I am in an exercise class and multiple people are screaming. Usually I’d be worried that someone had broken their ankle by getting their hair caught in a treadmill, but today, the yelling seems to be an expression of… enjoyment?
In context, it figures. I’m in the new branch of SoulCycle in Notting Hill, among several journalists taking its very first class. We’ve got to the midpoint of a 45-minute session and Lauren, one of the two instructors – who happens to look more like a pop star than most actual pop stars – just hit play on a medley taken straight from Homecoming: The Live Album, Beyoncé’s Coachella live album. People are whooping like it’s a hen party and a male stripper has arrived. “I had to,” giggles Lauren, as she rides the bike perfectly on beat.
Workout phenomenon SoulCycle began as a single spin studio on Manhattan's Upper West Side, in 2006. It's since ballooned into a chain of just under 100 studios across the USA, and has essentially become a synonym for a broadly 'spiritual' or mindful brand of millennial stereotype (to demonstrate what I mean: in each exercise class studio an amethyst sits on a podium at the back to "expel negative energy").
In June this year, then, "Soul" (devotees shorten it, flinging the nickname around casually as if it's the name of their local pub) made the leap to London, opening a branch in Soho.
It was such a success that last week, a second London branch arrived in Notting Hill. At first it may seem odd that such a deeply peppy exercise brand has landed confidently in London – a city where people give you evils for even attempting to meet their eyes on the Tube. But, really, a bigger global set of aesthetics and values can help SoulCycle easy slot into some Londoners’ lives. And today, very carefully hovering my arse over the saddle of a stationary bike in time to “Mi Gente”, I get a sense of what those values are about.
When I arrive at about 7.45AM on a chilly Friday morning, SoulCycle Notting Hill is buzzing. Class-goers – overwhelmingly women in their twenties and thirties – bustle around the pristine reception space, comprised of a registration desk and a shop fully stocked with pricey workout gear from SoulCycle’s in-house brand. The changing rooms are equally brilliant white – think: gym, but in heaven – and neatly stacked products from local health food restaurant The Good Life Eatery chill in the fridges. Upbeat music pipes around the place.
That music is a main selling point. As we make our way into the purpose-built, 60-bike studio, feel-good pop along the lines of Pussycat Dolls and Britney dominates – that does set it apart from other London studios. I'm a big fan of spinning in general, but often get a bit weirded out by having to cycle as quickly as I can to the drop of a six-minute drum and bass track that feels like it was written for the sole purpose of a jacked Australian yelling over it at a room of miserable office workers.
I’m not the only one. After class, Soul enthusiast and native New Yorker Charlotte, 35, tells me, “I don’t think any of the people that have tried to copy SoulCycle get it. I’ve tried every spinning school in London. I took one class and I wanted to walk out because she put on techno music. I used to like clubbing and I don’t wanna club anymore. For me a SoulCycle class is like going to a club.”
While I’m not sure whether I personally got the same endorphin rush from bicep curls as I do when I’ve successfully badgered a DJ into playing Hole at 3AM, I get what Charlotte means. Part of what makes SoulCycle unique is its party atmosphere. Riders in class are actively encouraged to yelp when the music changes, to high-five their neighbours, and to interact with the instructors. The energy throughout the class genuinely doesn’t wane throughout the whole 45-minute stint.
Brielle, 24, is newer to SoulCycle, but likes the uptempo vibe of the classes. “The music, the energy of the instructors – it just encourages you to keep going,” she explains, adding that she thinks instructors are so effective here because they push you without berating you too. "They do it for every level – I’m definitely at a beginner level, but they make it so anybody can come and enjoy it at any pace.”
Indeed, as a brand with a millennial target demographic, those in charge of SoulCycle's identity know inclusivity matters. After all, it's important to that audience. Its social media pages showcase bodies of varying sizes and ethnicities, and many of the attendees I speak to – both those from the US and Brits – tell me that they appreciate the fact that the mood of the classes is positive and centred on doing what you can. “You’re allowed to go at your own pace, and do what makes you feel more comfortable, whereas a lot of other spin studios it’s about ‘Go, go, go, go.’ Here you’re not competing with anyone,” reflects 25-year-old Londoner Akeil.
Though inclusivity appears to be a surface-level selling point for SoulCycle (and, no doubt, a refreshing antidote to the brand identities of other gyms, which often cite weight loss, slim bodies, and pushing yourself to the limit as aspirational priorities), its pricing is prohibitive. A single class costs £24, placing it towards the top end of luxury workouts in London. For context, its arguably nearest London competitor, 1Rebel, charges £22 per class. Soul is a business, and with its specially formulated Le Labo shower products and Dyson hairdryers in the changing rooms, it’s certainly on the ‘premium’ end of gyms. And this would be fine were it not being sold via the visual language of including everyone.
Interestingly, SoulCycle is not the only American brand which markets itself in this way to have set up shop in the UK in 2019. There's also Glossier (a more affordable brand in its beauty market, with a similar focus on inclusivity and 'millennial' values), and The Wing.
The Wing – the US chain of private members' clubs for women that recently debuted in London – is the most interesting point of comparison with SoulCycle. Both are expensive relative to average wages and the cost of living in the capita (a Wing membership costs over £1800 annually). And both, in their points of reference – SoulCycle's music, for example, and The Wing's wall-hung portraits of Phoebe Waller Bridge, and phone rooms named after fictional characters – offer something bigger, beyond the service they ostensibly provide: a lifestyle.
When The Wing came to London, many wondered if it would catch on in the same way in the UK, which most assume to be a more cynical market. Indeed, some UK commentators have critiqued The Wing's self-professed feminism as a false one (how, they asked, can something so prohibitively expensive be truly feminist?) – but with a second London location planned for 2020, it seems that many have not been put off, and actually feel that The Wing fits with their values.
So why is it that American concepts like The Wing and SoulCycle (and, to some degree, Glossier, with its perky tone of voice) are not only accepted, but in demand, in the UK? It speaks to a sort of "'harmonisation of tastes' across the world," as Igor Schwartzmann put it when speaking to The Verge in 2016. Schwartzmann was referring to a homogenous tendency in interior design, sparked by Airbnb, to deploy the same minimalist surfaces, exposed brick, and plush, soft furnishings, no matter the city around the world (Kyle Chayka, the writer of the Verge article, calls it 'Airspace.')
While SoulCycle and The Wing are not quite that, they both advocate for a contemporary feminine (if not quite feminist) lifestyle in a way that – in the case of London, at least – somewhat transcends local mores. It feels like the same sort of integration of tastes. This is not necessarily a good or bad thing in itself (really, it's a result of the power of the internet), though any set of values which requires a certain financial status to take part does raise questions.
I’m not really the type of person who’d make any sort of noise in a fitness class (other than to maybe whisper “oh my fucking god” or “fuck off” to myself during a particularly hard bit), but even as a massive cynic I did enjoy SoulCycle a lot more than I expected. I even found myself in a (wow) good mood when the class ended. And though I don’t know if I could quite muster the enthusiasm – or indeed the base level income – to keep up a £24-a-go habit, I can certainly see how the brand’s relentless fun and positivity (especially compared with its competitors) is winning grey old London over.