Modern Woman

Three indigenous female entrepreneurs making waves in North America

Nearly half (44 per cent) of women-owned businesses in the US are controlled by minority women, and across North America, indigenous entrepreneurship is on the up.

Last autumn, the Canadian government invested $2 billion in a new Women Entrepreneurship Strategy (WES) that seeks to double the number of women-owned businesses there by 2025, while funds to support indigenous women have never been more widely available. 

But there’s an even more pressing reason to pay attention to the innovation of the world’s indigenous peoples: their territories are home to 80 per cent of the world’s biodiversity. As we fight a global pandemic and face climate change, it’s more important than ever to learn from indigenous communities how to rebalance our relationship with the environment.

To mark the UN’s International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (9 August), we meet three indigenous entrepreneurs making an impact in North America – on their chosen industries, and on their native communities.

Harvesting Native American flavour: Melinda Williamson, founder of Morning Light Kombucha (USA)

For big city dwellers, kombucha is as commonplace as smashed avocado on toast. The fermented, sparkling tea has been homebrewed globally for centuries but just recently became a hipster household name, as a healthy alternative to soda. In the USA, kombucha sales increased 12-fold between 2014 and 2017, when the industry was worth US$600,000.

But while shelves in LA, New York City and Portland, Oregon – which reportedly buys 78 times more kombucha than the rest of the country – were stacked with the stuff, that wasn’t the case in the tiny town of Hoyt, Kansas. Yet one woman there was in dire need of some fermented magic.

“I was diagnosed with an autoimmune illness about 10 years ago,” says Melinda Williamson, founder of Morning Light Kombucha. “I started looking at ways to heal with food, instead of being on a lot of medication. I learned about kombucha, but at that time I could only get one brand.”

Williamson – a single mother who had just moved back to her native Kansas from Oklahoma, with her daughter – vowed to make her own, launching Morning Light Kombucha in 2016. But it was part of a bigger plan: to start a company that would directly support her Native American community, part of the Potawatomi tribe.

“I knew I wanted my business to be focused on sustainability, to create those conversations in our community,” she says. “And I wanted to source locally and forage for ingredients.”

Producing small batches of kombucha of up to just 55 gallons, Williamson gathers wild berries and flowers from her tribe’s local reservation to create some 100 all-natural kombucha flavours, which are then sold at several Kansas locations in refillable bottles. “I go out with my family and harvest,” says Williamson. “If I’m harvesting flowers I’ll dry them, if it’s fruits then I’ll clean them and freeze them, locking in the nutrients until I’m ready to use them. I work with farmers and only harvest what I need – it’s important that I have a small footprint.”

Sustainability is a key driving force for Williamson, who recycles and composts nearly 100 per cent of Morning Light’s brewing waste. But the world’s only indigenous kombucha brand – recognised by the USDA as part of American Indian Foods – is drawing the attention of bigger brands at food shows, offering an opportunity to expand.

“My goal was always to offer something local, not to see my product on the shelf at the grocery store,” admits Williamson. “But I’m blown away by how many tribal businesses are interested in my product. I would love to create speciality lines that are specific to tribes, whether that’s with roasted blue corn, camomile, lavender or prickly pear.” In the meantime, she’s been launching a recyclable canned line of kombucha, and using proceeds to fund local youth basketball and trips to pipeline protests in North Dakota. However she decides to scale up, her Potawatomi heritage will be at the fore.

Upcycling sustainable threads: Amy Yeung, founder of Orenda Tribe (USA)

For many in the fashion industry, designing for brands like Puma and Reebok sounds like a dream come true. New Mexico-based fashion designer Amy Yeung spent the majority of her career travelling the world, working for its biggest activewear brands – but decided to drop her career as it reached its height.

“I was raising my daughter alone, and had a moment when I realised I couldn’t do this job and be a good mother,” she says. “I was trying to raise my kid to be a conscious citizen but my career in fast fashion was filling up landfills, just to create wealth for companies without any heart. I started working on sustainable, small-batch projects, doing production in downtown LA rather than in China, working with brands that were willing to slow down and do things differently. And I also started Orenda Tribe.”

Since 2015, Yeung’s fashion company has ‘soulfully upcycled and reimagined vintage clothing’ – a process close to her heart, as it’s a hobby she’s always shared with her daughter. “She’s grown up understanding that all things have a special energy and are to be cherished,” says Yeung. “My daughter was basically the creative director, as she did everything with me. If you scroll back on Instagram, she’s the model in all the photos. It was a love project for us.” That love radiates through the products they create: rainbow tie-dyed jeans; vintage dresses stitched in primary colours; earth-coloured bead necklaces strung with juniper seeds nibbled clean by insects.

But the advent of Orenda Tribe coincided with another love project for Yeung – the rediscovery of her Native American roots. Born into Navajo Nation but adopted out to a non-native family, Yeung reconnected with her birth mother in her 30s and started to gradually reintegrate into the tribe.

“It’s where I was always supposed to be, but it took me a long time to get home,” she says. “I’ve only been physically living on ancestral lands for a year. I’m like a toddler, learning the language, the protocol, our culture. It’s a road that I have ahead of me as long as I live.”

As she travels that road, Yeung invests her expertise and the success of Orenda Tribe in the local Navajo community, by selling the work of other indigenous designers via her platform and collaborating with local talent. “Our youth are so expansively creative,” she says. “There are so many young creatives amplifying indigenous voices. It gives me so much hope for the future.”

Photo Credit: Pierre Manning

Yeung’s optimism flies in the face of the devastating impact that COVID-19 has had on her community. Between March and July 2020, she repurposed her skills to produce 80,000 masks for frontline workers, from fabric donated by her former clients, like Nike and Patagonia, and fundraised for 47,000 food and supply kits for every child in Navajo Nation. But as the world reels from the pandemic, Yeung can see an opportunity for positive change.

“We’re going to see so many indigenous brands, designers and creatives thrive in this new situation,” she says. “People don’t want to go to malls or stores anymore. We’re buying things on our phones and having them brought to us, and designers can sell whatever they want on social media. And do you really want to buy from H&M when you could buy from a young designer on Navajo Nation? The way things used to be, all based on greed and wealth, is crumbling. We want to surround ourselves with things made with heart.”

Flying high: Teara Fraser, founder & CEO of Iskwew Air (Canada)

When she was 30 years old, Teara Fraser spent her savings on going travelling for the first time. In Botswana, she sat in a small aircraft and felt her heart race as it swooped over the green swamps of the Okavango Delta. “The pilot was telling us the stories of the land, the trees, and the animals, and I thought – this guy has the coolest job ever,” says Fraser.

Two weeks later, she went skydiving. Almost 20 years later, Fraser can remember everything about that moment. “I can smell it, see it, tell you how I wanted to touch everything on the dashboard and know what it did,” she recalls. “I said to myself, I don’t care what it takes. I’m going to fly airplanes.”

It was easier said than done. As a single mother with two children, no post-secondary education and no knowledge about the aviation industry, Fraser had some odds stacked against her. But within a year, she had a commercial pilot’s license.

“Looking back, I don’t know how I did it,” she laughed. But it launched her career in aviation and gave her a business idea – to start a small aircraft service for indigenous tourism in her native Canada. “As a Métis woman, I want everything I do to be in service of community and indigenous peoples,” says Fraser. “And that’s something I can help with: connecting indigenous tourism partners and bringing travellers to more remote, smaller strips.”

The business didn’t take off for 10 years. Fraser eventually launched her airline in October 2019, naming it Iskwew Air (‘Iskwew’ means ‘woman’ in Cree language, nodding to her identity as an indigenous matriarch and as an antidote to the male-dominated aviation industry) and starting things off with a blessing ceremony at Vancouver International Airport, from the territory’s Musqueam tribe. But little did she know that an even greater challenge was around the corner.

“I like a challenge, but an airline startup during a global pandemic? Not ideal,” she says. “Pre-COVID, indigenous tourism was the fastest-growing aspect of tourism in Canada. People are looking for meaningful, authentic experiences that are connected to the people and the land. But it’s important that’s done in a really sustainable way, led by indigenous people, in communities that choose it for themselves.”

Iskwew Air has kept operational throughout the pandemic, transporting essential supplies and cargo to indigenous, remote communities. And Fraser is poised to pour her energy into indigenous tourism again once communities are ready to welcome visitors. When it’s safe, it won’t be a moment too soon.

“Indigenous people have so much wisdom that the world desperately needs,” says Fraser. “What’s beautiful is that the pandemic is connecting us in a collective experience worldwide. It gives us the opportunity to understand what’s possible, as indigenous peoples have done for time immemorial. This is an invitation from the world to do things differently and rebuild systems that are in better service to all people and the land.”


Original junglists: walking with India’s Pardhi tribe

In the valley, thick bamboo sticks shoot up around us from the earthy undergrowth. Their vivid-green leaves lace into a natural parasol that shades us from the midday sun, as we crouch down to inspect the ground for animal tracks. Badda points out a faint scuff in the dirt, almost invisible to the untrained eye, and follows its direction to a nearby tree. The gnarled trunk is covered with fresh scratch marks.

“A leopard was just here,” he whispers, running his palm over the rough indents. Sure enough, he finds a fragment of a claw, not much bigger than a fingernail, embedded in the bark. As we move on and begin a steep climb up a forested, rocky hill, a not-too-distant, alien sound – somewhere between a roar, a howl and a bark – ricochets between the surrounding gorge’s rocky walls. I can tell from the knowing smiles of my companions that it’s the sound of a wild, big cat, of the unmistakable golden and black-spotted variety. Badda puts his hands to his mouth and imitates the roar, calling back through the trees, pitch perfect.

