Ms. Gevinson, also featured in No Man’s Land, was initially reluctant to join the Wing. “I work from home, and that’s how I can almost justify my rent,” she said. Then she went to visit the first club, which opened in the Flatiron district in October 2016: awash in millennial pink, with softly lit desks for working, a beauty room for primping, a snack bar with coffees and organic granola, plenty of art, a lactation room and a large library of color-organized books written by and about women.
“The look of it is out of my dreams,” Ms. Gevinson said. “It’s crazy that that place exists in real life. I joined right away.”
Over the course of 18 months, the club raised more than $10 million from investors, most recently from a group led by Tony Florence, a general partner at the venture capital firm NEA. He also backs Goop, the luxury shopping site Moda Operandi and Casper, the mattress company. As a man, he has been allowed to visit the Wing only when members are not present.
”My ability to understand the market opportunity and the need for this kind of business extends beyond man or woman,” Mr. Florence said of his involvement. “It’s a very attractive financial model.”
What remains to be seen is what kind of business the bigger Wing might be: a locus of a mediacentric feminist movement, like Ms. in the 1970s, or a mass-scaled temple of “exclusivity,” like Soho House, if Soho House wrapped itself in a marketing banner of she-power.
In the Pink
Ms. Gelman, a former political press representative who worked on the 2013 campaign of the New York City comptroller Scott Stringer, helped inspire the character Marnie on the television show “Girls,” created by Lena Dunham. Native Manhattanites who met in adolescence through Ms. Gelman’s mother, who was Ms. Dunham’s therapist, they became close friends at Oberlin College and were avidly covered by the press as their stars rose together in young adulthood.
Ms. Gelman appeared on “Girls” several times as Audrey, Marnie’s nemesis. Her romance with the fashion photographer Terry Richardson was well documented. Vanity Fair put her on its best-dressed list. Vogue covered her wedding to Ilan Zechory, a founder of Genius, the music website (Ms. Dunham was a bridesmaid).
She got the idea for her current venture after getting a job at the political consulting firm SKDKnickerbocker, which has offices in SoHo and Washington. Commuting frequently from her home in Brooklyn, Ms. Gelman longed for a place where she could change her clothes, take a shower or chill between meetings. She thought it might be called Refresh.
But “Refresh is such a bad name,” she said last week, sitting at a round marble table in a pink conference room with Ms. Kassan; their partnership began at the suggestion of Ms. Kassan’s husband. “It sounds like a vaginal douche product.”
“I think it might be,” said Ms. Kassan, who previously worked in boutique fitness, as the director of business development for ClassPass and for the studio company SLT. Experienced in operations and community management, she is the “back of the house” partner to Ms. Gelman’s frontwoman.
Earlier investors included Julie Rice and Elizabeth Cutler, who founded SoulCycle, and Susan Lyne, the managing partner of BBG Ventures, formerly of Gilt Groupe and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia.
“We like Audrey and we liked Audrey’s conviction that women wanted to be with other women, in a safe place that was also beautiful,” Ms. Lyne said in a phone interview. “Audrey said, ‘I’ve changed in a Starbucks bathroom one too many times.’”
By the spring of 2016, they found a 3,500-square-foot space on the 12th floor of a building on East 20th Street to rent, and hired an all-female team — Alda Ly, an architect, and Chiara de Rege and Hilary Koyfman, interior designers — to realize their vision. Ms. Koyfman described the look of the Wing to Domino magazine as “kind of like ‘Mad Men’ — without the men.” The Wing also began to work on branding with a women-only design team from Pentagram. Ms. Gelman took charge of social-media marketing. (“We’re a coven, not a sorority” is how she describes the Wing on Instagram.)
For its founding membership of 200 women, Ms. Gelman and Ms. Kassan tapped their networks: media professionals, entrepreneurs and artists, sometimes bartering membership, which then cost $2,100 a year, for services. There was an immediate waiting list.
When the club opened, the Wingers, like many women around the country, were anticipating a historic election of the first female president of the United States. When that didn’t happen, the founders said, the space took on new urgency.
“We had the expectation that we would have the first women president and it would be the golden age of feminism and women get to have rooms like these as a result of that momentum,” Ms. Gelman said. “Very quickly overnight it went to feeling a little protective.”
Ms. Kassan and Ms. Gelman said they began hearing from their members that along with previously planned offerings like lessons in flower arrangement, breakfasts themed to signs of the zodiac and panels on news topics, they were interested in programming and events that focused on women’s rights and politics. And so the founders scheduled events like “Workshop on Anxiety & Depression in a Post-Trump World,” “A Night of Interfaith Sisterhood for Jews and Muslims” and “A Conversation With Senator Kirsten Gillibrand,” all of which were well attended.
They organized buses to take members to and from the Women’s March in Washington, where the pink hats fortuitously coordinated with the de Rege-Koyfman color scheme.
A few months after the Wing opened, “Girls” included a plotline featuring a women-only club in New York. In Ms. Dunham’s telling, the club was called Wemun (“Women Entrepreneurs Meet Up Now”) and one of the women running a meeting there said, “Whether it’s how to rock a romper at a work event or who you should be voting for, a Wemun woman is the person to ask.”
This episode was sent to critics and writers before it aired. After The Cut published an article, “Did Lena Dunham Shade the Wing on ‘Girls?’” Ms. Dunham told the reporter that any resemblance to the Wing or Ms. Gelman was accidental and she trimmed the scene.
