Do Women Still Need a Space of Their Own?

The Wing, an exclusive social club for women, is part sorority, part start-up.
By Photograph by Zora Sicher
Clockwise from top left: Senior Director of Social News at CNN Worldwide, Samantha Barry; Audrey Gelman’s grandmother, Arlene Spiegel; Founder of Tigress Ventures, Ita Ekpoudom; Senior Communications Officer at Genius, Natalie Guevara; Associate digital editor at the New York Times Magazine, Jazmine Hughes

The Wing: Do Women Still Need a Space of Their Own?

By

No one was talking to Emily Weiss. Not because no one wanted to — on any other evening, at any other event, the Glossier founder who built a cool-girl-aesthetic beauty empire would be flocked by enterprising fangirls. But on this night, in the 12th-floor penthouse of 45 East 20th Street at the opening of The Wing, an exclusive women’s-only social club, Weiss was only one of more than 100 notable women with whom to fraternize. Or would that be sororitize? Uninterrupted, Weiss ambled quietly through the space, snapping a picture with her iPhone here and there.

In the pastel-and-gold-tinted rooms, there were cubby areas with leather couches, a long library table with pink globular lamps, a café, 70 daytime lockers, a beauty room with five vanity mirrors and wallpaper with illustrated images of women doing yoga and hailing taxis, and two showers, stocked with Aesop, Living Proof, and, yes, Glossier products. There was also a library wall of books about and by women — Are Men Obsolete?, for one — color-coordinated and fanatically organized. On the café island lay a flat of mini cupcakes, and Mansur Gavriel–suited feet drifted across the blonde wood floors. One woman dressed in light pinks and purples, with a hair-braid crown dyed lavender, approached another woman dressed all in taupe, lightly touching her shoulder to say, “I love your monochromatic look.” The Wing was now open for business.

The party, catered by cult Lower East Side restaurant Dimes, was “a very adult sleepover” for the founding members of the club, a carefully curated group that includes writer Sloane Crosley, actress Natasha Lyonne, stylist Stacy London, Love & Hip Hop creator Mona Scott-Young, painter Marilyn Minter, model and trans activist Hari Nef, Lena Dunham (absent from the party), Vogue contributing editor Chloe Malle, Last Week Tonight writer Juli Weiner, editor Tina Brown, J.Crew president Jenna Lyons, Andrew Cuomo’s chief of staff Melissa DeRosa, rapper Remy Ma, Man Repeller founder Leandra Medine, and many more. Not to mention a whole host of other professional and creative women who have not yet become the frequently name-dropped, but who are on track to be. The party was a little like Instagram come to life, or Soho House with no boys allowed.

For most, this night was the first time they’d seen the millennial-meets-suffragette space (whose branding was designed by an all-female team from Pentagram) outside of dollhouse renderings on social media. The reality — a 3,500-square-foot playground for networking, co-working, hanging out, and primping, where membership costs between $1,500 and $1,950 a year — put many of the attending women in high spirits. An editor for The New York Times Magazine said she had no words to describe the thrill of seeing The Wing completed. At the end of the evening, after several members had changed into white monogrammed pajamas for the sleepover portion of the proceedings, one woman wondered aloud why exactly the party had felt so easy and fun. “I think it was because there were no men here?”

The idea at the heart of the project goes something like this: Simply climbing the corporate ladder or participating in a zero-sum competition with the other women in your industry is a thing of the past. Cross-sector pollination and networking — eased along by a shared appreciation for blowouts and a mutual frustration for the roadblocks of male-dominated work culture — is the future. And in an era when start-ups are the way forward, an exchange of unexpected ideas (like what you might get by having, say, a famous artist rubbing elbows alongside an entry-level social-media strategist) is more important than ever. Instead of a ladder, we’re all crab-walking up a jungle gym now. And if the promise of The Wing pans out, getting to the top doesn’t necessarily involve encountering men on the way up.