I’m on a day-long trek through the jungles of Panna National Park, a protected area of India’s eastern Madhya Pradesh state. The 1600sqkm reserve draws visitors for one valuable reason: its native big cats. And although I’ve found myself within prowling-distance of a leopard, I’ve got my eye on an even bigger prize. Tigers roam this landscape, and one community here knows how to track them like none other.

The indigenous Pardhi (meaning ‘hunting’) tribe, Badda among them, has lived nomadically in this area for five centuries, its people sustaining themselves through foraging and hunting wild boar, birds and other animals. Their unique skill is an uncanny ability to mimick animal calls. If anyone could help me navigate these backwaters and plains – and fend off the sloth bears, snakes, big cats and hyenas along the way – it would be these guys.

Badda is one of 16 Pardhi people to be involved with the Walk with the Pardhis expeditions, which are run from Pashan Garh lodge – a luxury-safari outpost of the Taj Hotels brand, and the starting point for our day. The project was launched in 2018 by Taj Safaris, wildlife conservation programme Last Wilderness Foundation and the Indian government’s Panna Forest Department, and has expanded to other hotels in the Panna region since. No longer able to support themselves by hunting in the protected national park, the once-nomadic tribe (communities of which are found all over India) now use their unparalleled tracking talents to offer guests an immersive wilderness experience, via Taj Safaris’ training programme.

The morning of our walk starts before sunrise. Over a steaming cup of chai tea, I sign a mildly worrying waiver – one that absolves the hotel from blame if I fall victim to the ‘real risk of bodily harm by dangerous animals’. As I do so, the hotel’s on-site naturalist, Dipu Kumar, races into the room to tell me that a tiger was just seen stalking through the lodge site. It’s the second time in four days. We rush outside to see deep paw prints pressed into the sandy forest floor, just metres from where we were sitting. Hearts pounding, we agree that it’s time to meet up with the Pardhis.

By the time we reach the meeting point, on a dusty road dotted with small settlements in the outer ‘buffer’ boundary of Panna Tiger Reserve, the sun is high enough to hit the tips of the treetops with shafts of golden light. We set off through a sandy plain, heading towards the cavernous Ranipur gorge, which we’ll climb down before entering the jungle proper and scaling the Jumanji-size peak by sundown. A walk is generally escorted by five or six Pardhi people – today we’ve got Badda, Batal, Reshna and Lallarsi, all with the surname Pardhi – but we’re also joined by the Taj Safaris area manager Nagendra Hada and Bhavna Menon, programme manager of Last Wilderness Foundation, which facilitates Pardhi community outreach.

We’ve been walking for just a few minutes before Badda begins to point out signs of wildlife, big and small: hours-old hyena tracks, identifiable by their garlic clove-shaped claws; the teeny paw prints of field mice; a caterpillar trail that resembles a miniscule tyre track. Batal points out medicinal plants that have been used by the Pardhis for centuries – the community is still reliant on ancient herbal remedies and witch doctors.

We chew on Ketha leaves, a herbal mouth freshener that tastes like aniseed, and run our fingers through the leaves of a Mahua tree, whose pink flower petals can be dried and crushed into the favoured local hooch. Lallarsi strips the red bark off an Ajun tree, to be ground into a tea that treats high blood pressure. Batal rubs Lantana leaves – a natural antiseptic that can be wrapped on wounds – between his palms, releasing a green juice that’s powerful enough to remedy scorpion stings and soothe boils. “You can also put this in your ear to treat tooth problems,” he advises, “but only on Wednesdays.”

The morning is quickly whiled away like this and before we know it it’s time to prepare lunch, by a jade-green river in the middle of the gorge. Water buffalo laze around us, electric-blue kingfishers swoop overhead and a family of langoon monkeys watch with interest as the Pardhis boil rice in fresh river water and crush gooseberries and coriander into chutney on a large, flat rock.

As we wait, I’m treated to a demonstration of Pardhi animal calls. Lallarsi roars like a jackal and barks like a monkey, to everyone’s hilarity, before imitating mating calls between a peacock and a peahen with Badda. Batal whistles to a partridge perched on a nearby branch – which tweets in reply – before performing the guttural, threatening growl of a tiger. He reveals that the very ground we’re sitting on was the site of a tiger poaching in 2000 – a hunt that he was party to. In fact, all the Pardhi men present have hunted tigers in the past.

They didn’t have many other options. The hunting tribe has been exiled from mainstream Indian society throughout history, notably by British colonial officials, who labelled them a ‘criminal tribe’ in 1871 due to their outlawed existence in the bush – despite exploiting their tracking skills to help them trophy hunt. The tribe was denotified of this label in 1952, but decades of demonisation had made their reputation hard to shift.

Unaccepted by local communities and cut off from the benefits of education and fixed settlements, the nomads continued to support themselves in the only way they knew: by hunting, this time for increasingly valuable species, as a domestic and international appetite for trophy hunting – despite it being illegal in India since the 1972 Wildlife Protection Act – grew in the second half of the 20th century. By no means were the Pardhis the only hunters in Panna, but they were especially good at it, luring tigers into traps with their imitation calls. Tiger numbers dwindled from 23,000 at the time of Indian Independence, before which only British officials and Maharajas were allowed to hunt, to 1,100 by 2006. This was also thanks to habitat loss, from extensive deforestation and the building of human settlements.

“In 2008, the WWF declared tigers extinct in Panna,” says Hada, “and the Pardhis were blamed. Yes, they were involved. But in the last 70 years of independence in India, what had we done for them? We didn’t provide them with education or jobs. People do what they can to survive.”

Batal was the first of his Pardhi community to give up hunting, in 2008, when – convinced by the Forest Department – he became a community advocate for a different way of life. It wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the Last Wilderness Foundation, which had built schools for Pardhi children in the Panna region and hostels for more permanent accommodation. The foundation employed Batal and his wife there to teach the youngsters how to brush their teeth, cut their nails and generally prepare themselves for a life and education in mainstream society. They convinced their whole community to stop hunting for good, which won Batal’s wife a lifetime wildlife award from Sanctuary magazine.

“They’re embarrassed about their past,” says Menon, who’s been managing the Pardhi community outreach programme for nine years. “But we don’t want them to be ashamed of who they are.” The foundation began skills training programmes in the hostels in 2015 and recruited walking guides for Taj Safaris two years later. Now, five families are entirely supported by the Taj programme, and last year, the first Pardhi women were trained up. Reshna, the youngest in our group, was the first girl in her community to leave and work elsewhere. Dressed in crisp khaki safari wear, she’s been trained as a naturalist and now works in a sister lodge in Kahna Tiger Reserve, an eight-hour drive south of Panna and her family. It was revolutionary for the community and has had a huge social impact.

“Reshna’s confidence has really improved,” Menon says. “It’s a big deal that girls like her don’t have to rely on men anymore.” Nomadic life is rare among the Pardhis now, who have settled in villages. But while the older generation worry that the tribe’s heritage will be forgotten, Menon explains that the Walk with the Pardhis programme is actually re-teaching the younger generation the tracking skills that might have been otherwise lost.

After a lunch of lentil daal and slow-cooked potatoes, peas and tomatoes, served on stitched-together banyan leaves with bonfire-baked roti bread, we enter the denser part of the jungle. We pass dark caves that are known leopard dens, see their scratch marks and hear their roars. The path between the trees gets steeper, rockier, more difficult to discern – but the Pardhis know the way. We scramble up rocks and slash through the thicket, squeezing through a narrow crevice that opens up onto a jaw-dropping view of the gorge below.

Our Pardhi guides’ wives are waiting with baskets full of dried spices and rice for our evening meal. We sip on chai as they cook and sing folk songs; melodic, haunting odes to the dramatic landscape around us. The dipping sun casts golden-peach hues as we light lanterns and bonfires and settle in for the evening. “Who needs a five-star hotel?” asks Hada, reclining back to gaze at the twinkling canopy emerging from the night sky. “We’ve got 1,000 stars right here.”

Back in bed at the safari lodge, I lie in the pitch black and listen. Putting my new, Pardhi-style tracking skills to the test, I pick up the rustle of sandy-coloured palm squirrels on the roof and the snouts of wild boars rootling in the undergrowth. So far, so peaceful. Then, I hear a distant, panic-stricken series of barks. It’s a family of langoon monkeys, warning of approaching danger. It’s followed by the honk of a sambar deer, prey to the biggest cat of all, and one that’s eluded us all day.

No tigers have been poached in Panna since 2008, when eight were reintroduced from other national parks. Today, India has an estimated 3,967 tigers and the reserve is home to 55 of them, in large part thanks to the Last Wilderness Foundation’s work to reintegrate the Pardhis into mainstream Indian society. “When tigers, tribes and tourists come together, the future for tigers – and people – is bright,” Hada had told me earlier.

As the monkeys’ calls grow more frenzied, I hear a distant, guttural roar. It’s indistinguishable from the sounds made by Batal and Badda, but there’s no mistaking the animal that made it. With the Pardhis on the tigers’ side, I feel confident that this sound will resonate through these jungles for a long time to come.


The United Queendom: how RuPaul’s Drag Race put Liverpool on the map

Choriza May turns on the TV and gasps theatrically, teetering in her stilettos. She’s watching a report on the UK’s vote to leave the European Union. Gaping in wide-eyed shock under heavy false lashes and a beehive straight out of a Pedro Almodóvar movie, she turns to the several-hundred-strong audience, smooths down her royal-blue velvet dress, and launches into a lip-sync to Jennifer Hudson’s stirring Dreamgirls ballad. “There’s no way I’m living without you,” she implores. “I’m staying, and you’re gonna love me.” The crowd leaps to a standing ovation.

