This weekend the guys at the Ku Group are celebrating 23 years since they opened their first venue. For more than two decades Gary Henshaw and his team have been serving LGBT London across their venues which now include two world class bars, the West End’s only female bar, a state of the art Klub and a high-end cocktail bar. Dave Cross had a birthday catch up with Gary to talk all things Ku.
Hi Gary, happy 23rd Kuversary… does it feel like that long?
Obviously it is a long time. A lifetime and longer when I look at some of my staff that were not even born at the time. I have great memories from the opening night back in 1995, I remember it like it was yesterday.
What are the strongest of those memories?
That it was an instant success, it was a bar run by a young team for a young customer base with most of our customers under 25. I think that Little Ku has recently metamorphosed into its own version of the original venue on Charing Cross Road.
Can you tell us a bit of the history, how did you get to the point of opening the first Ku Bar?
I always assume that everyone knows and is bored of that old story, but recently at a staff meeting Scott my business manager suggested I tell my story to the current staff. They were not as aware as I had assumed of my background and how Ku came to be.
So tell Boyz readers, please…
In a nutshell: Born in Dublin in the 60s I came out in the 80s when homosexuality was illegal and the AIDS virus was making headlines as “The Gay Plague”. I became quite politicised from that moment and ran a gay youth group and became Ireland’s representative at IGLYO (International Gay & Lesbian Youth Organisation). I soon caught the travel bug and worked in gay venues from Copenhagen to Gran Canaria. Then in 1988 I took the plunge and opened my own bar in Ibiza called Catwalk. Three years later I arrived in London in 1991 and opened Village West One then Village Wardour Street – who would have thought it would become the gay hub of Soho that is known for today? I then went on to open Kudos then The Gay Tea Dance at The Limelight, which was a mecca for a lot of celebs. In December 1995, along with my business partner at the time, Michael Joyce, I opened Ku Bar at 75 Charing Cross Road.
23 years ago…
Deep breathe: January 2007 I took a huge, and pretty daunting decision and had to close Ku Bar Charing Cross Road, re-launching the brand new, and now iconic venue on Lisle Street. In 2009 I opened a second Ku Bar on Frith Street, now known as Little Ku. In 2011 I took over London’s lesbian venue, Candy Bar on Carlisle St which in 2014 renamed to She Soho and re-located to Old Compton Street.
23 years ago a lot of gay venues were still more underground, literally and figuratively, was it always the intention to do something much more open and mainstream?
In reality I always acknowledge that The Village (opened by moi) was the venue that changed everything. Big and proud and open windows. When Ku, Charing Cross Road opened we targeted the new generation of young gay guys that were hitting the scene in droves. Ku at that time became fondly known as ‘My first gay bar’.
Can you pick any highlights from the past 23 years?
Honestly, highlights have been far too many to mention. What I really love is that I am still in touch with many of the original team; indeed we had a grand re-union for our 20th anniversary and so many faces turned up, that was a definite highlight. Let’s see what the 25th brings…
How do you think the scene itself has changed in that time?
I think the scene is always evolving and changing; there are always challenges, right now business rates and rising rents are certainly an issue for all West End premises.
You now have a number of venues, including some that are very different from the popular image of Ku, can you tell us about them, first of all She and then Light Lounge?
What I am proud of with Ku and our different venues is that we really do cater for a wide range of customers. Our priority is always customer focused whether it’s She Soho providing a dedicated space for girls on Old Compton Street to party safely. Little Ku, a perfect pre-party and pre-Klub venue that might be little in stature but not in experience. To the Light Lounge our premium cocktail lounge that’s perfect for booking parties.
Surviving and in fact thriving after 23 years is a remarkable achievement, what do you think are the group’s strengths?
The staff have always been the reason Ku thrives. The customer experience is our focus, including modern contemporary designed spaces, premium brands at competitive prices and continuous investment to keep Ku on top form.
What are your plans for the future?
We are always on the lookout for a new opportunity so who knows, but we are currently focused on our existing bars and ensuring they are always fabulous.
What can we expect for the birthday weekend?
On Friday we will be celebrating at Ku Leicester Square with a free champagne toast for all at 7pm hosted by Vicki Vivacious. On Saturday we have another free Champagne toast hosted by Nieko at Little Ku and She Soho at 9pm. Plus there will be giveaways and all the venues will be open late in celebration.