The Wing is the brainchild of 29-year-old Audrey Gelman, a former public-relations specialist, and her partner, Lauren Kassan, both New York City natives. For her 28th birthday, Gelman threw herself an all-women’s karaoke party at a dive bar in Brooklyn Heights. By that time, her final cameo episode of Girls, the show created by her lifelong best friend Lena Dunham and whose character Marnie is inspired by Gelman, had long since entered into reruns. Scott Stringer, for whom she had worked as communications director, had already won his comptroller race. She and her keen fashion sense had been featured in Vogue. She’d risen to senior vice-president at powerhouse PR firm SKDKnickerbocker. And she had just met her future fiancé, a co-founder of the annotation website Genius. And yet this birthday party in particular was a memorable high note.

“It was the absence of men,” Gelman tells me about what made it so exceptional. Photos from the evening show Gelman in a white long-sleeve T-shirt and jeans with holes in the knees, ecstatically surrounded by a who’s who of future Wing members, though none of them could have known it yet: writers, artists, designers, the like. Accentuated by two enormous gold balloons that spelled “28” (the same style of balloons that would read “THE WING” at the new business’s opening event), the party resembled Raphael’s The School of Athens for ambitious New York women. “There was something about that night. I felt like there was this lightning that I wanted to bottle.”

“I was never in a sorority, and I don't come from a community of women who were in sororities,” she says, perhaps as a way to draw a distinguishing line, “but I have extremely enduring, rich, complicated, rewarding relationships with a large group of women.” Thus inspired, she left her position at SKDKnickerbocker in May 2015 — “I didn't really have the opportunity to be serving my clients effectively and also be starting a business” — and set out to fulfill her mission with The Wing, enlisting Kassan, another 29-year-old professional and former studio empowerment director at ClassPass, to help her launch it. Like Kassan, Gelman identifies with the Tracy Flicks of the world (“I took over every group project as a child in school,” she tells me), but also famously dated Terry Richardson and sports a Cam’ron tattoo on the back of her arm. Both women are petite and gregarious, wear their dark hair long, and speak with a particular style of New York–inflected vocal fry.

For Gelman, who has spent much of her professional life coagulating members of disparate social groups — for instance, mixing the fashion elite she knows socially with the NYC politicos from her professional circle for various fundraisers — The Wing is something of an experiment in leveraging her own talent for connecting into a business that is all about building a network for others. “There are many Google tabs in my search history like ‘how do you write a business plan,’ ‘how do you create a pitch deck.’ I basically read Fundraising for Dummies,” Gelman says, somewhat in jest. But it was that knack for networking that helped her raise $2.4 million in five months, a majority from women investors. Julie Rice and Elizabeth Cutler, the founders of SoulCycle, were early buy-ins. Kassan took charge of building out the space and managing its construction, as well as taking on more of the operations side of the business. (“Audrey shoots from her hip a little bit and goes from her gut. I’m a bit more analytical and cautious and take my time,” she told me.)

In addition to the feminist underpinnings Gelman cites, the business also began as a practical response to a certain kind of New York City lifestyle. “I was a professional woman in my 20s who lived in Brooklyn and worked in Manhattan,” she says. “I had a lot of different meetings and things all over the place. I would have to essentially pack my entire apartment into my bag, and what I needed was a safe in-between that wasn't the bathroom at Le Pain Quotidien.” At first, the concept was named Refresh. Its purpose was simply to give women a place to store their belongings, primp, and move on to their next event. But over the course of Gelman’s quest to bring investors into the fold, the idea quickly evolved, as start-up pitches are wont to do. The Wing, a name Gelman says sounded less like a “feminine douche product” than Refresh, was intended to feel more like the wing of a house, such as — not by coincidence — the West Wing. Its new mission became enabling “fellowship with women from different backgrounds, but [ones with] similar values and passions.”

