A short, stubby man encircles a flower stem of a girl in towering heels, waterfall hair and a dress so short it barely registers. When his car, a black Lamborghini, arrives, she slides in with a toss of her locks. He takes the wheel and roars away, too fast, too loud for a small London lane.
That was the start of a recent lesson in hedonism, à la contemporary Britain; it took place outside of Loulou's, the latest private club to invigorate an institution that has long defined English society. Opened in July, 2012, Loulou's has quickly become the place to go for anything from breakfast to a dance in the disco. Prince William, Kate Moss, Mick Jagger, Daphne Guinness and Downton Abbey star Michelle Dockery have all come, along with politicians and hedge-fund billionaires. One story circulates of an Indian tycoon who dropped a $16,000 tip. On the night I went for dinner recently, Galen and Hilary Weston slipped out of a limousine and into the club, housed in an 18th-century townhouse in Mayfair.
But it isn't just the members and guests who make the place noteworthy. (Paparazzi wait outside every night to see who might emerge.) To enter it is to penetrate someone's rich, lurid imagination. (That someone is Rifat Ozbek, a Turkish fashion designer known for his exotic, ethnically inspired clothing. He had never designed an interior before and was hired on the strength of his pillows. I kid you not – more on that later.) Inside Loulou's, gossip fills the air, making occupants feel part of a whispered conspiracy – and some of the stories include the ambition behind the club itself. It is the manifestation of one man's revenge.
Robin Birley, the founder, comes from a family marred by tragedy, betrayal and court battles. His late father, Mark, was the legendary founder of the famous nightclub Annabel's, named for his wife. She later left him for Sir James Goldsmith, the financier and a friend of Birley's, with whom she had had an affair (and two children while she was still married). As a 12-year-old boy, Robin Birley was mauled by a tiger in a zoo, a trauma that left him disfigured even after 57 operations. In 1986, his elder brother, Rupert, drowned at the age of 30 while swimming off the coast of West Africa.
At the time of his father's death, Robin Birley was no longer on speaking terms with him. Before he died in 2007, the elder Birley sold Annabel's (and other clubs) to the clothing magnate Richard Caring for $140-million. Robin was cut out of his father's will and only later got a chunk in an out-of-court settlement. Although he had once run Annabel's, he was also prevented from having anything to do with the clubs.
Named after Loulou de la Falaise, the muse of Yves Saint Laurent and Birley's late aunt, Loulou's was subsequently created at a cost of nearly $45-million. Ozbek, whose clothing designs make a woman look like she does little else besides eat caviar and drape herself across divans, is the sort of man who can turn a cushion into a sexy, must-have accessory (which he has done, starting about eight years ago, through a store called Yastik, Turkish for pillow).
Made of silk, cotton and velvet, Ozbek's cushions have sprigs of lavender inside "as a signature," a Yastik shop assistant tells me. They cost approximately $400 to $1,500 each. "Just like a small brooch can uplift a dress, cushions are the brooches of sofas," Ozbek has pronounced. It was on the strength of these pillows that Robin Birley, a 55-year-old rarely seen without his two whippets, asked him to give his club an interior so extravagant it could strut its stuff on a fashion runway.
Did he succeed? Upon entering Loulou's, a sweep of stairs invites you up to the second floor for a drink in one of the interlinking drawing rooms. Taking a seat in one of them is like wearing a classic Chanel suit, producing that feeling of being encased in a perfectly tailored garment. No detail, from the braided tassles on the curtains to velvet piping on the crisp, plump sofas, has been overlooked.
But if the upstairs is an exercise in pretty, pristine classicism, the lower level is like YSL on acid. Behind a thick velvet curtain and down a narrow staircase, a giraffe head and neck rise out of the floor. At one end, a bar made out of hundreds of pale, luminous shells looks like something Neptune might have ordered up to lure a a mermaid, of which there are several. At the other end are plush velvet catacombs of private womb-like spaces. Butlers, dressed in understated uniforms of chocolate brown, warn people politely not to take photos.
The dining room pulls you in like the embrace of a voluptuous woman dressed in dark, silky animal prints. Down another passageway, in a diminutive disco, small, jewel-encrusted Buddha heads revolve slowly in each corner, a wink to Damien Hirst's diamond skull perhaps, only jollier.
Certain people say that Loulou's is a welcome throwback to the old-fashioned club, a place of careful interiors for the carefully invited and a celebration of reductive society – the world's 0.01 per cent. Birley reportedly vets each applicant himself and once returned the cheque of a billionaire he deemed unsuitable.
And in many ways, Loulou's does reference the past, although it's uncertain if it does so ironically. During my visit, I venture into the ladies' washroom, a place of low, rounded ceilings, deep-red tapestried walls and individual ornate mirrors on marble-top tables. It looks, I think, like a prostitute's boudoir – which is perfect, really. This part of Mayfair and in fact this townhouse were once known for their pleasures of the night – and I'm not talking about expensive wine and pasta.