This is drag queen Choriza’s winning performance at Liverpool’s first Big Drag Pageant – a contest for “kings, queens, and everyone in-between” that arrived in the city last November. It’s the latest event to spotlight an art form that has long thrived in the port city that gave the world beloved British comedy drag queen Lily Savage, as well as the late gender-twisting Dead or Alive singer Pete Burns. A diverse range of performers and outfits is on show at the pageant: beards and hairy legs are paired with pleather miniskirts and frumpy leotards in a boisterous, lightly political mishmash that feels distinctly northern English.

Liverpool was recently put firmly back on the drag map thanks to local prodigy The Vivienne, winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK last November. It was the first British edition of the 11-season award-winning American show; the BBC version was less polished, peppered with crude slang and rough-and-ready Margaret Thatcher impressions.

The Vivienne’s raucous personality is typical of the down-to-earth comedy queens that Liverpool’s many cabaret clubs, such as The Lisbon Bar, Kitty’s Showbar and Superstar Boudoir, are known for. They fit into a wider scene in a city that claims to have an LGBTQ+ population equivalent to San Francisco’s, with a roster of gay clubs in its Stanley Street Quarter to match. You’ll catch resident queens most nights at the likes of Heaven, OMG and GBar, all nightclubs a couple of minutes’ walk from each other.

But just a few decades ago, Liverpool’s drag clubs were hidden from plain sight, despite the city’s busy port bringing in plenty of punters. “In the 1960s and 70s, seafarers arriving in Liverpool would use polari [a type of secret slang] as a language to get by without straight people knowing what they were talking about,” says Kitty Litter, the drag queen owner of the rainbow-painted Kitty’s Showbar. “When I started performing in the 1980s, queens looked more like your auntie or your mother than a superstar. Even now my whole costume can go in a carrier bag and no one would be any the wiser.” With tattooed hairy legs poking out from a dinner lady-style tabard, and purple, scrawled-on eyebrows, Kitty represents the northern-English antithesis of the preened, perfect-looking American queen pedalled by US icon RuPaul.

According to Kitty, drag performance took a nosedive between the 1980s and today, as tastes shifted. “Years ago, everyone wanted to be Lily Savage,” she says. “But then suddenly we had [British TV stars] Graham Norton and Alan Carr – camp comics that didn’t have to be in a frock.” Today, however, there’s a renewed appetite for outrageous, gender-shifting personas like Kitty, who performs at least three nights a week.

Social media has also had a hand in reviving drag in Liverpool. “If you perform in a bar, 50 people might see you, but post a video on Instagram and thousands see it all over the world,” says Choriza May. “It’s become such a window into drag. And then Drag Race has obviously helped a lot too.”

Even though The Vivienne was only recently crowned Drag Race UK champion, Choriza, who performs regularly in Newcastle and Liverpool, can already see an impact on the local scene. “It’s making everyone step up their game,” she says. “People who’ve been doing drag for years are now thinking that this is a job that can make them famous.”

Kitty and Choriza worry, however, that the groomed, photo-ready version of drag promoted by RuPaul risks pigeonholing performers, even as it makes the scene more accessible. Certain local promoters are setting out to address that. “Drag Race has done a lot for drag as a venture, but it does suggest that queens have to sit within this very defined box,” claims Pretentious Dross, a performer and producer at queer cabaret night EAT ME + Preach, in Liverpool’s Baltic Triangle area. “They’re predominantly white male. But there are so many people outside of the gender boxes – and the tradition comes from there, so let’s celebrate it.”

Dross draws from her theatre practice doctorate studies to blend drag with experimental live art, often mixing 1980s horror movie tropes with elements of New Romantic fashion. “When you go back to the origin of the word, ‘queer’ means oddness, something that doesn’t fit with the norm,” says Dross. “EAT ME + Preach provides a radical, queer platform for artists with accessibility issues, who are fighting against ableism, who are gender non-binary or trans – people who don’t generally get a gig in traditional drag venues and who don’t fit in the Drag Race box.”

The emergence of the Big Drag Pageant, while less radical than the EAT ME cabaret nights (Dross performs a Silence of the Lambs-themed act, using a raw chicken puppet of Buffalo Bill’s victims), shows another side to Liverpool’s diversifying drag scene, which is increasingly no longer confined to LGBTQ+ spaces. Events producer and drag promoter Tom Barrie – who recently started performing in drag under the name Dame Fanny De Faux – was tasked with organising the pageant after creating a successful family-friendly drag brunch show during Liverpool Pride, called Tuck Shop.

“I wanted Tuck Shop to be all-inclusive,” he says. “Until now, drag has normally been the domain of nightclubs or late-night TV. The response to our afternoon drag brunch from the younger audience was amazing. Some people view the drag scene as quite a frivolous thing – a couple of boys who just want to put on make-up and dresses, but it’s far from that. It’s a proper art form and it has the power to help younger people discuss issues of gender identity.”

Liverpool’s drag scene is on an upward trajectory. New cabaret venue On Point opened towards the end of last year, run by local queen Miss Tiara; Kitty’s Showbar will be adding rooms for overnight stays in time for Pride in July. It’s a microcosm of the growing popularity of drag performance across the UK: the self-styled “Europe’s largest celebration of drag”, DragWorld, launched in London in 2017, while the first Drag Fest UK festival will hit London and Manchester this June. But for Choriza, events like the Big Drag Pageant are more of a microcosm of the general Liverpudlian spirit.

“Liverpool has one of the most inclusive scenes I’ve ever witnessed,” she says. “It’s a city with a history of entertainment, so the drag performers here are real all-rounders – singing, comedy, the full package. That makes them powerful.”

Conde Nast Traveler

Meet the woman recreating the journeys of history’s forgotten female explorers

By the time she was 16,400-feet high in the Himalayas, Elise Wortley had learned to deal with altitude sickness and blistered feet. She’d even gotten used to her uncomfortable leather boots slipping on the rocks as she picked her way between sheets of ice and tufts of coarse grass. But as the sun went down near Kangchenjunga basecamp—the third highest peak in the world—it was the extreme, bone-chilling temperature that nearly broke her.

“I’ll never forget that night,” says the 29-year-old Londoner. “It was -15 degrees Celsius and I had ice in my hair and all over my blanket. The ground was too wet to make a fire. I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to die.’”

Nowadays, trekkers in Thangu Valley are equipped with snow-proof tents and buttoned up in state-of-the-art clothing to protect them from the harsh conditions that characterize that strip of northern India. Not so for Wortley. In 2017, she embarked on a journey that she’d been dreaming of since age 16, when she read a book that changed her life: My Journey to Lhasa by Alexandra David-Néel. Published in 1927, the autobiography charts the French female explorer’s 14-year expedition to Tibet, between 1911 and 1925. She traveled overland across Europe before finally reaching the town of Lachen in Sikkim, a northern region of India that juts out between Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan. Making the region her home for four years, it was from there that she first caught a glimpse of Tibet and vowed to enter it, eventually making it over the border by disguising herself as a beggar. Entry was forbidden for foreigners at the time, and it was unthinkable for a solo European woman to embark on such a journey alone.

“Women just didn’t do things like that,” Wortley says. “When I was a teenager I was shy and I dealt with extreme anxiety for years. The fact that she’d done this epic voyage fascinated me. I always had this inkling that maybe I could follow in her footsteps, but at the time, I was so anxious, I struggled to get on the bus.”

Part self-funded and part-funded by travel company Exodus, for whom she was working at the time, Wortley set off for Sikkim in 2017. An avid traveler, both personally and professionally, it wasn’t her first trip to India (she had already traveled extensively in Southeast Asia, Senegal and South Africa), but it was certainly her most adventurous. Joined by camerawoman Emily Almond Barr and local female mountain guide Jangu, Wortley recreated a portion of David-Néel’s journey from regional capital Gangtok to Kangchenjunga on the Tibetan border, covering some 435 miles by foot in a month-long trek. Keen to recreate David-Néel’s experience to the full, she made a mad-cap pledge to only take with her the equipment available to the French explorer in the 1920s. She traded in all modern-day comforts (minus emergency medical supplies) for a yak wool coat, rubber-soled boots, and a wooden backpack that she’d fashioned from an old chair, some rope, and an Indian wicker basket that she bought from a market in Gangtok.

“I went the whole hog. I had 1920s underwear—a cotton bra and high-waisted pants, and a woolen undergarment that was so itchy,” Wortley says. “The ropes on my backpack rubbed a lot, I had scabs on my shoulders. But I had to know how it felt to do it that way. The journeys of female explorers were way more hardcore than for their male counterparts. It was much more dangerous [for them] and they had to deal with the physical elements but also their periods, and even having to hide the fact they were women.”

Despite the decades separating their adventures, it wasn’t just the old-school underwear that aligned Wortley’s experience with David-Néel’s. “The scenery that she describes so beautifully in the book hasn’t changed. Mountains don’t change, not in 100 years anyway,” she says. “And she writes about how any house she passed welcomed her in, as they do now. You have a Tibetan tea with salt and butter, you have a chat even though no one knows what anyone’s saying.”

Wortley and her small team had to stop short of Lhasa due to similar difficulties in entering Tibet today, but the experience inspired her to celebrate other female explorers of the past. She pledged to continue to undertake expeditions to other extreme terrains explored and catalogued by intrepid women, under the name Woman With Altitude, in 2017.

“There are so many women like this and they’re not household names, but they should be,” Wortley says. “Annie Smith Peck was the first person to climb the north peak of the Huascarán in Peru. Ursula Graham Bower left England for India and ended up marrying the chief of the Naga tribe. And no one knows about her! The only problem is that it’s hard to find much written about explorers that aren’t white and European. But I’ve found some warrior queens and Tibetan nuns that I’m looking into.”

