picking up on some Illuminati-type references here?
Yeah, the “All Seeing Eyes,” like on the dollar bill, there’s a pyramid called the “all-seeing eye,” so I played off of that for the visionaries, the designers. It’s this idea of a secret society. It’s not just “nightlife people”. I have Waris Ahluwalia, the actor — you may have seen him in a lot of Wes Anderson films. I have Mazdack Rassi, he owns Milk Studios, where they have this hidden space, the Milk Jam Room, in the basement. That’s where, like, Patti Smith and Michael Stipe used to jam… Most of the people that work at Milk Studios are musicians so he created like a little garage, with instruments and stuff. But no one knows that it’s there, you gotta go through the garage…
I have Michael Holman, who was in a band called Gray with Vincent Gallo and John-Michel Basquiat, and he just released a documentary called Downtown Calling… So it’s not just nightlife people, it’s people who are sort of just, in The Society of the Night. It all intertwines. It’s not a monarchy. There are no kings and queens. It’s a society. They all respect each other. There’s small degrees of separation between everyone. It’s all connected. They’re either friends with the owner, or they work with the club, or they’ve done something there, or they’re just in that network… This is what I see. This is my opinion, when I curated the book.
There are some people that aren’t in the book that may be like huge, and popular, and that everyone knows, but I don’t see them as being relevant. I don’t see them doing anything avant garde, or cutting edge.
Did you have any bizarre or particularly interesting experiences while researching for the book?
Well, I interviewed David Lynch. That was kind of bizarre… Although David’s not in the book, but he designed a club in Paris, Silencio, that didn’t actually make the final cut, for whatever reasons… But trying to think of questions for David Lynch! Even just finding him. That club was based on a club, also named Silencio, which was in Mulholland Drive. So what he did was he opened a club in Paris, six floors underground, and each room is sort of inspired by the movie Mulholland Drive. But just to get to him, I had to go through a lot of his transcendental meditation people… I had to go through that to find him. Because the club wasn’t so readily eager to put me in touch with him. So I was like… Find David Lynch. Finally, I got in touch with him, but it wasn’t face to face.
The last question I asked him was, who’s David Lynch? Because all his movies have a club. Blue Velvet has a club, Lost Highway has a club, you have like the Bang Bang Bar in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me… There’s always some relationship between dreams, and clubs, in his work. So I was like, what is the deal with that?
What did he say?
Well… I’m saving that. I’m saving that for something.
Fine, fine. That would be like learning the meaning of life, if I found out, it would probably kill me. Anyway, can you see yourself ever opening up one of these places?
Yeah. Some day. But if I did it I would do it in like, Zurich or something weird like that. I wouldn’t do it in New York. I like to move around, I can’t lock myself into one place, you know?
What are some of your personal favorite spots featured in the book?
I would say, Electric Room, which is in the basement of the Dream Hotel. You go down a ramp, and through the garage entrance, underneath the Dream Hotel, you walk in there and its rock n’ roll couture, very rock n’ roll old school… It’s just such a beautiful place.
There’s The Box, obviously, I used to run The Box for 3 years, when it opened, and that place is just amazing. You have Le Pompon, in Paris, which used to be a synagogue. Then there’s this pop-up, that Tony Hornecker does, it’s called The Pale Blue Door, and he builds these installations inside a warehouse and makes it like you’re outside, but you’re inside, at night. He has these private dinner parties, and it looks like Alice in Wonderland, like a tea party for Alice and Wonderland, just super bizarre. He does it in London and different places, he moves all around.
But you have to understand, no one’s ever shot these places. You’re not even allowed in, let alone to shoot them. So I’m opening up the doors for the world to see what the doors look like inside. It doesn’t mean you can get in, but, like, you know, you can just have all these places in one book. All the places you’ve always wanted to go.
The Secret Society: Modern Speakeasy Style and Design is currently available for purchase at Barney’s New York. Fred Segal, Clic Bookstore, Maison 24, Mendo Creative Bookstore, and Treasure & Bond, and online through Farameh Media.
(All images: Ronald J. Abbate)