Audrey Gelman had an epiphany when she threw herself a girls-only birthday party at a New York City dive bar in 2015: Ladies' nights are underrated.
"It was one of the best nights of my life," the 29-year-old entrepreneur says. "I don't know if it’s better, but it’s definitely different. It’s incredibly relaxing and nurturing."
With her birthday festivities in mind, the native New Yorker decided to launch The Wing, a women’s space that is part social club, part coworking studio, and part beauty salon (they offer blowouts). The pink-accented offices are tucked into a loft space in the Flatiron district of New York. It opened its doors earlier this month to an exclusive list of 300 members who pay either a yearly fee of $1,950, or $185 a month. Investors include SoulCycle founders Julie Rice and Elizabeth Cutler, AOL cofounder Steve Case, and Harvey Spevak, CEO of Equinox.
The company has an ambitious agenda: To make women’s clubs cool again. Back in the 1930s, there were over 600 such groups in New York City and 5,000 nationwide. Gelman wants to bring back that female camaraderie, but with an edge.
"We're a coven, not a sorority," reads The Wing's Instagram.
Gelman is an ambitious, well-connected woman. She was previously a political consultant who served as deputy director of communications to New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer. Her Detroit wedding was profiled in Vogue, where she made a bridal jumpsuit look both rebellious and elegant. Her bridesmaids’ ensembles were custom-designed by J. Crew Creative Director Jenna Lyons. The New York Times once dubbed her "girl most likely." And as a close friend of Lena Dunham, she is said to be the inspiration for Allison Williams' character, Marnie, on Dunham's HBO show Girls. In season two, Gelman played the new girlfriend of Marnie's ex.
Given her gal-about-town status, it's not surprising that her latest venture would pique the interest of successful New York women from a variety of backgrounds, which is exactly what Gelman hoped would happen.
Gelman's background in PR was helpful for launching a new business, but she needed a coconspirator—someone with the same level of entrepreneurial enthusiasm, only with experience in operations. She found a partner in Lauren Kassan, who was head of business development at such cult-status establishments as boutique fitness studio SLT and fitness startup Class Pass. Together, the duo decided to pursue the concept: a place for women of all types to gather and support one another.
It was born out of idealism as well as their own needs as urban women constantly on the go.
Gelman's busy schedule as a communications strategist often meant she'd spend her days zigzagging across New York City for personal and work commitments, with no time to run home to catch her breath, answer emails, or, depending on which meetings she was taking, change outfits. "For a while, I belonged to a gym just so I could use their locker room and shower—I never worked out there," she says. She relied on Starbucks bathrooms for wardrobe changes and pretended to be a guest in hotel lobbies to use Wi-Fi. "It was a nomadic experience."
Prior to their partnership, Gelman and Kassan independently tried out several coworking spaces and on-demand office apps such as Breather, but none felt like a place that also catered to their social interests.
"They were all cool, but they weren't what I was looking for," Gelman says. "I was always really hungry for a flexible space that I could use as a homebase in the city. We saw the potential for not only convenience and making women's daily lives easier, but also having it be a hub for community and connection between women."
Creating a space designed by women for busy professional New York City women was their main priority. Gelman does not want to suggest that men necessarily hold women back, but she does notice a certain ease and comfort when working in an all-female environment.
"The air feels different when it’s only women," she says. "The atmosphere [at The Wing] is incredibly warm, there's an absence of competition or snark or cattiness. Everyone is just really excited to be here and to meet new people."
Laia Garcia, deputy editor of Lena Dunham's Lenny Letter, joined because she needs a spot to decompress and work in the city, especially during hectic times like Fashion Week. It just doesn’t make sense for her to schlep back to Brooklyn, where Lenny Letter is based, in between events.
What Garcia didn’t expect was how much she’d enjoy working at The Wing. While she had only been there a week when we spoke, she attested to the unique "energy" that permeated the main coworking area. "It feels like you’re somewhere familiar," she says, comparing it to less inviting places such as coffee shops. "You can let your guard down a little bit."
The founders wanted to "flip the script" on what a coworking center or social club could look like. You won’t spot any taxidermy, dark carpets, or tartan armchairs. "We wanted to create an environment that’s really calming and airy," Kassan says.
The 3,500-square-foot space feels warm and bright, like an extension of one’s ideal home, or as Kassan says, "a Pinterest board come to life." There’s a coworking lounge, café, salon, and locker room decorated with modernist Scandinavian design in soft palettes. The minimalist furniture comes in Starburst colors: pale pink, tangerine orange, and bright yellow.
It looks refreshingly sweet, but with subtle kicks throughout: A custom illustrated toile wallpaper depicting busy New York women is on display in the locker room and lactation area, while a copy of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History sits on the library shelf. The soft decor is peppered with edgy details, as if Sandy and Rizzo were forced to share a dorm room.
The application process, meanwhile, almost reads like a Proust questionnaire: Which TV show do you hate that everyone else loves? What song do you currently have on loop? Who is a complicated woman you admire? Which fictional TV character is your spirit animal? (Gelman chose Elaine from Seinfeld.)
"The aim of it really was to get a sense of someone's personality," Gelman says. One of her favorite applications came from a physician who runs an HIV clinic and is "totally obsessed with Drake." She claims to have memorized every lyric.
"Those are the kind of women who are doing things that are incredibly courageous and inspiring, but are also people we'd want to be on a group text with," Gelman says.
Members range from women just entering the workplace, at the peak of their careers, or those looking to transition into a new line of work. Some are CEOs, some are moms, and their ages range from early twenties to late seventies. The more notable names include style maven Tavi Gevinson, Birchbox cofounder Hayley Barna, Buzzfeed chief counsel Nabiha Syed, stylist Stacy London, punk rocker Meredith Graves, and Governor Andrew Cuomo's chief of staff Melissa DeRosa.
"It’s a really cool mix of a lot of different types of women . . . it doesn't feel stratified at all," Gelman says. "The professional eclecticism and diversity is really remarkable—it’s everything from jewelry designers to robot engineers, math teachers, physicians, security analysts."
Gelman wants to maintain that diversity so that there's an ever-widening net of who one can meet at the communal tables. In keeping with that goal, The Wing organizes networking events that cater to a variety of interests and professions, and ideally, feel spontaneous and unlike stuffy conferences. Among the offerings: lectures on serious topics (women in journalism) to craft seminars (floral wall hangings workshop). The opening party in early October was a sleepover, complete with eye masks and monogrammed pajamas for attendees. A poker night was hosted by a professional player. There’s a "braid night" with Glamsquad. Iranian-American novelist Porochista Khakpour hosts the book club, whose current pick is Alex Mar's Witches of America. There’s even a speaker series planned for "the first 90 days of the Clinton Administration."
As for potential criticism that the business model might exclude creative professionals who cannot afford the monthly $185 membership fee, The Wing hosts several events each month that are open to nonmembers.
"We get asked a lot if we're a nonprofit," Gelman says, noting that The Wing’s membership fees still fall under the $200 average for a coworking space. "We have to have the courage to create something that we think has value and to ask for market rate in exchange."
The Wing is now at capacity, with a waiting list growing longer each day. And they are already considering expanding to other U.S. cities in addition to opening a second location in New York.
"We've been getting so many emails and tweets and comments on Instagram from women in L.A., San Francisco, and D.C.," Gelman says. "They're waiting."
Slideshow Credits: 01 / Photos: Edith Young, courtesy of The Wing;