While Wortley’s main aim is to celebrate the achievements of historical female explorers, there’s a charitable element to her expeditions, too. “Because the project is woman-based, I wanted to help women in the areas I’m going to in some way,” she says. As part of the Himalayan project, she raised £2,500 ($3,000) for the charity Freedom Kit Bags, which provides girls in rural Nepal with reusable bags of sanitary products.

When we spoke, Wortley was preparing for her second trip (which she has since completed), following in the footsteps of Scottish explorer Nan Shepherd, who scaled the six highest peaks in the Cairngorm Mountains and catalogued it in her book The Living Mountain. Written in the 1940s but not published until 1977, it’s now considered a masterpiece of poetic non-fiction.

“It was written when people were racing to be the first people to scale peaks,” Wortley says. “She was into Taoism and saw it in the water, rocks, the sky, and the air. She wrote this about seeing the mountain as a whole.” Mostly alone, Wortley wandered between the peaks and lochs of the Cairngorm National Park for three weeks, equipped with a wartime gas cooker, a canvas tent, and old-school food supplies—mostly potatoes, cheese, and eggs. Part-sponsored by Wilderness Scotland, she was raising money for Scottish Women’s Aid and hopes to use these two projects to pitch a television series to fund forthcoming expeditions.

Wortley’s adventures are all the more impressive when you consider how alien the concept felt to her at the beginning. “Five years ago, my anxiety was so bad that I couldn’t even get on a bus,” she says. “But I could read Alexandra David-Néel and think, if she managed to leave Europe on her own and do this, I’m sure I can get on the Tube. I just want to make people more aware of these women, so they can inspire others.”

Conde Nast Traveler

Meet the world’s longboarding women

When Valeria Kechichian started longboarding in Madrid in 2008, there were just three other women in her crew. It represented freedom; an escape from a soul-crushing job as a secretary in a law firm and a self-destructive spiral of partying. ‘It was this very pure kind of joy,’ she says. ‘It completed me somehow.’ Still, when she first stood on a board in the Spanish capital, people would ‘turn their heads and look at me as if I was doing something weird’.

It’s fair to say that Argentinian-born Kechichian’s gang has grown a bit. Longboard Girls Crew (LGC), which she co-founded in 2010, now claims to be the world’s biggest action-sports community, with 233,400 Facebook followers and counting, and representatives in 70 countries. With some of its videos being viewed as many as 3.6 million times on YouTube, the group has ignited an international scene built on female empowerment and dreamy images of cruising golden-hour open roads. Kechichian has become the global face of it all, launching and partnering with NGOs, giving TEDx Talks and motivating Nike ambassadors and Facebook employees with the free-wheeling gospel.

The sport was invented in Hawaii in the 1950s, when surfers started customising skateboards with bigger wheels and looser trucks to make them more like surfboards. These Hawaiian pioneers would drive up volcanoes and glide down, carving S-shaped turns as if on a peeling wave. Over the years, longboarders developed tricks and started speeding down hills at more than 90mph – but the primary appeal has always been a certain languorous elegance; a free-spirited surfer vibe, more at home in nature than gritty skateboarding. There’s a scene in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, of Ben Stiller whizzing alone through the mossy Icelandic landscape, grinning at the wild freedom of it all.

That spirit is central to the movement, which includes all kinds of women across the world. In Nice, Marina Corrêa spins along the old boardwalk, flicking her dreadlocks to a reggaeton soundtrack. Seoul freestyle longboarder Ko Hyojoo (pictured below) is the queen of a flourishing Korean community, dancing on her board in cute knee-high socks to the tune of 568,000 Instagram followers and partnerships with Chanel and Gucci. Chinese boarder Mu Qing skates through Chengdu in a hoodie and Vans, filmed by a friend on a smartphone for her 500,000 followers on the Douyin video app. In Malaysia, Fatin Amalina whooshes between Kuala Lumpur’sshiny skyscrapers in a hijab.

The riding styles are as diverse as the women. On the Venice Beach Boardwalk, Natalie Pluto (pictured below) is part of a small band of balletic freestylers, doing kick-flips and shove-its as she weaves among the tourists. Based in Virginia, Emily Pross, who styles herself ‘the Prossecutor’, wears a shiny black speed suit and aerodynamic helmet to beat the men in downhill races – her speed record is 83.88mph. All of them are celebrated on the LGC social feeds, from the cruisers to the leather-clad competitors posting under the #girlscanride hashtag.

The group had its Endless Summer moment in 2011, with a film of seven women road-tripping across Spain and the Balearics in a red VW camper van, riding their boards through white-stone villages and down sun-flared roads overlooking limestone cliffs. Endless Roads, the result of this 2,670-mile journey, became a clarion call for a certain type of female-powered adventure, with 1.4 million views on YouTube. ‘It was more rare for something to go viral back then,’ says Kechichian. ‘But our video was suddenly everywhere. It resonated with women who thought, “Hey, we can do this.” It started a global movement.’

One of the people who watched Endless Roads on repeat was a teenage Valeriya Gogunskaya (pictured above), who lived in the forested Finnish city of Kuopio. ‘It just looked super-cool,’ she says. ‘I used to roller-skate, and I gave my skates to a friend in exchange for his longboard. I downloaded some YouTube tutorials and started cruising.’ A year later, Gogunskaya moved to Santa Cruz, a beach town north of Lisbon, with hopes of finding other skaters: ‘There was just one guy there at the time. I was always whining to my boyfriend that there was no one to skate with. He said, “Why don’t you start something?”’ Inspired by LGC, Gogunskaya organised a meet-up in 2017 at Praia de Santa Cruz’s white-stone-balustered platform, which looks out over the hazy, rocky coastline. To her surprise, around 30 people showed up – almost all of them female. She launched a skate camp, Longboarding Days and Nights, and single-handedly sparked a scene in Santa Cruz, where many are now women in their 30s and 40s.

Gogunskaya practises most evenings, carving wide turns and hanging 10 like the old-school surfers. Just as Kechichian used longboarding as a form of therapy, Gogunskaya applied her passion to face down her own challenges. ‘I began when I was struggling with bulimia,’ she says. ‘It helped me relax, nurture self-love and respect my body again. I just want to share that chance with other people, especially women.’

But while Gogunskaya and Kechichian have both used longboarding as a way to process their issues, behind it all is still that simple, joyous feeling of gliding along a road: ‘When I’m skating, that’s all that matters,’ says Kechichian. ‘Me, my board and the road. It creates some sort of magic, a bubble where nothing else matters… You feel like you rule the world.’


Elitist or Empowering? Inside the Women-Only Private Members’ Clubs

A room of one’s own

One street back from the hubbub of Oxford Street is a Georgian townhouse with a Virginia Woolf quote in its window. Step over the threshold and the geometric patterned, pastel-furnished interior is an Instagrammer’s dream come true. Experimental canvases by female artists adorn muted-blue walls, marble fireplaces meet matte-wooden floorboards and a hot-desking space is filled almost entirely by women. Tapping on laptops or gathered in brainstorm circles, they are nearly all in their 30s, impeccably dressed and blow-dried and manicured to perfection from the in-house salon.

Welcome to The AllBright: a private members’ club created for and by women.

Elitism to empowerment

While The AllBright may feel startlingly modern, women’s private members clubs actually date back to the 19th century. The University Women’s Club, which still exists today, was opened in 1886 by some of the first women holding university degrees, in defiance of exclusive gentlemen’s club culture, which was (and still is) big business among London’s aristocratic and political elite.

Decisions with country-wide ramifications have long been made over Old Fashioneds between the wood-panelled walls of White’s and The Garrick Club, despite a wave of female-welcoming members’ clubs, such as The Groucho, opening from the 1980s onwards. Fast forward a decade or two and corduroys and cigars are replaced by slick interior design and MacBooks, at hip social clubs like Soho House and the Hospital Club. 

Their female-centric offshoots serve a different need, having sprung up in the midst of an unprecedented conversation about gendered injustice in the workplace. The AllBright was conceived by its founders, Debbie Wosskow (founder of LoveHomeSwap) and Anna Jones (former CEO of Hearst), in the wake of #MeToo and the Presidents Club Scandal, which saw female hostesses sexually harassed at a men-only gala event. Their mission was two-fold: to create a space for fed-up women that mean business and turn boys’ club culture on its head. 

Having opened on International Women’s Day in 2018, The AllBright already has a valuation of £100 million. As well as providing a positive working environment for women in business and the arts, they regularly host events at their Fitzrovia and Mayfair branches – typically with empowerment or educational themes.

Their success has coincided and intersected with the rise of cowork spaces spearheaded by WeWork, a 400,000 member-strong group that came to London in 2014. But while the free craft beer perks and millennial-friendly décor made WeWork’s fortune, it didn’t serve to disrupt the male-dominated culture of entrepreneurship in the capital – a culture observed by Lu Li, who in 2015 founded female-focused cowork and networking space Blooming Founders, in Shoreditch.

“I moved to London in 2012 and went to a ton of startup events, but they were full of guys,” Li remembers. “I’m from the corporate world and can deal with male-dominated environments, but is that really it?” She began her own meetup group for women entrepreneurs, which reached 1,000 members in less than a year. Li now runs events that are open to all but focus on facilitating business connections between female founders and investors. They take place surrounded by peace lilies and pastel-painted walls, in the serene, Nespresso-fuelled workspace at Blooming Founders.

“We wanted a real social club, where people make friends for life”

It’s safe to say there’s a market for this.

The odds are stacked against female entrepreneurs: 70% of them are solo founders, yet for every £1 of venture capital invested in the UK, only 1p goes to female founders. Research consistently points to unconscious gender bias on investor panels holding businesswomen back and the importance of female mentors in shifting the balance.

Enter Sister Snog, a women-only members’ club that, rather than having a bricks-and-mortar base, holds regular lunches and breakfast meetings to facilitate business connections between members. 

