Culture

The Fight for London's New Generation of Fetish Clubs

Klub Verboten is part of a new wave of events taking a younger, modern and more inclusive approach to kink and fetish – but dated regulations and social stigma is making it hard for them to survive.

by Emma Garland; photos by Ashley Rommelrath, and Mia Clark
19 September 2019, 8:15am

Dark techno pulses out from behind closed doors in a north London warehouse space, thumping at the walls and ceiling like God himself is pumping His fist to the beat.

In the corridor just outside, people queue for the cloakroom to hand over their clothes. Coats first – then trousers, tops, bags and anything else that might get in the way. A few people disappear around a thick black curtain to get changed, but everyone is encouraged to turn up already wearing their outfits, paying heed to the strict dress code: "leather, latex, rubber, metal, nylon, lace, drag, chains, studs and naked skin". After removing everything except some PVC shorts, a guy in front of me bends down to stuff money into one of his cowboy boots and heads inside.

It's barely midnight at Verboto, Klub Verboten's monthly play party, and things are already in full swing. Klub Verboten is one of a new wave of fetish parties to have cropped up in London in recent years in response to a generational shift in the scene. With a stripped-back aesthetic and a comparatively young crowd, mostly in their twenties and thirties, it offers a different experience to most kink and fetish events. It's less champagne flutes, fairy lights and "sexual elite", more spikes, concrete and misfits who moved to London to go to art school.

The first thing you notice when you walk into Verboto isn't the number of arse cheeks on display, the bins already accumulating condom wrappers, or even the person strapped into a four-point sling getting fucked in the corner – it's the sound. A beat so heavy and humid it encases you like a second skin; a burst of laughter from one side of the room and a short, sharp smack from the other; the occasional moan sailing over it all like a bead of sweat down your spine.

Klub Verboten Fetish Club Ashley Rommelrath and Mia Clark
Klub Verboten Fetish Club Ashley Rommelrath and Mia Clark
Klub Verboten Fetish Club Ashley Rommelrath and Mia Clark

Once the aural landscape has you under its spell, the visuals close in – a stark space swirling with artificial smoke; dark corners bathed in red neon light; the occasional strobe bouncing off a harness and gliding down a latex kilt. A few people are peering through a window to a smaller room, where someone is getting a massive back tattoo inspired by the action. Others are sitting on one of the black leather sofas arranged around the venue as artfully as the specially designed dungeon furniture – chatting, having drinks and watching a woman getting flogged.

"When I first came to the fetish scene I felt a little bit alienated," says Luke, a 30-year-old fetishwear designer. "The parties were very well established and long-running, but they were all very samey. They were playing a similar sound – mostly hard house – and the people were mostly in their thirties and forties upwards. As an early-twenties guy, I struggled to find my crowd."

In the end, Luke moved into the techno scene, which was more closely aligned with what he was looking for. "The techno parties I discovered were very queer, very inclusive, and you were able to be very expressive in the way that you dressed," he explains. "I lasted [in the fetish scene] as long as I did purely because at that point there was nothing else on offer."

Klub Verboten Fetish Club Ashley Rommelrath and Mia Clark

When Klub Verboten's co-founder, Karl, moved to London 11 years ago from Berlin he was surprised to see his friends split up on the weekends – some going to techno nights, others to fetish parties; the queer crowd to one venue, straight people to another. This didn't gel with what he was used to. Karl fell into the Berlin fetish scene at the early age of 17, when a friend took him to KitKat – the legendary club opened by the Austrian pornographic filmmaker Simon Thaur and his partner Kirsten Krüger.

"I didn't really know what it was, but I was instantly surprised," Karl tells me. "You can deal with an awful lot of attitude sometimes at other events, but in the fetish and kink scene people seemed to be super nice and approachable. Everyone could be who they wanted to be."