When The Wing’s “welcome boxes” (stashed with notebooks, poker cards, and a personalized note from Gelman) arrived at the first 200 members’ houses, they couldn’t be shared on social media fast enough. The social-club model isn’t new, but it is in the middle of a mild resurgence, after years of women’s groups tilting toward the purely professional (think of Ellevate, Sallie Krawcheck’s women–on–Wall Street venture). What The Wing and its similar-but-different competitors, like Hera Hub or East Williamsburg’s New Women Space, hope to do is bring permanent physical homes to perennially floating women’s networking events. Gelman and Kassan broke ground on Ladies’ Mile in New York, where 100 years ago, some of the city’s premier women’s social clubs staked out their spaces. Alexis Coe, a historian whom Gelman hired to present her with research on the early history of women’s social clubs, explained that the outrage around women gathering in private was so extensive at the time that it even reached President Grover Cleveland, who wrote, “Without exaggeration of statement we may assume that there are woman’s clubs whose objects and intents are not only harmful, but harmful in a way that directly menaces the integrity of our homes.”

Meredith Graves, an MTV News correspondent and musician who made her name as the lead vocalist for punk band Perfect Pussy, said this male anxiety over women gathering in private has not even come close to being extinguished. “Lord knows, patriarchal capitalist society does not want women to band together at all. That would be detrimental to the whole system. There are many systems in place to keep women separated,” she said, citing it as one reason why she felt inspired to join The Wing. And keeping men out of select spaces has actually made it easier for her to communicate with men in the larger world, she says. “When I spend a lot of time with women, it improves my ability to remain firm and controlled in my interactions with men.”

But The Wing is also a response to a relatively new set of conventions. As the tech world has continued its ascendance, and its disruptive norms have seeped slowly into nearly every other industry, that influence has been complicated for women. “There is a culture in these co-working spaces that is sort of bro-centric, male-dominated,” Gelman says. “There was this blind eye to amenities that were essential for women.” The Wing will open with its own changing/pumping room, for instance, in addition to all of those nice beauty products. Regina Gwynn, co-founder of TresseNoire, a company that brings on-demand hairstyling to women of color and whose services will be available to Wing members at a 10 percent discount, echoed Gelman’s discomfort about the “bro-y” culture of co-working. Gwynn became a member of The Wing after feeling dismayed at how often men chose to make deals over beer pong. “I don’t work like that,” she said at The Wing sleepover. Felena Hanson, founder of the female-only co-working space Hera Hub, put it this way: “When you give women an opportunity to connect with just women, they open up, they’re more vulnerable.”

Testimonies like this one were extremely common among the group of Wing members that I talked to. Rapper Remy Ma, Gelman’s favorite “get” and for whom the beauty room is named (a plaque dedicated to the “Queen of New York” is situated on a nearby wall), told me, “Especially in the industry I’m in, people are always catty. It’s who’s the best, who’s the greatest. This is another stepping stone on my way to everybody being regular girls, like when we were growing up.”

Gelman is preoccupied with the idea of the “complicated New York woman,” an imaginary figure whom she both sees herself as embodying and would like to be a part of her club. “She's opinionated, she's unstoppable, she doesn’t take no for an answer, she's an original,” Gelman tells me of the typical New York woman over lunch at the Marlton Hotel near Washington Square Park. She describes the “inspiration wall” that her mom, a therapist, had in her closet when young Audrey was growing up. It had pictures of both Hillary Clinton and Monica Lewinsky on it. When Gelman and Kassan were envisioning their ideal imaginary members of The Wing, the pair employed the same technique. The wall of women muses included Fran Drescher, Solange, Sofia Coppola, FKA Twigs, Amal Clooney, Lisa Simpson, and Fran Lebowitz.