“Women and men network in a different way,” claims co-founder Annie Brooks. “In the past, it was old boys’ clubs and networking with a warm glass of chardonnay and a canapé. But get the right kind of women together in a room and they create relationships, uplift each other and work well together.”

Talking to the members, dressed to the nines at Sister Snog’s classy monthly meetup at ME hotel on the Strand, it’s clear they agree – and are directly benefitting from it. “There’s less ego involved among women,” says property developer Claire Norwood. “Everyone within Sister Snog provided the services I needed to launch my business – head shots, website, marketing.”

One members’ club caters to millennial women that are equally interested in swapping stories of backpacking in South America as in building a career. “We’re not a physical club – we hold fashion events, trips abroad, meditation,” explains 28-year-old founder Jae Ruax, who worked on the committee for the Hospital Club before launching Fiena in 2016. “We wanted a real social club, where people make friends for life.”

According to Ruax, this does lead to business endeavours, but as a consequence of the club’s social element. “Men have always had these networks, they go play golf and leave with new clients,” she says. “Women have to fight for projects and clients. So we’re turning that on its head.” Fiena offers members discounts at partner venues for a few months at a time, such as Fulham beach bar Neverland and cowork space Uncommon. It’s a modern, less-committal approach to membership.

No boys allowed?

With success comes criticism.

Female-focused clubs have come under fire for excluding men, despite the fact that The AllBright welcomes male guests, Blooming Founders is mixed gender and The Wing (a booming US club due to hit London this summer) is open to all (following a gender discrimination lawsuit filed by a man last year). “This isn’t an anti-men move,” Wosskow told the Independent in 2017. “Sometimes women need to be separate to turbocharge their progress.”

It’s been argued, too, that there’s a certain elitism at work. Certainly the fees involved can be eye-watering. Sister Snog’s annual membership starts at £999, Fiena and The AllBright at £750. University Women’s Club fees start at £262, but applicants require a university degree or ‘similar’ and recommendations from two existing members to be considered. Sister Snog and Fiena are selective.

“We have a stringent application process and turn down about 40% of applicants,” says Ruax. As with Sister Snog, being accepted comes down to possessing values deemed in line with the club – but without vigorous criteria, it’s difficult to prove that bias doesn’t tinge the applications process.

Even if membership fees are the only barrier, it has been said that the women in greatest need of business help are financially excluded by default. “There should be something out there for everyone,” agrees Brooks. “And there are lots of free networking events. But to some people, club membership is expensive, while for others, it’s cost effective.”

Plus, within the greater landscape of coworking spaces in London, these clubs are relatively cheap – hot-desking at WeWork costs upwards of £200 per month, whereas desk space at Blooming Founders starts at £30. For Li, the power of women’s members’ clubs comes down to their business sense in addressing a clear gap in the market.

“The AllBright and The Wing aren’t helping all women, but neither am I,” she points out. “You have to pick the customer you are serving and create the best product for them. But we’re so nascent in this process [of addressing inequality]. There are so many things to come.”


Designer dining: fashion guru Phillip Lim turns his creativity to the kitchen

THE TANGY-SWEET SCENT of chilli pepper, ginger, garlic and oyster sauce spiked with a splash of pungent fish sauce wafts from the wok. I stir through pieces of chicken, which sizzle stickily, the sauce caramelising into a thick, spicy-sweet coating. A handful of shredded basil later, it is ready. This is “Mom’s Ginger and Basil Chicken”, the signature dish from Chinese-American fashion designer Phillip Lim’s new cookbook, More Than Our Bellies, which he created in collaboration with Dutch artist and photographer Viviane Sassen to celebrate food, travel and family.

Lim co-founded fashion label 3.1 Phillip Lim in 2005 and is now one of the most successful independent designers in America. His structured, wearable designs have won him accolades from the Council of Fashion Designers of America – for womenswear in 2007 and for menswear in 2012 – and his Fall 2019 collection continues to build on the label’s signature structured yet casual aesthetic, with clean tailoring and muted palette. But this year also spells a new creative outlet for Lim, who recently discovered the pleasures of home cooking – a humbling antidote to high fashion.

The first-generation child of a Chinese couple, who moved to the United States in 1974 via Cambodia and Thailand, Lim grew up with a south-east Asian-influenced Chinese diet, cooked from scratch by his mother. But as a typical kid in the American school system, he rebelled. “I grew up in two worlds,” he says. “My parents wanted me to assimilate into Western culture, but the rules, food and language at home were all Chinese. When you’re a kid, you want McDonald’s and boxed cereal.” It wasn’t until Lim moved to New York City 14 years ago, to forge his fashion career, that he eventually reconnected with his ancestors’ food.

“For the first 10 years, I’d order takeout morning, noon and night,” says Lim. “I didn’t realise how bad it was for my body, but I was sluggish and feeling kind of hollow. Then, one day, I was missing my mother so much. She used to make me this basil ginger chicken which always put me in a good mood. I bought the ingredients I thought were in it, and went home and recreated it.”

That must have been no mean feat for a man who had never cooked before in his life – “My mum never taught me to cook,” he says, “she was old school that way” – but the chicken dish revealed to Lim that there’s more depth to food than its flavour.

“In South East Asia, they use humble ingredients that are actually antioxidants and superfoods,” says Lim. “Recently, I took a trip to Cambodia and in that humid climate there are a lot of mosquitoes. As a tourist, I was putting on loads of repellent and [I noticed] that the locals were not. It is because they eat food that naturally repels bugs, such as lemongrass. It is a traditional way of healing.”

Lim paid attention and, as a frequent traveller, uses his newfound food ethos to keep jet lag and fatigue at bay. “One of the major ingredients in Thai tom yum soup, for example, is galangal, which rebalances you,” he claims. “And kaffir lime de-puffs and helps remedy jet lag. Now, whenever I have been away and come home, I make that soup.”

Despite this, Lim insists that he is no chef – and it is clear that More Than Our Bellies is no ordinary cookbook. The accompanying photography by Lim’s friend and long-time collaborator Viviane Sassen does not correspond to the recipes. Instead, the artful shots, taken on her travels in Asia and Africa – Morocco, Ethiopia and Madagascar – display ripe, cut-open tomatoes on a market stand; sacks of rice glowing white under the sun; and trays of fried fish laid in silvery rows on a street-side stall. “We had travelled the world together and developed a mutual love and respect for non-Western cultures,” explains Lim. “This book is a love letter to each other.” It blurs the line between cookbook, travel documentary and fine-art tome – and for Lim it was a way to celebrate and connect to the people he loves.

“When I make clothes, I think of who wears them, how he or she might feel,” he says. “My goal is to make them feel at home, to give them armour to create memories in. And I do not know how it is going to turn out, which is the same with cooking. You are just trying to capture what was in your imagination.”

Born from an imagination as fruitful as Lim’s, it is no wonder that More Than Our Bellies has drawn the attention of the fashion, food and art worlds all at once. But the proof is always in the pudding. I place the ginger basil chicken atop a steaming bowl of white rice, grab a pair of chopsticks and dig in. It is tender, sweet and spicy; comfort on a plate. If Lim’s way of healing body and soul is this delicious, I think, then let him be my guru.,

N by Norwegian

The beast goes on: 10 years of bearpit karaoke in Berlin

The scorching sun is momentarily masked by a cloud as the young woman softly breaks into song, wavering over the opening cadences. Her voice cracks as the first verse draws to a close. Lifting her eyes to the dozens of rows of listeners – shoulder-to-shoulder and silent in anticipation – she takes a deep breath, and launches into the chorus at full power. The crowd erupts into euphoric applause, swaying and singing along as she belts out Adele.

“This is the first time I’ve sung in public in two years,” says Rhona Smith afterwards, visibly shaking as she puts the mic down. She laughs, then cries overwhelmed tears as the audience’s applause turns into a standing ovation.

This is Bearpit Karaoke – and it’s just reignited a former singer’s love of the stage. Consisting of a microphone hooked up to portable speakers, powered by a car battery and transported on a bicycle, it’s a Berlin institution that, this year, has been running for a decade in Mauerpark – the green lung of the upmarket Prenzlauer Berg district.

The event is held each sunny summer Sunday, in a concrete amphitheatre built on a spot that was once on the “Death Strip” that straddled East and West Berlin. Today, Mauerpark welcomes up to 50,000 people each weekend, who come to meander through flea-market stands piled high with knick-knacks and street foods; watch buskers and basketball players; spray-paint tags on the remaining 800m stretch of Berlin Wall; and test their mettle singing in front of some 2,000 spectators.

Although it’s now one of the capital’s most legendary alternative spectacles – attracting professional singers, wannabe stars and total beginners alike – Bearpit Karaoke had modest beginnings. Dublin-born expat and bike courier Gareth Lennon (who runs the event under the name Joe Hatchiban) saw the potential in karaoke for creating alternative tourist souvenirs.

“YouTube was just getting big,” remembers Lennon. “My idea was to film karaoke around the Brandenburg Gate or something, and offer it to the singer as a YouTube upload. I got a rudimentary loud speaker, battery and converter, and set off on my courier bike in February 2009.”

He would set up the speaker, start singing and grab people from the street to join in. “I could tell there was something in it, because I was able to get people to sing and others would watch. It was cool,” he says. “But the random nature of it meant that if someone didn’t want to sing, the crowd would break up.”

The way to mediate that was to find a permanent location – and Lennon was living near Mauerpark at the time. He decided to try out the concrete pit; the first hosting of Bearpit Karaoke was primarily just a technical test. “I hadn’t established the life of the car battery, so one Sunday I decided to set it up at the amphitheatre and find out how long it would go for,” he says. “It was cold – there weren’t many people about, but I got a lot of them to sing.

