The iconic London venue opened its doors 20 years ago today.
The memory of going to Fabric for the first time is up there with that of having your first drink — a milestone moment for the millions of people who’ve entered through the doors at 77A Charterhouse Street in London during the last two decades.
If you’ve been, you likely remember the way the body sonic dance floor reverberated in Room One, or how smoke from the fog machine filled the halls as you loitered in them, or how, even when hanging back on one of the couches, you somehow still felt like you were moving. For those born in the U.K. and beyond, going to Fabric is a rite of passage. Over the past 20 years, the club has managed to endure as one of the world’s preeminent nightclubs, through changing trends in electronic music, having its license revoked, shifting club culture and Britain’s impending exit from the EU.
It was the late ‘90s when Keith Reilly asked Cameron Leslie to help him open “a place where he could throw parties with an underground, warehouse mentality, but in a space that was really well run, had a full license, and was legitimate,” Leslie recalls. He worked in hospitality and with restaurants and hotels before, but had never opened anything on the scale of a nightclub.
But the two made a good team, with Reilly handling the artist bookings and the music side of the business and Leslie, as operations manager, making sure everything ran smoothly — or at least as smoothly as possible in a facility built for late nights and hedonism.
Fabric opened its doors 20 years ago today, on October 21 — but the debut was actually meant to be three weeks earlier in 1999. The opening was delayed for myriad reasons, including finalizing the refurbishment of the building, but in the pre-internet era, it was hard to get the news out. (Two decades ago, promotions happened word of mouth and the occasional flyer featuring only an artists’ name and “@ Fabric.”)
Leslie recalls sitting outside of the club with the promotional managers on the night of the canceled opening, when people who hadn’t heard the news started showing up. “They were coming from Czech Republic, Australia…" he explains. "People were flying in from France, and it was like, 'Crikey, these people have traveled quite a far way to come to this venue tonight.’” They were all told to come back three weeks later.
Many did. On opening night, the club attracted so many interested party people that Leslie had to recruit his father to work the coat room. But they got through that evening, and the next and the hundreds that followed. Leslie says he didn’t realize he and Reilly had something special going until about a decade later, at the club’s ten year anniversary celebration.
“That,” he says, “was the first night I stood back and thought, ‘Wow, look what this crazy little disco has become!”
When it comes to music, house, techno, disco, and trance have always been at the club’s core, but Reilly and Leslie have also championed bass-driven and U.K.-bred electronic music like grime, dubstep and, most prominently, drum and bass. This latter genre takes center stage every Friday night for FabricLive, which started as a monthly event before becoming a weekly.
“At the time, drum and bass needed a really good home,” Leslie says. “It’s probably unfair to say it wasn’t in a good place, but it probably wasn’t in a great place, and we felt strongly about picking it up and championing it week in and week out. We anchored it and made that sound one of our cores.”
Since Fabric’s opening, Reilly has been known for championing DJs of all experience levels. “It didn't matter if they [were known or unknown],” he says, “it was the fact that that was the artist that we wanted.”
Take Mantra, a DJ who’s been a key figure in London’s drum and bass scene for the last decade. She played Fabric for the first time this past January and has since joined the club’s roster of FabricLive residents, calling the experience electric. “It’s always been a venue that aspiring DJs have on their wish list places to play,” she says. “Having an institution like Fabric back you and believe in you is a massive motivator.”
Bobby., who played at Fabric for the first time in 2016 and has been attending as a fan since 2007, sees the club as a benchmark for quality. “Not only for London, but for the world,” he says. “It put the London club scene on the map, and through the Fabric CD series, [that scene] reached every corner of the globe. It became the London hub for cutting edge electronic music and gave lots of very talented artists a platform to perform and grow. The list of nights, labels, artists, and industry heads who came through the club is endless.”
That includes Terry Francis, one of Fabric’s inaugural DJs and founding residents. He was already known on the electronic scene as part of the party/label Wiggle when he first started playing in 1999. (He and Craig Richards both played the weekend Fabric opened and continued playing every Saturday for the club’s first 15 years.) Over the past two decades, he’s played more than 750 times.
“I think Fabric will go down as one of the truly great clubs, like Studio54 or Paradise Garage,” Francis says. “It’s hard to imagine where London would be without it, and I’m sure the millions of people who have visited since 1999 would agree.”
But Fabric’s two-decade run was almost cut short in 2016, when its license was revoked after two teenagers died after taking MDMA at the nightclub. When the verdict was announced, Leslie cycled through stages of grief: Shock over the decision, anger and sadness when he was forced to let go of the team he worked with for years, then a burning determination to fight the ruling.
“There was really only a short window where I thought ‘that's it,’ to really thinking, ‘No, there's no way that's it,’” Leslie says. He and about five others banded together to create the “Save Fabric” campaign, which spread like internet wildfire. The support the institution received — separate petitions from around the world, tweets of outrage and support from DJs like Skrillex and Disclosure, contributions to the crowdfund campaign to help with legal fees (it ultimately raised 300,000 pounds, and the overwhelming amount of press — demonstrated the depth of Fabric’s impact.
“There was clearly a deep sense of positive feelings toward the venue that, when this happened, pulled all of those people around the world together, even if they don't go to the venue anymore or have never been,” Leslie says. “When [the issue had] been debated and discussed in the House of Lords, you know that it's reaching very wide.”
Following the public outcry and an appeal, Leslie and Reilly reached a settlement with the Islington Borough Council in November 2016. Their new agreement bans anyone under 19 years old from entering the club and states that those caught with drugs will be banned for life.
But when the venue re-opened in January 2017, Fabric, Leslie says, had lost some of its momentum. They weren’t able to book artists in advance when the club was closed, so filling the calendar was a struggle, especially around festival season. Then came the Brexit vote and a shift in party culture. Add all that to the fact that, according to London mayor Sadiq Khan, over the past eight years London has lost half of its nightclubs and 40 percent of its live venues to closures.
“The conditions for operating a venue now are so different from when we closed,” Leslie says. “The world is a different place. The way people consume music and choose their leisure time has changed… It's not necessarily that [people] don't choose to go clubbing, it's just that the frequency that they might do it is different in comparison to before.”
When Billboard Dance visited the club a couple of weeks ago, lines still snaked around the building, despite the pouring rain. But one could still sense the anticipation of what the night might hold. More security guards peppered the dance floor than they did before the closing, and stricter security measures including a machine that scans your ID were in place, but overall the vibe was exactly as it’s always been — a feeling that in rooms bathed in lights and wayward lasers, this was the place to be.
20 years in, Leslie is “cautiously, quietly optimistic” about the future. He says the club is still working on getting its momentum back and hopes, once Brexit is over, London will “balance out.” For now, he’s enjoying the club’s anniversary year, which includes a lineup of both legacy DJs like Francis and Richards and a new generation of residents.
“I think the next few months, if you look at the calendar, it’s a fantastic nod to the past and an equally fantastic nod to the future,” he says. “It’s this nice crossroads of the last 20 years and, hopefully, the next 20.”