Karl grew up in Chemnitz, a former East German industrial town. The city centre was destroyed in World War II and rebuilt by the state as a model socialist centre, temporarily renamed Karl-Marx-Stadt (Karl Marx City), from 1953 to 1990. Its architecture and landscape influenced his taste, and in turn Klub Verboten's modernist aesthetic – all black shiny surfaces, exposed metal and cold light. The word "Verboten" itself means forbidden, carrying connotations of excessive strictness or authoritarianism.

Finding spaces like KitKat lacking in London, Karl decided to set up an event of his own that combined techno, fetish and kink, drawing on his own background as a set designer and video technician to bring it to life. Initially, the idea was met with raised eyebrows – ("You want to do what? Wearing that?") – until he approached Hans, a DJ and longtime friend he met working in events and production.

"When we first set it up, there was something really missing for us on the club scene and the fetish scene," Karl tells me. "In terms of the visual and aural landscape, it wasn't stimulating for us."

Klub Verboten Fetish Club Ashley Rommelrath and Mia Clark

guys kissing fetish club

Hans became Klub Verboten's resident DJ – or "the shadow" of the event, as Karl describes him. He also turned his hand to designing dungeon furniture after the friend they were hiring furniture off passed away, and now everything at the parties is supplied by their own brand, Gegenstand. Karl’s partner Hanny came aboard to help run things as the parties began to get more popular.

Hans, Karl and Hanny are the beating heart of Klub Verboten. It’s rare that anyone will go to their first party without having met at least one of them in person. Karl and Hanny actually met at a Klub Verboten party. "The first time I went I didn't like it," she laughs. "It was in a smaller place and it was a bit shitty in the beginning. I didn't think I'd go back, but I did. You could see the involvement behind it."

The whole point of Klub Verboten is that it’s a party for the senses. They’re interested in how the aesthetics of a space – how things look, sound and feel – add further dimensions to an experience. "An event is a composition of domains," says Karl. "Sound, visual and even the smell of it."

Clearly, whatever they were onto was working. In less than three years, Klub Verboten snowballed from small gatherings in shitty bars into a self-sufficient community with over 3,000 members. At the time of writing there are more than 5,000 applications waiting to be processed.

What makes an application successful is a little vague, which has led to accusations of elitism. It's not unusual for a fetish night to have a membership system to keep the space safe, but Klub Verboten are perhaps more cautious than most because they aren’t running the kind of night people go to for one thing and then leave. There's a strong community element that's grown out of its specific aesthetic and inclusive attitude, with its roots in DIY ethics. That's what people who go seem to value most, and it's both maintained and made possible by the membership system.

"There's been a real emphasis on building an ecosystem, so it's not just about creating this cool party," says Drew, 35, who has been involved in fetish events on and off for around 16 years, and often monitors the dark room or dungeon at Klub Verboten. "There are events where people can test the waters and just talk for a bit, and there are events for people who might be more into the fetish side of things. Because you have tiers of events, it means these things hopefully build a little more organically."

Klub Verboten Fetish Club Ashley Rommelrath and Mia Clark

"Hanging out with my pals and getting dressed up has always been first and foremost for me," says Ellie, a 29-year-old actress and writer. "Sometimes everyone just wants to listen to the music all night because it's particularly great, or I just want to hang out with my pals. Your group of friends from this is ever-building, and that for me is more interesting than, 'Oh my god, I just want to fuck everything here!' You actually get that more in a vanilla club."

The vetting process is pretty straightforward. Membership is free and you can either apply online with links to your social media so they can see what you're about, or go to their monthly mixer, Tears for Beers, and essentially do the same thing in person. Karl keeps a running list of known predators in the scene who will never be allowed in for safety reasons, and they have a small team of members who handle membership, relying mostly on their past experience of sniffing out dickheads.

"When you're going through thousands of applications you get a sense [of someone]. You connect the dots," Karl says, though he isn’t involved in the vetting process anymore. "We don’t make it too complicated – we're not that interested in what people are up to, but we're not taking any risks. I'll happily sacrifice a few hundred tickets sales just to get it right."

