Audrey Gelman, photographed in her newest venture, the Six Bells, in Brooklyn in June.Photograph by Gillian Laub.
In April, Audrey Gelman boarded a plane from JFK to Cleveland and drove about 75 miles to Berlin, Ohio, an Amish community of roughly 1,000 people, right near the self-proclaimed world’s largest cuckoo clock, a 23-foot marvel from which every 30 minutes a five-piece robot oompah band pops out to play Swiss polka music while a wooden couple dances. She checked into an Airbnb, ate a roast turkey and grilled country corn dinner at a communal table at Mrs. Yoder’s Kitchen and a slice of the famous strawberry pie at Boyd & Wurthmann. She was only there for 36 hours, to visit the Amish Country Pickers Antique Mall and the Walnut Creek Antique Mall, to source wares for the home goods store she was about to open. She picked a hand-painted wooden cow, no fewer than 20 butter crocks, and an industrial pushcart that she stacked with pieces of spongeware, which she has always loved. She rented a Mercedes Sprinter van, for which, at five feet and an inch, she needed a booster seat to reach the steering wheel, and began the 10-hour haul back to Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, where the Six Bells would swing open its little forest green door later that month. She almost made it with just two bathroom breaks (listening to a book on tape about the Mitford sisters), but she had to call it at the edge of the city. Gelman, about a minute pregnant with her second child, stayed the night at the Hyatt next to the George Washington Bridge.
This was about the 10th such trip Gelman had taken over the last nearly two years since she left The Wing, the all-female, WeWork-backed, pop feminist self-described coven of a coworking space that she cofounded in 2016. Gelman resigned in June 2020 as the pandemic set in, keeping all 12,000 of the company’s members at home and their annual fees—up to $3,000 per person—suspended. The Wing shuttered the 11 locations it had opened over the course of three and a half years, and, as TheWall Street Journal reported, Gelman laid off all but 84 of its nearly 500 employees. (A handful of Wing locations remain open, as do outposts of its imploded backer, WeWork.) At the same time, against the backdrop of the protests that summer, former employees, most of them young women drawn in by the company’s mission of being a “utopia” for “women on their way,” alleged mistreatment they experienced, some of which they said was by Gelman herself. And they called for change. That meant Gelman.
“I remember being pregnant with my son [in 2019], taking a flight to Los Angeles, where I was for three hours before I flew back on a red-eye that same night, and just thinking, I really wish that I just had a little store that sold things with, like, primitive cows on them,” she told me, pointing toward a faded antique wooden cow perched on a red arrow that the website says will “point you in the direction of the nearest cottage.” The store wouldn’t open for another hour or so, and morning light streamed through the gingham curtains. She’d lit Idyllic Morning, a vegan hemp-soy-based candle made by Cottagecore Black Folks—one of the store’s best-selling brands—that smells of a fresh clothesline. Gelman wore white overalls and a plain white cotton tee, her unstraightened hair clipped half up to reveal her bare face behind thick black frames. This was not the Gelman whose last magazine interview featured her on the cover, bump-cupping in a tight black power dress with a blowout and big promise as a master of the universe, under the cover line “The Women Building America’s Most Inspiring Businesses.” This was Gelman 2.0, minister of the Cobble Hill countryside. “Obviously, yes, the life I am living now is really different than the life I was living, but it was actually, it’s a life that I fantasized about before. It’s not a consolation prize, you know?”
The Wing, and life then, and the Six Bells, and life now, feel foundationally opposite and exactly the same. Aesthetically, the two spaces are diametric. If The Wing looked and felt like the most privileged, most online popular girl, then the Six Bells is her grandmother. The Wing’s workplaces cropped up amid that pussy-hat moment of the hyper-perfect Instagram grid, when FOMO reigned and everyone sold perfection and order and access, the most curated lives you desperately wanted to exist in—yet it was a cultural moment of disorder, chaos. The Wing is where the New York Times Style section sent a reporter to watch what everyone assumed would be Hillary Clinton’s victory in 2016 and, ultimately, where she found a soft place to land in her post-defeat press tour. The Wing was brazenly girly (though Gelman insisted otherwise to Architectural Digest), devoid of clutter, pitch-perfect for the only New York era in recent memory that anointed the try-hards as cool. In Wing sprach, it was intentional. “Our inspiration was the apartment of a really cool Danish artist you wanted to make your best friend,” Gelman told Architectural Digest as the first Wing location opened its doors. Vogue followed her as she and her partner scouted spots for their Paris location, calling The Wing “a perfect, jealousy-inducing blend,” the spatial, cool-girl equivalent of a letterman jacket.
