The Prohibition Era spanned from January 1920 to December 1933 and forever altered New York’s nightlife scene. The government implemented the 18th Amendment, which prohibited the use of alcohol, but it didn’t curb the people’s drinking behavior. Instead, it ignited a new one – bootlegging. Americans started making and selling home-distilled alcohol. Public saloons were forced to shut down but covert ones emerged, coined as “speakeasies.” Using inconspicuous store fronts and sneaky entrances, speakeasies were secret drinking outlets for the thirsty. Today, nearly a century since Prohibition, speakeasies have thrived and evolved to become the most alluring and marvelous places that entertainment seekers can find. The design and vibe of post-Prohibition speakeasies have changed from their original predecessors; however, the wonderment that permeates from these establishments has remained.
Patrice Farameh of Farameh Media, a New York-based publishing house, worked with nightlife expert Christian Alexander to bring to us Secret Society: Modern Speakeasy Style and Design, a carefully curated book of the world’s hottest speakeasy destinations. The book’s fantastic photography, showcasing dozens and dozens of undercover clubs, will draw you into this world of secrecy and exclusivity.
Christian Alexander is a highly sought after nightlife concierge for A-list celebrities. He comes from a family of entertainers and his grandfather was a bootleg driver for one of the biggest players in the Prohibition Era, gangster Al “Scarface” Capone. The nightlife guru has cultivated a career out of this industry and become a coveted resource for the most secretive locales in New York and throughout many parts of the world. We got a chance to interview Christian about speakeasies and their place in the nightlife scene.
Thanks to Christian Alexander and Patrice Farameh for the interview.
Secret Society: Modern Speakeasy Style and Design, $125. To order, give us a call at (646) 669-9049.
How did the concept of this book come about?
My publisher Patrice Farameh was on a private speakeasy tour through New York City and Brooklyn, and was inspired to publish a book on the topic. What intrigued her the most was the number of post-Prohibition speakeasies, even some that were created in the last few years. After some research, she realized that there was a current trend in speakeasy-style establishments in the world. This style was a way to create an exclusive venue for a very exclusive clientele. We came up with the name Secret Society together at our first meeting, when I explained to her some of the inner workings of the nightlife scene in terms of a secret society.
What has made speakeasies so attractive after the end of Prohibition and how have they’ve changed and adapted throughout these past decades?
During the heydey of the banking and tech boom, anyone with disposable income could gain entrance into the hottest mega nightclubs by simply booking expensive bottle-only tables. The modern speakeasy has grown out of this era to provide a refuge for those who want to enjoy an evening apart from the masses. Today, there is not only a need for exclusivity, but a place that is off the beaten path, with some kind of secret entrance or location, and thoughtfully designed spaces that play on the hidden aspect of the location. This goes beyond creating an exclusive aura by having tough bouncers at the door as gatekeepers of an exclusive nightclub. For some of the places featured in the book, the locations and phone numbers for reservations are not listed. You have to know someone to get in.
Is there a secret formula for a successful covert bar? Is the key ingredient the magic of exclusivity? Or is there something else speakeasies share that makes them so alluring?
The secret formula is the secret entrance or nondescript location. The best examples in the world are featured in the book SECRET SOCIETY, such as the speakeasy hidden under a taco stand, through an “Employee Only” door to the restaurant La Esquina in New York City; or through a freezer door down a dark stairway into the super stylish lounge called Jules in Mexico City; or pull back a wardrobe closet to enter the beautiful Los Angeles bar La Descarga. The allure is the unique passage into these speakeasies, as much as the actual hidden destination.
What are a couple of your favorite speakeasy spots and what makes them exciting to you?
My all-time favorite club in the world is ELECTRIC ROOM in New York City. The alchemy of Nur Khan is evident in every aspect of this club. The musical format is consistent; the style is Rock-n-Roll couture. You enter down a psychedelic neon lit ramp under the dream hotel into a vortex of punk rock mirrors and iron chandeliers hovering above Union Jack leather sofas. All evil things dance all night long here. I also love LE POMPON in Paris. It’s owned by Charaf Tajer and it’s in a former synagogue. The new avant-garde collective of Paris’s PIGALLE district run the club. They are the leaders of the young fashion, art and music movement in Paris and the future of Paris nightlife. It’s raw and pure fun. Über-chic and sexy as only Paris can give you.
A number of New York’s most exclusive locations make up a good portion of the Secret Society catalogue. Where else in the US, or the world, for that matter, do speakeasies thrive and have become a staple in that location’s nightlife scene?
Currently Los Angeles is seeing their share of speakeasy-style locations. These locations are havens for those trying to enjoy an evening out in refuge without the threat of paparazzi covering their every move.
The visually rich pages of “Secret Society” reveal the mysterious beauty of speakeasies. How much significance has design influenced the success of speakeasies? How have the style and decor of new establishments changed from years past?
The speakeasies of today have evolved. They are no longer these dingy spaces in basements, but luxurious settings designed by some of the world’s best nightlife architects. Today’s elite set of nightlife connoisseurs expect not only an exciting hidden entrance, but an overall experience that includes a beautifully designed space to mingle and socialize.
What are some clever and secretive ways you’ve seen speakeasies use to grant patrons entrance?
Jules in Mexico City and Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town in London both use refrigerator doors as the entrance. It’s very clever to the unassuming eye. I love the garage entrance for The Milk, Cookies Cream and Electric Room. Walking through the kitchens of Cafe Select and La Esquina are classic. My favorite in the book would have to be the neon adult peep show exterior of La Bodega Negra. The visionary Serge Becker, the concept man behind both La Esquina and La Bodega Negra, is a genius when it comes to the element of surprise.
It’s been eighty years since Prohibition ended and we can certainly say that speakeasies are here to stay. Where do you see this nightlife culture headed to in the next few decades?
Nightlife hasn’t changed. It will never change. The core elements are darkness, music, debauchery, mischief, exclusivity and inclusivity. As long as the world is unfulfilled in their daily routine there will always be a refuge for them to live out fantasies in their minds, if only for a night. There will be no shortage of glass slippers on the streets of Manhattan, Paris, London and Berlin. But the slipper will always be half full.
About the book SECRET SOCIETY:
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