“As the weather improved I started to go back regularly. Word got around and by the end of May, there were people there waiting every Sunday. I knew if I wasn’t going to be there the week after, I’d have to tell the crowd. That’s when I knew it had begun.”

It might have been an instant hit with the public, but over the years the karaoke has come up against obstacles with the local council, which tripled the cost of its permit in 2012. The event was almost cancelled for good this year, following a series of noise complaints from local residents.

Its saving grace was its popularity with the party crowd – who, luckily, also happen to make the rules. “The council is made of very young people,” explains long-term Bearpit supporter Dr Martin Haring, who sat in on their meetings. “They listened to the neighbourhood but ultimately were positive about the vibe that’s created by the karaoke, where everyone is welcome.”

This vibe plays out in the diversity of performers that have played here over the years. Syrian refugees have taken to the stage. Hopeful young men have proposed to their future wives and opera singers have graced the amphitheatre with arias in between Staatsoper shows. And a grey-bearded older man in a grubby chequered shirt has performed My Way by Frank Sinatra, in German, every single Sunday, his eyes misting up with tears as the audience rises to its feet to applaud his final note.

“A lot of moving stuff happens, and all sorts of weird stuff,” says Lennon. “But those moments when everyone feels the same thing at the same time, when something clicks? You can almost reach out and touch it.”

Bureaucracy dictates that it would be a difficult event to pull off anywhere else in the world, and Lennon is convinced that he wouldn’t be allowed to run Bearpit Karaoke in Berlin now if it wasn’t already so established. While the popularity of karaoke reaches near-hysterical levels in South Korea, the Philippines and Japan (where it originated), it’s generally confined to soundproof booths rather than in the open – as it is in the West, if not before an inebriated pub crowd.

But Bearpit’s atmosphere of freedom and acceptance is unique thanks to Lennon. Despite having received advertising offers from the likes of Coca-Cola and Volkswagen, he’s rejected any notion of commercialising the event, preferring to fund it via small-change donations that he discreetly collects when he’s not emceeing. Every performer is equally encouraged and all of Mauerpark’s weird and wonderful characters (and there are many) are welcome. If Lennon sees a singer falter, he joins in the verse, dances beside them, nods in encouragement.

“He coaches the singers and helps them perform better,” smiles Dr Haring, who has sung here more than 10 times and is sporting a Bearpit-branded T-shirt. “He knows how to pick out the right people from the crowd.”

Lennon is also a born showman, and bookends each Sunday session with his own performances. Today, he rounds off proceedings with a theatrical, gravelly rendition of Cab Calloway’s Minnie the Moocher, getting the crowd going one last time as the police arrive to shut things down at 7pm sharp.

“Standing in front of so many people and performing is a thing I usually never do,” says firsttimer Marjolein Bieri, who’s in Berlin celebrating her engagement. “But everyone claps, sings along and cheers.”

One performer, Mario Giacometto, has been singing here since 2009 – around 14 times so far. “Sometimes we’ve had famous singers,” he remembers (in May, the winner of 2017’s The Voice of Germany, Natia Todua, performed). “But really it’s about losing your fears and being one with the public. Singing is a spontaneously happy act. It resonates with and unites people that hear it.”

For Dr Haring, attending Bearpit Karaoke since day one has even informed his university research. A professor in entrepreneurship at an Amsterdam university, he uses karaoke as a core part of his teaching programme. “It gets them out of their comfort zone,” he explains. “I’ve specialised in karaoke as a way for people to connect with each other. Singing makes us more open and friendly.”

It’s all high praise for a one-man set-up that happened almost by accident and that still takes place under a striped parasol in one of Berlin’s scruffiest parks. But Lennon doesn’t seem fazed by its success. His thoughts on the phenomenon’s 10th anniversary are typically understated – never overhyping the come-one, come-all vibe of what is arguably both the city’s coolest and most accessible event.

“It’s something to stick on a T-shirt, for sure,” he says. “But 11 years would be cooler than 10, and so would 14. It’s just another year.”


Drum ‘n’ bass has a gender problem. Who’s going to fix it?

Drum ‘n’ bass DJ and radio presenter Flight is remembering the moment she first decided to learn to mix. “I never thought that DJing was something I could do until I saw Kemistry and Storm for the first time, when I was 17,” she says. “Particularly Kemi – seeing a black woman of mixed heritage up there. They looked so cool and their music was outstanding.”

Having founded the iconic drum ‘n’ bass label Metalheadz with Goldie in 1994, Kemistry and Storm were pioneers on the scene as it grew from grassroots to mainstream. But drum ‘n’ bass has been notoriously male dominated since day one, and while it’s an issue across the music industry – in 2017, for instance, the BBC reported that 80 per cent of music festival acts were male – house and techno DJs like Honey DijonPeggy Gou and The Black Madonna regularly headline shows and sell out their own nights, with drum ‘n’ bass sadly lagging behind. “D’n’b is still very male dominated,” scene veteran DJ Fabio commented in 2015. “It shouldn’t be, after being around for two decades – but unfortunately it hasn’t changed much since the ’90s in that respect.”

The conversation bubbled to the surface on New Year’s Day 2018, when drum ‘n’ bass DJ Mantra tallied up the ratio of male-to-female acts at the previous year’s big-label drum ‘n’ bass shows. “I literally sat there with a new-born on my boob counting up the numbers,” she laughs. The results painted an undeniably unbalanced picture: Metalheadz hosted 75 male sets and 1 by a woman; Critical sets were 90 to 3; Hospital Records 251 to 2. Mantra’s own label Rupture, which she runs with her DJ partner DOUBLE 0, hosted 8 sets by women and 47 by men – far higher than their counterparts at 17 per cent female, but with still a way to go.

With both positive and negative responses flooding in, Mantra’s post sparked a conversation that was long overdue. “Labels needed to look at themselves,” says DJ and producer Sweetpea. But while Rupture’s New Year’s Resolution was to book at least one female artist per room at its Corsica Studios club nights, the following year saw little progress from other labels. By our count, at Hospital’s 2018 London shows, 159 sets were played by male DJs compared to 8 by women, and Metalheadz hosted 101 male DJs and 4 women DJs. On top of that, women DJs continued to be relegated to warm-up sets, rarely bagging a headline slot. So why are so few female artists succeeding in drum ‘n’ bass?

“It’s the question I can’t answer,” says Storm. “But it is tough to get recognised. It was easier for me and Kemi because we had each other. But in the early days we would consciously not tell promoters we were female. We’d arrive at the show and they’d be like, ‘oh, you’re girls! And there’s two of you!’”

In the early, anti-establishment days of the Metalheadz label, Kemistry and Storm would mentor acts within the family vibe fostered by themselves and Goldie. Storm describes how they became mother figures to many of the younger, male DJs coming through – one of which was DJ Digital, who admits that working with women from the beginning made an impact on the way he now approaches his own bookings on Function Records. “I do make an effort to book women,” he says, “but I go off talent first. But women DJs make sure they’re banging, when sometimes you get men signed to labels who cannot mix for toffee. Women want to prove themselves.”

But it was Kemistry and Storm’s influence on young female mixers that had the most lasting impact.

“If it wasn’t for them, I probably wouldn’t have started mixing,” says Flight. “I gave them my first mixtapes for feedback and Kemi encouraged me to keep at it.” It was the same story for Kemistry and Storm before her. “Being DJs was always in the back of our minds but it was only once we saw DJ Rap that we were like, ‘ok, we can do it,’” remembers Storm.

“Role models are everything,” agrees Mantra, who sent some of her very first mixes to Storm via MySpace. “I had so much self-doubt, but to have these figures who you see as goddesses saying, ‘I listened to your mix and I really rated it’, it gives you motivation.” Mantra’s first London booking was at a night curated by Storm’s female DJ collective Feline, which she launched in 2007.

There’s always been a network of women supporting each other’s drum ‘n’ bass endeavours. But when representation is low, it takes coming together to create opportunities. After her Instagram post in early 2018, Mantra was approached to co-host a #NormalNotNovelty workshop on gender in drum ‘n’ bass at Red Bull Studios. Off the back of its success, she decided to launch a female and non-binary–only d’n’b workshop called EQ50, which returns for a second edition on 26 July at fabric.

Considering that without role models, these DJs might never have got behind the decks, forums like EQ50 – as well as similar women-led initiatives like the jump-up GTA collective, and KCDC in Bristol – are invaluable. But there are still some very concrete barriers to women getting on the line-up. “I’ve done a lot of free gigs,” says Sweetpea. “There have been times when my male counterparts have been paid, and I haven’t.”

Storm, Sweetpea and Mantra all point out that the producer-led nature of drum ‘n’ bass can leave behind female DJs who haven’t found the confidence or resources to produce their own tracks. “It’s such a shame, and it’s not like that in all other areas of music,” Mantra claims. “Nina Kraviz produces but she’s essentially known as a DJ.”

For Flight, there’s a clear reason for the lack of women on line-ups. “If there’s a white guy in charge, you will see majority white male performers,” she says. And female DJs bring more girls to the dancefloor. “When I’m on the line-up, it brings out more women,” says Storm. “It’s almost like you’re their hero.”

Hospital Records created a Women In Drum & Bass Facebook group, which has reached 1000 members and counting. “We’d like to get more women on the artist roster,” says promotions manager Nikki Ellis. “In five, 10, 15 years it would be great to get to 50/50 line-ups as the norm.” The team will announce some initiatives for women in the drum ‘n’ bass community later in the year. Time will tell how effective they’ll be – although this summer’s Hospitality in the Park festival line-up has more women booked than in 2018 (seven, rather than three).