Klub Verboten Fetish Club Ashley Rommelrath and Mia Clark

Speaking to some of Klub Verboten's members, the same themes come up over and over again. As well as scratching a sonic and aesthetic itch that a lot of other regular nights weren’t reaching, most people say they feel safe and looked after. For 21-year-old art student Byuka, a space like Klub Verboten isn't just a good time, it's a necessity. Byuka is non-binary, and says it's important for the queer community to have a space where you know you can relax.

"Even when we fuck each other we take care of each other," they tell me. "The majority of people who come to this are already on the same page. That contract, let's say, is not communicated in a club. That's especially true with the dynamic between female-identifying people or queer people and male-identifying people, where you always feel intruded or harassed."

"Here, in a sex party, I feel so so much safer than in any other club," they add. "People are so aware of the boundaries and when and how we need to touch or not, and where is your space. You really know your yes and your no here, which is really empowering."

The events are carefully monitored. As well as Karl sweeping about in his leather military hat, keeping an eye on things, Klub Verboten has its own security team as well as a community of volunteers who safeguard things – dungeon monitors, darkroom monitors and so on. "It's luckily a very self-sufficient and evolving community – we never have to go outside of it and look for people," Karl says.

Klub Verboten Fetish Club Ashley Rommelrath and Mia Clark

Their no tolerance approach to dickheads is plastered all over their website, event invitations, mailing list and posters inside the venues. There's a phone hotline people can message on the night, and as easy as it can be to get a membership, it's also very easy to lose one. They have a strict ban on solo wanking, for example, and are careful about numbers. Depending on the venue, Verboto extends to 900 people, while the more intimate Ubekannte is so small you can count the people in the room.

"A kink event beyond 1,000 people, you don't know who's there," Karl says. "You can’t guarantee anything."

Diversity is a massive problem in the kink scene, and despite its inclusive foundations Klub Verboten still has work to do on that front. Klub Verboten is very queer friendly, but also very cis, white and able-bodied. "I think the kink scene has to work much harder than it currently does to encourage diversity," says Drew. "It's all very well saying, 'This is a space for all,' but if people don’t feel that then what's the point?"

For Drew, that means communicating that there's wheelchair access, that there are quiet rooms, that you can be lesbian and make out and know it's not going to be taken as performative.

"A subculture lives and dies by the people who come into it, and if the same type of people keep coming into it you're going to keep getting the same experience," he says. "A lot of kink isn't pretty. A lot of people's sexuality isn't pretty. Bodies don't always fit this very size 10 Agent Provocateur thing, and I don't find that interesting if a community only focuses on that. If it does, it’s going to get very boring very quickly, and whether it means to or not it's going to exclude people who need those spaces. I think Verboten is actually doing a really good job, but there's definitely more to be done."

Klub Verboten Fetish Club Ashley Rommelrath and Mia Clark

Now that Klub Verboten is fairly well established, the issue for Karl isn't ticket sales – it's survival. The last three years have been a constant seesaw between securing a venue and getting kicked out again. Fetish parties are legal in the UK, and plenty exist above the radar.

Long-running parties like Torture Garden blazed a trail by mixing the fetish world with something more mainstream, while others have survived by appealing to middle-class notions of taste (Killing Kittens is often advertised as being set up by someone who went to school with Kate Middleton). However, council pressure combined with lack of understanding leaves fringe events like Klub Verboten in a grey area.

Venues such as sex shops, sex cinemas and strip clubs are regulated by Sex Establishment Licenses, which are granted by local authorities. However, there is a lack of clarity in regards to fetish events that leaves them open to misinterpretation when it comes to hiring venues. As a result, these venues – which would be obvious first choices for Klub Verboten – will often reject fetish events for fear of risking their license, even though there is no law against them.

