Mayfair haunt Annabel’s swings open its maximalist doors

Mayfair haunt Annabel’s swings open its maximalist doors

For decades, the spot near the golden Buddha at Annabel’s was the epicentre of London nightlife – a certain sort of London nightlife anyway. The club’s inner circle would congregate there to flirt and drink, to recount misadventures with sharks on their private Caribbean islands and memories of picking up their trust funds with nannies in tow. A few martinis down, they would pile into the phone box on Berkeley Square for an illicit smoke, transforming it into a steamy ‘hotbox’. Then they would hit the dance floor, with its light-up panels, and boogie until 4am. With its no phone rule and strict door policy, Annabel’s encouraged naughtiness in all its forms. Oh, if only that Buddha could talk.

Times have changed, however, and a new incarnation of the famous club, opening today (12 March 2018), two doors down from the original, allows phones and laptops – although they are restricted to the top floor, and until 6pm only. It’s open from 7am to 4am, and Instagram opportunities abound. Pleated silk walls, plaster panels painted with fruit and flowers, and two huge candelabra, featured in the 1964 film Paris When It Sizzles, mark the entrance, while members check their coats into a ‘pagoda’ under a grand Georgian staircase (the building is Grade 1 listed).

All this new finery has been created by Martin Brudnizki, the Swedish interior architect who has been collaborating with the club’s owner Richard Caring for more than a decade. Their hotspots include London’s Ivy, which Brudnizki updated, Sexy Fish and 34 Mayfair, but Annabel’s is their most ambitious, and carefully themed, venture yet. ‘Richard loves Labradors and gardens,’ says Brudnizki. ‘In that way, he’s quintessentially British, so I decided Annabel’s should be about animals and gardens, flora and fauna.’

Murals by artist Gary Myatt were inspired by the gardens of Levens Hall in Lancashire

Each floor is based around the idea of a garden: on the first floor is the Asian garden; the basement with the dance floor is the Garden of Eden (‘I was thinking of the fall of man,’ chuckles Brudnizki); and on the ground floor, a real garden with a retractable glass roof and restaurant links the Berkeley Square building with a second entrance on Hay’s Mews. Most of it is as bespoke as bespoke can be. Each piece of furniture is upholstered in multiple fabrics, trims, fringes and tassels; stuccos are the work of plaster experts George Jackson and Ian Berry; and nine gold-leaf murals by Gary Myatt depict topiary, statues, exotic birds and around 1,000 roses. ‘It’s the most maximalist project that I’ll ever be allowed to do,’ says Brudnizki. ‘You might not want this at home, but it’s fun to have dinner here.’

Brudnizki had no problem picking up on British eccentricity. ‘You only have to go beyond the M25 to see it’s still very much alive,’ he laughs. ‘Richard let me go crazy, then he reined me in. It was like doing a couture collection and bringing it back to ready-to-wear. But still, it’s insane.’ Tigers, elephants and birds of paradise appear on carpets, walls and mirrors. In the centre of the ladies’ loo is a 2m-high statue from 1900. The only thing there’s no trace of is the old Annabel’s.

And why would there be? The club was founded in 1963 by Caring’s former rival, the late Mark Birley, as a place to party with his pals Lord Lucan, Jimmy Goldsmith and John Aspinall. Birley named the club after his wife Lady Annabel – who then ran off with Goldsmith – and movie stars, models and musicians were instantly drawn to the eccentric, high-society hedonism it offered. In recent years, British bluebloods have migrated to 5 Hertford Street, the private club founded in 2012 by Birley’s son, Robin, and Annabel’s has found itself out of step with cooler, more contemporary members’ clubs. As one recent visitor commented, ‘I felt like I was in a very expensive disco in Essex.’

Banquette: created by Davison Highley for the ground floor restaurant, seen here in prototype

So how is the reborn Annabel’s embracing the future? The new club is three times bigger than its predecessor, which was only ever a nightclub. It has private rooms with hi-tech AV systems, and a host of restaurants and bars overseen by Julien Jouhannaud, a French chef who worked for Alain Ducasse for 11 years. Outmoded in today’s sneakered-up tech billionaire world, the strict ‘no T-shirts, no trainers’ dress code has been relaxed and revamped by the fashion journalist Derek Blasberg. Most controversially, membership is being heavily vetted. Existing members can reapply, but the hike in fees is, according to one local gallerist, causing outrage among the ladies of Mayfair. Only founder members are exempt; they can join for £5.25, the equivalent of the five guineas they paid in 1963.

Yet despite a new home and a £55m-plus refurb, will Annabel’s have the one thing money can’t buy – class? As a friend who was a regular in the late 1990s recalls: ‘I was in the private dining room, being served champagne by Moroccan and Italian waiters who had worked there for years, and some aristo-chick was telling us about her friend who had been eaten by a tiger. All this was in contrast to the room’s beauty, which made the decadence seem beautiful too. Almost called for.’

The new Annabel’s will be a decorator’s paradise and aesthete’s Holy Grail, but will the conversation be just as fabulous? Luckily, one relic from the past – the Buddha – will be back to get the party started.

As originally featured in the January 2018 issue of Wallpaper* (W*226), and first published online on 2 January 2018.