No other large-scale drum ‘n’ bass labels have announced comparable gender equality initiatives, although they acknowledge the issue when asked. “The under representation of the female producer and DJ community in our music is something that has not gone unnoticed at Critical,” says that label’s founder, DJ and producer Kasra. “We are working on ways to re-address the balance. We hope to have news on this soon.”

As for Metalheadz, there’s no plan in place to address the issue of gender equality on their label – to which no female producers are currently signed, despite Storm remaining a resident DJ. “It’s never been a big issue for Headz, it’s always a case of talent first and foremost, regardless of that person’s sex,” says label manager Ant TC1, who also co-founded Dispatch Recordings in 2001 and has put out releases by KyristIris and Sweetpea. “Metalheadz is a label that two women played a major part in becoming what it did across the mid-90s – Kemistry and DJ Storm. Without these two and Goldie, Headz never would have become what it is today. I can only personally state that I wish there were more females representing talent across the scene.”

But for DJs like Mantra, there are easy ways for record labels to change the narrative. As labels run the majority of d’n’b parties in London, she sees it as their responsibility to put diversity more firmly on the radar when it comes to booking artists. “It’s not hard,” she says. “Music is at the forefront, and after that you look at having a mix of women in each room, and being as ethnically diverse as possible. Nothing gets sacrificed. We had 11 or 12 female DJs on our last Rupture line-up, and the only difference was that it felt really uplifting for the women there.”

The fact that software is becoming increasingly accessible could lead to a rise in female producers, too. “Computers have music software on them already now,” says Sweetpea, who also points to a number of smaller labels offering alternatives to the likes of Hospital and Headz. “Setting up a label is becoming a lot easier. Flexout AudioAddictive Behaviour and Lifestyleare doing really well, and gender is less of an issue. It’s a generational thing.”

Visibility of women artists is vital, but more women behind the scenes is equally important. “I would love to see more female promoters,” says Mantra. “More women in positions where they’re holding the reins.”

As a scene, drum ‘n’ bass is firing on all cylinders. And, at the grassroots level, the centre of gravity is slowly shifting to represent the women who are into the sound and contributing to its progression. The scene is evolving. Hopefully the old guard of d’n’b will evolve with it.


My first time: learning to strut

I’m staring at my own face in the mirror, and wondering if I’ve ever truly done it before. Taking in the curve of my eyebrows, the shape of my jaw; noticing my dimples and the pinprick scar on my nose. I’m struggling to remember the last time I contemplated my reflection without seeing it through a prism of self-judgement.

“I am beautiful,” Madam Storm cries, and I repeat it after her. “I am enough. I am a woman. I am here.”

I’d signed up to the STRUT masterclass expecting to learn how to walk in heels like a boss, but things just got real. Female confidence coach Madam Storm uses six-inch stilettos as a tool to get women not just strutting their stuff, but owning their space – physically and psychologically. In Vauxhall’s BASE dance studios, 30 of us – from our early 20s to middle age, and from all walks of life – are sizing up our fishnet stocking-clad, stilettoed selves in the floor-to-ceiling mirror. We’re starting to realise that really, really looking at yourself (in any context that doesn’t involve make-up brushes and spanx) is not an easy thing to do. But then again, neither is sultrily sauntering towards a group of strangers, running your fingers through your hair and over your waist in a manner you’d possibly not even attempt in your own bedroom.

STRUT is one of a growing number of London-based empowerment classes of this kind. Pineapple Dance Studios have their own popular strut class (Strutology) while, on a similar tack, Ruby Rare runs sex-positive workshops for grown-ups. Tantra Dating and partnered yoga are also gaining popularity. London’s getting sexier, and exploring the idea that owning your sensuality means more than giving your sex life a boost.

Not many people would be able to get me to publicly perform a sexy catwalk. But within the first five minutes of STRUT, it’s clear that Madam Storm has a special gift for creating a safe, empowering environment that glows with sisterhood. We stand in a circle and introduce ourselves, clapping reassuringly at each other’s backstories. One woman has just begun chemotherapy. Another is going through a bad break up. Others are there to celebrate a birthday. All are just as keen to support each other as Madam Storm is.

“In this class, we don’t say ‘yes’,” our teacher begins, dressed in a black leotard, over-the-knee velvet boots and a jaunty trilby. “We say ‘YAAASSSS, HONEY’.”

Over the next three hours, we learn six different ‘struts’ – styles of walking in heels that get progressively racier. Madam Storm eases us in with the ‘power strut’. “Every day when you walk out of the house, you’re on stage,” she tells us. “So put your phone away and own it. Core engaged, shoulders back, tits UP.”

We do just that, before learning variations: walking with our hands firmly planted on our waists, or swaying our hips for a sassier effect. It all comes with positive affirmations, led by Madam Storm, to a Beyoncé backing track. “I am powerful!” I shout as I stride towards my reflection, all hips, heels and hair flicks. “I am perfect.” I’m well aware of how hard I’d cringe saying these things in any other context – and increasingly aware of how that might be a problem.

We take a prosecco break halfway through, before things are taken up a notch. We repeat positive affirmations to our mirror reflections before trying out more seductive struts, which involve slowly running our hands over our necks, hips and thighs as we walk.

“The first thing you need to do to turn someone else on, is to turn yourself on,” says Madam Storm. “Don’t be afraid to touch yourself.” “I’m not!” shouts out one of the strutters, to much hilarity. Together, we explore our more sensual sides to soulful RnB, each woman’s strut met with enthusiastic whoops of applause.

But there’s one final challenge before we can kick off our stilettos (and we’re all starting to feel the burn). Madam Storm grabs a megaphone and, in pairs, we power strut outside to the Albert Embankment. A trio of drunk, older men leer at us from the next-door Wetherspoons, but there’s power in numbers and not one of us bats an eyelid. “What other people think of me is NONE OF MY BUSINESS!” we scream, in unison. Madam Storm holds the megaphone to my lips and I call out, “I am powerful,” into the grey, drizzly breeze. I’m finally starting to believe it. And I’m not the only one.

“Today has been really empowering,” says one strutter as we arrive back at the studio. “This is my third time going through breast cancer and looking at yourself in the mirror is really difficult. It’s not something you do when you have a cancer diagnosis.”

It’s a sentiment shared by others in the room. “I’ve had a lot of surgery and through that process I felt like I’d become disengaged with my femininity,” says another participant. “This is getting me back in touch with who I am.”

It takes courage to walk tall, especially in the face of life’s most earth-shattering curveballs. My afternoon at STRUT has left me in awe of the strength shown by these women. In their honour, I keep my heels on, and power strut to the Tube to begin my Saturday night. Shoulders back, core engaged, tits up. What other people think of me is none of my business.

Follow Madam Storm on Eventbrite here to be the first to know when more tickets go on sale.  


Meet the female DJs equalising the gender balance

At the front of the room, a long table supports a set of Pioneer DJ decks. Behind them are six women, joined by a string of headphone cables. Five listen intently as DJ Malissa, at the centre, demonstrates the basics of EQing – the art of balancing frequencies to smoothly mix tracks. A looped house beat echoes around the cavernous warehouse, bouncing off the polished concrete floors and whitewashed brick walls. It’s dark, save for colourful spotlights around the decks, and it feels like at any moment, the doors could open and the floor could flood with clubbers.

It’s the second session of a four-night, women-only DJ course taught at Studio 9294, Hackney Wick, by the founders of Sisu, techno DJs Melissa Kains and Lauren Reid – or Malissa and Lauryn Harper, as they go by on stage. Melissa founded the female DJ collective two years ago, following a women-led mixing course that she organised at the Southbank Centre in January 2017, where she met Lauren.

 “At the end we were like, we don’t want this to end,” says Lauren. “We thought, what if we made this a collective and did our own events? We could really punch through the scene and create a platform for women.” With Melissa at the helm, the group of women from the Southbank course did just that.

It coincided with a growing conversation at the time about gender imbalance in the music industry. Red Bull Studios launched a series of #NormalNotNovelty workshops for women engineers, DJs and producers in early 2017. Female-led DJ collectives began to spring up across London; non-binary record label Femme Culture launched in 2016 and female-led radio station Foundation FM was set up last November.

Drum and bass DJ and producer Mantra kickstarted 2018 with a New Year’s Resolution to book more female and black artists at Rupture – the night she runs with her husband Double O – noting that at 2017’s three biggest drum and bass festivals in the UK, 416 male DJs performed compared to just six female artists.

“Mantra opened the doors to what was bubbling under the surface,” says Sweetpea, a drum and bass DJ who participates in female-led workshops held by EQ50. “Female collectives create a safe space to learn tips and tricks about the industry, and do production showcases where you can bring in your tunes and get feedback. I probably wouldn’t go to a production showcase otherwise, because I’d be nervous asking questions. But when you’re around women it’s more chill.”

For Melissa, the need for Sisu came from her own difficulties in finding an environment to learn and practice in. “I’d been trying to develop as a DJ since the age of 17 and still wasn’t very confident,” she says. “I was around a lot of guys, essentially, and I only got to DJ at after parties doing a couple of songs. People were like, ‘you can’t DJ, get off’. But I was just learning. There was no space where someone would say, this is what you do. When you’re demeaned in that way, it knocks your confidence massively.”

Lauren had always loved electronic music, but before she saw the Southbank course advertised, she’d never considered DJing. “I’d been raving since I was 17 and I’d always watched male DJs – but never put two and two together. You have to see someone like you do it,” she says. “The first day of the course I was terrified, even to show people my music or to say that I wanted to DJ. I felt this deep, cringey feeling.”

That feeling, according to the Sisu tutors, stems from a general sense that DJ spaces are built by men, for men – sometimes literally. “I’m five foot two,” laughs Lauren. “DJ booths come up to my shoulders. These little things can make you feel flustered and skew your performance.”

