If you’ve peered at or attended part of London’s nightlife through social media contributors at any point in the last few years, you would be right in thinking that it’s in decline, both in the number of venues closing, and the environment within which venues can prosper.
We all know the score: half of all venues have closed in London since 2005, more than half of all London clubs shut down between 2005 and 2015, pubs are closing at a rate of 29 per week, Hackney has effectively killed venues in its own borough by restricting licenses to 11pm, and living under the shadow of a Tory government in some form for nearly ten years paints a pretty hopeless picture no matter where you live. Enough regular clubbers have been abroad to Amsterdam and Berlin and felt the abject jealousy from being in a city where nightlife culture is treated like it should be: a huge slice of economic cost benefit.
“But, hang on”, I hear you interject, “what about the Night Czar, and what about the Labour vision under Sadiq Khan to turn this all around and make London a ‘24 Hour City’?” Well, there is indeed some tangible progress to – dare I say it – get excited about.
I was invited to new club, FOLD – a few minutes walk from Canning Town in Newham, in an industrial estate eclipsed by both Canary Wharf and the Millennium Dome – to speak with its owners Lasha Jorjoliani and Seb Glover. While my research and online word-of-mouth suggested something to feel positive about, I wasn’t prepared for my expectations to be blown away as much as they were.
While the club’s biggest selling point when it first opened was its 24-hour licence, this was by no means part of the original plan. “We were not expecting to get it”, Seb Glover recalls, “but Newham have been really good to us”. Each London borough writes its own licensing policies, so although in places like Hackney the council is running late-night spots out of town, Newham, Seb says, “has its doors more open”. Although FOLD are keen not to be defined by their unrestricted license, they’re not shying away from the opportunity either. For certain parties, the club opens from Saturday through to Sunday night, and features espresso coffee machines for a more gentle stamina boost. Further additional are planned to cater for the long-haul dancers.
I showed up late afternoon on a Saturday greeted by David Conde, who helps run the club. Like the giddy toddler who wants to show you their room, David welcomed me in by enthusiastically pointing out every nook and cranny of FOLD and why it was the way it was. The entrance way is wall-to-wall lockers, the first feature of what the owners of FOLD deem to be the “personal face” of the club. No cloak room, instead, enough cubbies for everyone and they allow you to bring in things like fruits for the longer hours. “It’s all about that human attitude”, Conde warmly emphasises throughout our time at FOLD. “When the artists and dancers come here, it’s like welcoming someone into our home”.
My Mancuso-senses were tingling.
The space is not big; that is, the space is not impersonally big. It’s on the higher end of ‘mid size’ while maintaining the sweaty warehouse feel, and I’m reassured that the capacity will never be more than what enables each dancer to have a healthy amount of personal space. As I’m trying to keep up with everything David is telling me, I’m drawn by the huge LED screen behind the booth and the four point Funktion One system. The subs they have at FOLD means they are essentially the loudest club system in London, I’m told.
As I stand in the smoking area – a kitted-out balcony that looks out onto the industrial estate in which FOLD resides, Canary Wharf making up the majority of the sky behind it – Conde again emphasizes the state of FOLD being essentially in flux. “We are always moving things around, making fine tunings to everything, but we want to be permanent. We want to be an institution”.
“There hasn’t been a weekend where we haven’t changed some aspect of the space”, co-owner Lasha Jorjoliani tells me. This attention to the finer details comes from his own clubbing experience. “We used to go to clubs we liked and look at the small details, of how it was working. Everything has a point”. At FOLD, he says, they’ve done away with clutter and eliminated everything they didn’t like in other clubs. “It’s minimal”, Jorjoliani continues, “we don’t have seating inside because you’re here to dance. Everything inside has a point, but at the same time, that can also change.”
The club is minimal, but it’s still inviting. Not just physically, with its open dance floor and smoking areas, but the attitude and ethos of the club owners seems to have emanated its way down the chain of command, as it were. The security are briefed to be attentive to the clientele that turn up, asking them who they’ve come to see; less the Berghain method of staring you down with intimidation, more the “are you sure you want to be here and are you aware of our ethos?” When returning for club hours, I was allowed to bring in a tupperware full of tortellini that was packed for the journey, with barely a glance from the security. Normally a stressful, intimidating affair, this is actually a huge development for London clubbing.