To two entrepreneurs trying to make a business out of supporting women’s careers, though, the joke seemed to have landed with a thud. Ms. Gelman stopped following Ms. Dunham on Instagram for months, until this week. (“Friends fight, friends make up, life is long,” Ms. Gelman said.)
“It’s like a ‘Sex and the City’ of today,” Ms. Kassan said of “Younger,” “and it’s like we were a pretend thing on ‘Sex and the City,’ which is awesome.”
The Plumber, and Other Conundrums
Back in reality, the around-the-block line in SoHo comprised women who had just been named members, allowed into the new space before existing members.
The initiates grouped around tarot-card readers, political/feminist slogan button-making stations, a potion-making table and a booth for voter registration. There was food, wine and massive Rice Krispie treats in the shape of the Wing’s W logo. The scene had all the awkward excitement of a new-student mixer at a women’s college.
Mandi Nyambi, 24, sat on a couch by herself. Ms. Nyambi, who works for a digital platform, is one of those who will pay $3,000 per year for access to all the clubs. “If I tried to get a co-working space elsewhere, it would cost about the same and I would miss out on the value proposition of the wealth of having this network of other women,” she said. She is hoping that after the parties finish, the Wing truly will be a place for work and serious connection. “I’m a little overwhelmed,” she said.
Margit Detweiler, a 50-year-old new member was standing back, beholding the crowd. She joined the Wing, she said, because she lives in Brooklyn and needs “a pit stop” in Manhattan. “How often are you in a space like this with all women?” said Ms. Detweiler, the founder of the TueNight, an online magazine and live events company for women over 40. “The energy is palpable.” (The Wing’s founders say they are trying to increase non-millennial membership.)
Ms. Gelman and Ms. Kassan were milling about the party and greeting new members. Ms. Gelman was carrying a Red Bull and iPhone. Ms. Kassan was carrying in utero her first child, due in January. It had been a long week of 18-hour-on-their-feet work days leading up to the opening. They didn’t even have time to go home to get ready for the party; they had primped, naturally, in the Wing’s beauty room filled with Chanel products.
Brands are now paying the club for marketing access to members. Earlier this fall, each member received a big bottle of Chanel perfume in the mail. Hulu sponsored a “Handmaid’s Tale” event at the Flatiron club, for which Margaret Atwood, the book’s author, made a special video.
Thanks in part to such enticements, some members hardly ever leave. Scarlett Curtis, 22, is the Gen-Z columnist for The Sunday Times of London who is a student at New York University. She learned about the Wing after following Ms. Gelman on Instagram. Her parents paid for the first six months, and she says she pays the dues herself now.
Ms. Curtis is so frequently at the Wing that when she complains to her father that she doesn’t have a boyfriend, he says, “Stop hanging out at the Wing all the time.” He’s just jealous that he can’t visit the space, Ms. Curtis said, remembering with amusement the day a male plumber visited and an employee charged with community-building “told every member there was a man coming into the space.”
Ms. Gelman and Ms. Kassan say they try to hire and commission women for every service the company needs, but that sometimes it’s most important to look beyond gender.
“Our electrician isn’t a woman,” Ms. Kassan said in the conference room.
Ms. Gelman said, “It’s also one of those things where it has to work as a business.”
As at a gym, Ms. Kassan pays particular attention to usage patterns of members to track what members of what professions and ages come to the space at what time. She and Ms. Gelman then consider who might fill in the gaps (they would like to have more members who are doctors, for example), as well as demographics including religion, race, sexual orientation and gender identification, among others. Internally, they refer to the process as “minority-led membership.”
“We do ask members to send us one social media profile just so we can understand more about them,” Ms. Gelman said.
Raven Stralow, 33, works with addicts and their families, and she also owns with her husband a farm in upstate New York. She was having many meetings in Manhattan and began to comparison-shop co-working spaces. She looked at Ludlow House but thought the people looked too conspicuously hip. She looked into WeWork but didn’t like the culture of drinking she heard about. She saw the Wing on Instagram and applied, thinking she wouldn’t get in. “I don’t have a ton of Instagram followers, I don’t have a curated anything,” Ms. Stralow said.
But she was accepted quickly, and has felt very comfortable there. “I’m a woman of color and I wear my hair natural,” she said. The beauty room at the Wing includes products and combs that suit her hair. “There always seems to be an effort of inclusion,” she said.
There are challenges to this effort. Along with the membership fees, there are charges of $30 per hour for semiprivate work rooms and for the snack bar’s food, coffee and wine (no outside food is allowed inside). This limits the economic diversity of membership.
Ms. Kassan and Ms. Gelman are sensitive to criticism of elitism and said they plan to announce a scholarship program next year. “It was never my goal to go into business to begin with and certainly not to go into business to create a product for the uber-wealthy, and I don’t think it is,” Ms. Gelman said.
The Wing is also in the interesting position of marketing a women-only company at a moment when the progressive forces in American culture are pushing for a less binary, more fluid interpretation of gender, as evinced by Ms. Nef’s presence on the cover of No Man’s Land.
If a person applied for membership who looked like a man but said he identified as a woman, Ms. Gelman said they would likely check out the person’s social media feeds and look for other indications of the person “living as a woman,” she said. They have looked to women’s colleges for guidance on how to construct their policies. Barnard College, for example, stipulates that it “will consider for admission those applicants who consistently live and identify as women.”
But it is a staple of such colleges’ English curriculums, Virginia Woolf, whose guiding specter still hovers over the enterprise. “We still believe women deserve spaces of their own,” Ms. Gelman said.