Chatting to the girls on the course, it’s clear that this kind of imposter syndrome can put them off from getting involved in the scene – showing how invaluable initiatives like these are. “When it’s a female space, it just feels like you’re hanging out,” one participant tells me. “It’s easy to feel like your questions are a bit stupid when there are guys there too.” Any nerves or self-deprecation brought to the class are met with down-to-earth understanding, and there’s not a trace of ego in the room.

Sisu has taught around 50 women so far in DJing 101 – from sourcing and selecting tracks, to the technicalities of using software to mix, and marketing and promotion – in London, Bristol, Berlin and, next week, in Newcastle. Also running nights, radio shows and mix series, they’re part of a rising visibility of female DJs, and women DJs of colour, on the London club scene. Helena Hauff and Honey Dijon are both about to headline London superclubs, while Peggy Gou recently sold out Fabric and The Black Madonna and Josey Rebelle are regular fixtures on house and techno line-ups. It points to a growing global shift. Pitchfork reported that in 2018, female representation on international festival line-ups rose to 19% from 14% in 2017.

“People are starting to understand why more female talent is needed, and they’re starting to be held accountable, which is sometimes what it takes,” says Lauren. “But there’s so much more work that needs to be done. People with power and privilege need to open the door for those whose voices are unheard.”

How could we speed up the process? “A rise in female producers would be amazing,” says Melissa. “Programmers, engineers – more equalisation across the board.” Important as their visibility is, it’s not enough to see women purely on stage. It’s clear that equal representation must take place behind the scenes to ensure diversity is on the agenda at every level, ultimately creating a clubbing scene that works for everybody.

“Eventually, it would be nice if we didn’t have to have these conversations anymore,” Lauren smiles. “But if we’re one little piece of the puzzle, and what we’ve put into the world has resonated with a few people or has helped them, then that’s the point.”


Meet the woman leading Belgium’s cocktail revolution

The first time mixologist Hannah Van Ongevalle worked as a bartender “was horrible,” says the craft cocktail champion. “I had a very strict manager who said, ‘you’re never going to be good enough to be a bartender. You have to work in the cloakroom.’ He was very wrong!”

We’re in a speakeasy named The Pharmacy in Knokke, an upmarket seaside town a couple of hour’s drive west of Brussels. Outside, the pale sun sparkles off the beach house’s white façade and the North Sea – but step through the red, unmarked door and you’re met with a cosy warren of wood-panelled corners and velvet furnishings, glowing in lamplight. From each nook and cranny looms an antiquated piece of décor: a taxidermy peacock, a blood-red Chinese lantern, a tobacco-stained clock.

Before me is a concoction named Rudolph, poured with perfectly amber whisky, infused with orange peel and nuts and served in a triangular glass over a charred pile of cinnamon sticks, dried chili and star anise. As I take a sip, a subtle waft of smoke engulfs the glass and adds a wintry, bonfire-night aroma to the already-smoky drink.

This clandestine place won Belgium’s Best Cocktail Bar award shortly after it opened in 2014, and is followed by a new sister bar in Antwerp, which opened this January (with a similarly 1920s-esque interior, in a cavernous space above restaurant Danieli Il Divino). At both, precision is key to the cocktail-making artistry. Drinks at The Pharmacy can take months to design. They’re beautifully balanced, simply presented, and are finished off with details like an edible flower garnish and singular ice cube and minimally encased in ornate crystal.

Van Ongevalle was the first woman to win the Diageo World Class Belgian Finals, a prestigious cocktail-making contest that led her to the global finals. But her journey to mixologist stardom wasn’t one she took alone. Cocktail crafting flows through the veins of the Van Ongevalle family – Hannah’s younger brother Ran was crowned Best Belgian Bartender in 2014 and was the first Belgian to win a Bacardi Legacy Global award. He’s now based at Artesian, at London hotel The Langham – named the world’s best bar between 2011 and 2015. Back in Knokke, the youngest of the three siblings, Noa, is managing The Pharmacy for her father, Jan, who founded it with Hannah five years ago.

They’re an energetic, eclectic bunch, boasting 50 tattoos between them – Jan and Ran roll up their sleeves to reveal a cocktail stirrer inked on the forearm – and their passion is palpable. The bar shelves groan with Mexican mescals and Japanese whiskies sourced from afar, and unavailable anywhere else in Belgium. And the clan is more than willing to dip into their own supply at the first whiff of a family gathering. Alongside a handful of other bars in Antwerp and Ghent, the family is at the forefront of a growing culture of Belgian mixology.

Over the course of an afternoon with the Van Ongevalles, it becomes clear that ambition is as much a common denominator among the family as their love of an expertly mixed drink. “I wanted to win an Oscar by age 14,” says Hannah. It was her thespian-side that led her to her true calling.

“I was always a very creative child and needed an outlet, so my parents let me go to LA by myself at 14,” she says. “I didn’t get any auditions, but it was life changing. I came back thinking that everything is possible if I work hard.”

Hannah studied in London, then did her stint in the Belgian nightclub cloakroom before working her way into fashion in Paris, Amsterdam, and Nice. It was there that, in the blink of an eye, everything changed. Hannah’s French partner Guillaume was involved in a road accident that left him hospitalised for six months. “I went from trying to find my way to extreme survival mode,” Hannah says. Her father Jan had since become bar manager at the Knokke Casino, and offered her flexible work so she could frequently travel back to France. It was in those circumstances that she began to make cocktails.

A few months later, Hannah received a phone call that would change her life. “My dad said, ‘I want to open a bar. Do you want to join me? You have 24 hours to decide’,” Hannah remembers with a laugh. “My dad does everything in a rush.”

Six weeks later, The Pharmacy was born. Within seven months, Jan was encouraging Hannah to enter the Diageo World Class contest, despite her relative inexperience. “It was the first time a woman had competed, and I arrived pulling my suitcase in my heels,” says Hannah. “The other bartenders were like, ‘that’s so cute, is your boyfriend entering the competition?’ I said, ‘no, I am, and I’m going to be great’.”

Fortuitously, the theme of the first stage was Stars and The Theatrical – and Hannah caught the judges’ eye with a Cabaret-inspired performance. But it was her gastronomy-led approach that sealed the deal.

“For the second stage we had to buy ingredients from the market, so I thought, ‘if I want to win I need to do something a bit shocking’,” Hannah grins. “I bought an aged, greasy ham and put it in the shaker. Everyone was staring. Even my dad was mouthing at me, ‘no!’ But I presented it to them with a card trick, and slowly everyone started standing up and clapping.”

It won her the Belgian stage and cemented Hannah’s chef-inspired style. She believes that Belgium’s increasing interest in cocktail culture correlates with a renewed interest in food culture (a phenomenon she’s seen in London, Paris and New York, too).

“When my dad moved from fashion to bartending seven years ago, bars that had a couple of cocktails on the menu were seen as cocktail bars,” she says. “But now, people are more aware of what they’re eating and drinking, even in their own homes – with the gin and tonic craze, and TV shows like Come Dine With Me [or Komen Eten in Belgium].”

Hannah’s also been inspired by her travels since 2014, judging competitions and consulting in Mauritius, Martinique and Thailand, and working with local flavours that reflect her immediate surroundings, including chocolate and beer. “We have a beautiful portfolio of ingredients in Belgium,” she enthuses. “We have herbs growing in the dunes in the Zwin and work with local businesses that go out and pick them. I work with things from the sea: seaweed, saline solution, sea salt. Salty drinks won’t become popular in Belgium anytime soon, but when they do, I’m ready with 1,000 recipes!”

As a food-influenced mixologist, Hannah couldn’t be much better placed in the world – there’s a grand total of 22 Michelin stars within a 25-km radius of Knokke. Local esteemed chef Willem Hiele, who owns a restaurant in the region, was the inspiration behind one cocktail on the menu that’s close to Hannah’s heart. “I tried a fish dish at his restaurant last summer, made with prune, elderflower, goat yoghurt and basil oil,” she says. “I took a bite, looked up at Guillaume and saw a tear roll down his face. We started laughing because we were both crying at how good it was.” She headed home with a stack of prunes from the kitchen garden, distilled them into a syrup and added Riesling, vermouth and basil. “We put it on the menu and called it the Willem.”

All the non-alcoholic ingredients in The Pharmacy’s cocktails are created either in Hannah’s kitchen or in a local laboratory, where younger sister Noa is increasingly spending her time, distilling local flavours into clear syrups bursting with life (her family fondly calls her their ‘little nutty professor’). Hannah has also just set up The Motel: a training school designed for chefs to take cocktail-making courses, with the goal of raising the bar of drinks available in Belgian restaurants.

As for Noa, she’s already designed a cocktail for a global campaign by Bombay Sapphire and, alongside her sister, makes a promising antidote to Belgium’s male-dominated world of bartending – managing an older, often-male team. “Sometimes it’s a bit hard, when they have to listen to a 20-year-old girl,” she says. “I’m quite strict and people don’t like it, but I have to be – for the sake of the bar. I even tell my dad what to do. But he does it. He’s a good listener.”

Jan insists that his wife, Heidy, is the glue that holds the family together. But it’s him who’s constantly in the eye of the storm, his exuberant children whirling around him in a flurry of amber liquids and gleaming glassware. He’s also their harshest critic, keeping them grounded even as they’re making history. “I never give Hannah’s cocktails more than a seven out of 10 and I didn’t even want to hire Noa,” he says. “She’d never had a job before and we thought she’d be a quitter. She started at the lowest place, cleaning in the kitchen. But she’s the hardest worker and now she’s irreplaceable.”

It is the family’s charming dynamic as much as its vision for innovation that makes a visit to The Pharmacy so memorable. And with plans in the pipeline for another branch to open at the end of the year, this is only the beginning.