Given the uniqueness of FOLD’s late license, it made the most sense for me to return in the very early hours, indulging in the novelty of an early-morning sober dance. I arrived for 8am thinking the place would be at least half dead, but with every track change the Slow Life DJs made, they were greeted with an almighty roar from a dance floor that clearly weren’t interested in the time. Going only by the slitted sunlight through the windows, the hazy aesthetics were more than enough to compensate for the lights which had been, sensically, turned off. It was a balanced mix of the long-haulers and the fresher, sweatless dancers. With a dance floor as wide and a sound system as far-reaching as FOLD’s, it cultivated a diverse sea of friend groups, mostly dancing with and at one another; there was no sense of performative focus. The smoking area was perfectly heated, and populated by extremely loved-up characters, and in corroborating what Seb and Lasha had told me, some of whom had traveled from Italy just to come to FOLD to see Zip.
Another corroborating feature I witnessed was the crowd was almost completely without the poser, walk-in types wearing suit jackets who clasp their rum and coke, gawking from the back. The place was dressed to sweat, which made for that perfect blend of rave warehouse and club, fit for purpose.
The club doesn’t just lie dormant during the week. The technicians who work on the lighting have studios within FOLD, in which they design and alter the lighting set-up for the weekend ahead. There are several high-end music studios that can be used by DJs and producers that visit, and the promo footage is all produced in-house. In the future, they want to set up a daily radio station in one of the studios. As Conde tells me, “FOLD is not just a static product. The whole building is alive. We’re living and breathing and always evolving.” To be entering a supposed new age of London as a 24 hour city, what a prospect that a place like FOLD can exist, let alone develop at its own pace, curating everything it needs in-house as a thriving ecosystem.
Sitting down with Jorjoliani and Glover, I ask what experiences with nightlife culture has led them to FOLD, and it’s quite clear that each have been around the block. Glover is no stranger to the pitfalls of London’s oppressive attitude to licensing, having run Shapes in Hackney Wick that was ultimately closed down, and Jorjoliani has been producing and DJing for over ten years. Their approach to FOLD is personal, and they want to push what was considered the norm, but how can they do that given the past few years? What’s changed?
Could they have opened FOLD five years ago? “Definitely not”, Glover says. “I think Khan had only just been elected when fabric got shut down. When we had Boris, we had all of Kings Cross close down, fabric, Shapes, Plastic People. The list goes on”. Glover and Jorjoliani have not only heard the promises, but they’ve seen tangible positive changes for club owners too. “Two years ago, it was very different. The scene was very divided, there was no Night Time Industry Association, no Czar. It was everyone for themselves.” “But” he says, “in the last few years with all the clubs being shut down, there’s been a unity with the organization at the top, with all the work being put in to turn London into a 24 hour city.”
In 2017, the “Agent of Change” planning bill came into action. “That helped save Ministry of Sound, and Village Underground from hotels that moved in next door”, Seb says. “The power suddenly was with the music venue and the onus was on the developer to sound proof spaces because the clubs were there first.” The team at FOLD also feel supported, both from the borough and the city. “The GLA [Greater London Authority], and Amy Lamé’s culture team,” Seb says, “are at the end of the phone if we need anything. We call them and they always want to reach out to music venues that are grass roots and have the right values”.
If you’ve spent any time talking to promoters in the last while, you wouldn’t have heard such positive remarks in a climate that has, for so long, been hostile to the dance music economy. We have all heard the promises made by Sadiq Khan, but political change is always incremental. From the reports by Lasha and Seb, this looks to be the beginning of the trickle down from those changes.
FOLD is special for a number of reasons; firstly, it’s rare that you meet club owners so focused on having a personal touch for what is essentially, a high-intensity business that relies on steady traffic and a local system that can facilitate it. Secondly, it’s the first big flag-bearer for what could be the beginning of a prosperous 24 hour London culture.
It’s easy for people to compare FOLD, with its 24 hour license, to Berlin, but that’s simply because Berlin recognizes the economic sense of facilitating nightlife in a safe and regulated way. Between 2017 and 2018, the number of illegal raves in London doubled, and it’s easy to grasp those figures in conjunction with venue closures. With clubs and creative ecosystems like FOLD, however, we may be setting sail on a calm sea of change.
All photos by Martin Eito.