"It's a shame that the understanding of such minority communities appears to be missing and that judgments are being made on moral standing," says Karl, adding that such attitudes shut down conversation that could lead to the creation of safer spaces for everyone.

Klub Verboten Fetish Club Ashley Rommelrath and Mia Clark

It's not surprising that a fetish club with a late license and progressive social values at its core would appeal to young people. In the last decade, councils across the country have increasingly prioritised luxury developments over cultural institutions as the ideological rift between younger generations and governing bodies has widened. It's also not surprising, given those circumstances, that the main challenge to Klub Verboten's survival is dated regulation.

"Kink events have always been a bit political, particularly in London or an urban space where the economy has gone in such a way that living becomes more expensive and more difficult," says Drew. "To inhabit these spaces as a queer person, as a person of colour, as a person who doesn't fit some strange idea of what's 'beautiful', is a political act of bravery. That's a really important thing to focus on, even more so than the fact that some people like getting spanked."

Klub Verboten Fetish Club Ashley Rommelrath and Mia Clark

For now, at least, Klub Verboten is safe. They just signed a new lease for a venue in east London that will be entirely theirs for the next three years at least, but there is a recognition that the fight to stay afloat is intrinsically tied to better understanding of kink in general.

In 2019, kink and fetish are everywhere. It’s a huge part of how artists like FKA Twigs and Arca present themselves; queer fetish designer Yeha Leung is making custom sets for Cardi B; and one of the primary uses of the internet for young people is begging celebrities to choke them to death. That said, these touchstones don't usually run very deep. While there may be a more general awareness of their existence, many people's assumptions about kink and fetish are completely wrong.

A lot of people end up going to their first party without much education or experience these days, which hasn't been the case historically, but newer nights with a younger crowds tend to have a more level playing field. Several members for whom Klub Verboten has been their first foray into kink and fetish describe having that space for self-expression, and the essential learning curve that comes with it, as therapeutic.

Klub Verboten Fetish Club Ashley Rommelrath and Mia Clark
Klub Verboten Fetish Club Ashley Rommelrath and Mia Clark

There is no singular approach to a fetish party. In the same way other events have pushed people towards Klub Verboten, Klub Verboten will inevitably push people towards other events. It all comes down to personal preference, and you need a broad spectrum of events to reflect the broad possibilities of things that get people off.

This is why the Tears For Beers mixer exists – not to shut people out, but so people can dip their toe in and see if it's for them. One guy I spoke to there was new to the community. He'd just returned to rural Essex after an attempt to climb Mount Everest, and had come to the mixer alone to meet like-minded people. He spoke to pretty much everyone in the pub. Another guy just sat in the corner all night looking intimidated.

They may end up at Klub Verboten; they may end up meeting a different crowd and getting involved with another scene; they might have gone home, deleted FetLife and never bothered again. What defines Klub Verboten more than anything else is the community, but some people do just want to get off and fuck off.

One isn't better than the other, but as our understanding of sexuality and gender deepens, the fetish scene – along with society in general – will need to expand to accommodate them.

Klub Verboten Fetish Club Ashley Rommelrath and Mia Clark

"People in their twenties are now the ones buying tickets, buying drinks and keeping things going, and they're the ones who have these interests and aren't scared or put off by these kinds of topics," says Luke. "They're the ones who are going to be steering the ship of where the demand is – and wherever the demand is, that's where the party will be."

For Karl, Hans and Hanny – and the team of people around them who are just as dedicated to keeping the party going as they are – Klub Verboten is a dot on a long timeline that they hope will keep moving forwards.

"I just want to survive," says Karl. "I hope we can develop our platform into a hub so that others are welcome and others have a place to grow and put on their first night, and maybe there’s even a time where a new generation takes over and we have to go. I know that’s far away, but it would be a really nice process to see."

@emmaggarland

All photography by Ashley Rommelrath and Mia Clark