Gelman and Kassan thought a lot about who in their orbit fit their somewhat general and also strangely specific (the application asks, “Which TV show do you hate that everyone else loves?”) qualifications to become so-called “founding members.” The result was a list of 300 professional women, in industries from politics to entertainment to media to the arts. That $1,950-a-year price tag ($1,500 for founding members), or $185 per month, is relatively low compared to the price of renting a co-working space. (A monthly membership at WeWork starts at $220, though beer and coffee are included at the latter, and at The Wing most fare will come with a price tag.) But the monthly dues are still not cheap, and membership is still exclusive. Unsurprisingly, membership to these early women’s clubs was an indicator of important class standing and privilege, and “it was not infrequently used to enforce the snobbish and restrictive attitudes of the leadership,” Coe says. The clubs began incorporating a commitment to social outreach, and in a similar spirit of noblesse oblige, The Wing requires each member to commit to three days of volunteer service a year, and has already partnered with the Lower Eastside Girls Club.

A theater director told me she felt that clubs like Gelman’s are thorny, modeled as they are off of the white, male institutions that historically have made it difficult for women to succeed in the first place. “All this does is buoy the people who already have power. It’s more important to be in spaces with those who are not like-minded,” she said. Melissa Wong, the co-founder of New Women Space, said she and her co-founder, Sandra Hong, are committed to combatting barriers to entry, as a way to be as open and available to all as possible. Their events and classes range from $5 to $50 at the max, and there are no membership dues. “We are mission-based. We want to be accessible. We want to be affordable,” she said. “This is a safe space to test your ideas. It’s all in an effort to boost confidence, to quench this thirst for recognition.”

To counter the criticisms of The Wing’s exclusivity, Gelman has said she has offered trades with artists who can’t afford the fee, like artwork to hang on the walls of The Wing in exchange for membership. The founders say they are exploring sliding-scale pricing for students, teachers, women at nonprofits, women who work in government, and those who have served in the military as well. There will be open houses on Sundays in the foreseeable future, and members are permitted to bring guests. But Gelman believes there is a double standard in some of the feedback she’s gotten along those lines. “A guy wouldn’t be criticized for starting a co-working space with a paid membership,” she says—why can’t a feminist be a capitalist, and why can’t a capitalist be a feminist? Similarly, the founders of New Women Space have said they resent the fact that people have asked why they aren’t a nonprofit, a question, they say, that would never be asked of a man.

Perhaps the demand speaks for itself, however. Within two months of The Wing’s announcement, 200 of the 300 women Gelman personally reached out to had signed up, and more than 1,000 additional applications came in during the open application phase. Gelman says she is already talking with her investors about opening a second space in New York.

By the end of the night, one of the few things that remained on the broad terrazzo counter in The Wing’s café was an enormous strawberry-lemon cake from Milk Bar with barely three slices gone. The lights were dimmed, and by 11:30 p.m., the main party was over. A small group of Wing members — the wallpaper artist Payton Turner, model and robot designer Coco Baudelle, Tigress Ventures founder Ita Ekpoudom, along with 15 or so others — as well as Gelman’s grandmother (who that night learned the meaning of the acronym FOMO) were given sleeping bags, pillows, and thick folded cushion pads to sleep on. They’d awaken the next morning to get ready for their Thursday, the first test of The Wing’s usefulness as a career woman’s haven. At midnight, the leftover group gathered in a circle, introducing themselves for the first time and giving thanks to Gelman and Kassan for creating something they’d “always wanted.” Natalie Guevara, an old friend of Gelman’s and current publicist for Gelman’s husband’s company Genius, remarked that “this was the nicest party” she’d ever been to.

A playlist was cued up to play sleep-inducing tracks, mostly nondescript classical guitar lullabies buried on Spotify, and not long after the women lay their heads down, the sun had already come up, slicing through the penthouse’s glass windows. The salon room bustled with the sound of blow-dryers and conversation. Eye masks — embroidered with “I am busy” — came off. When I opened my eyes, I caught three women huddled together at the end of a gray leather couch, talking warmly and intimately to each other as if there was nothing strange about waking up at 7 a.m. to a room of pajama-clad women you’d only met the night before. As they talked, they snapped photos of the sky outside, the clouds an airy, candy-floss-colored pink.

Disclosure: Stella Bugbee, the Cut’s editorial director, is a member of The Wing.

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