Walking into the Six Bells, on the other hand, feels like taking off your bra the instant you get home. Tucked into a real-life block of nondescript brokerage firms and dry cleaners is the charming fictional village of Barrow’s Green, which Gelman made up, and that is where the Six Bells—both real-life and fictional—is doing business as a “country store of homewares from a world far away,” as the hand-painted sign out front says. A corporeal metaverse for the so-called grandmillennials. Gelman has populated Barrow’s Green with a cast of characters to whom she gave backstories. Inside the store, she’s hung oil portraits she’s collected over the years to serve as avatars for the townspeople, with brass name plaques underneath to identify the likes of the town gossip, the businessman, the rabbi. The name of the store was inspired by a pub in Warborough, Oxfordshire, where several episodes of Gelman’s favorite British crime serial, Midsomer Murders, were filmed (she made a pilgrimage last year). A watercolor map of the town that she commissioned hangs nearby (an interactive version lives on the website). The store is strewn with feather-stuffed frilled cushions, tiny cups and saucers, floral dinner plates designed in Paris and hand-painted by artisans on the Amalfi Coast, mismatched paperbacks in primary colors that may disintegrate if you look at them too long, and enough block-printed linens and precious quilting to fill a farmhouse. The Six Bells sells the work of more than 40 independent brands along with antiques Gelman has selected on trips to Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania, Verona, Virginia, and the like. You can practically hear your mother saying, “Look with your eyes, not your hands,” and then, “Go grab that old quilt.”
“We have a motto that is written on a pillow in the store,” says Laetitia Gorra of Roarke Design Studio, who designed the Six Bells with Gelman after doing spaces for The Wing for years. She came onto the project almost as soon as Gelman came up with the idea. “ ‘Out with the new and in with the old.’ So that’s where we started.” Gorra settled on Farrow & Ball’s Cane, a cool yellow, wanting the walls to look like a memory of her grandfather’s living room in Normandy. The rest of the store’s colors—country red and forest green and mustard—were chosen to take people out of the whites and grays of the digital world. Gelman brought on Deva Pardue, a graphic designer who’d also worked with them at The Wing, to add what Pardue called a “handmade” feel to the branding, relying on book cloth and paper textures as backgrounds to make everything feel “intentionally imperfect, not made on a computer.” In a former life, teams would assemble 20,000-square-foot spaces, sometimes at the same time. The Six Bells is 600 square feet and, counting Gelman, employs five people.
Every design is a reaction to what came before it, Gelman points out. “There is such sameness and such a sterile quality in design right now, and this is a very intentional departure from that. There’s an alienation you start to feel when you look around and every coffee shop and dentist’s office looks identical, and it feels connected [to the] dystopia of the world.” She herself felt alienated by all the minimalism, she said. “I just wanted to create something that was the furthest thing from an NFT possible. I’ve always been interested in the idea of opening a door, walking through it, and entering into a different reality, and right now, you enter into so many spaces that are missing any texture or personality. I wanted to create a space that both lowered people’s blood pressures with a space and didn’t take itself too seriously.”
What Gelman does—be it the Six Bells or The Wing or a political campaign or a TV show—has never mattered as much in drawing people’s interest as the fact of Gelman doing it. She is an astute reader of rooms, a generationally gifted flack, a connector of people, willful enough in her control that before I had made a single call for this piece, I got a call from a mutual friend telling me that Gelman heard that I was writing a story about her. She is a storytelling capitalist and a builder of worlds who understands what her customers want before they know they want it—Don Draper if he’d put himself in the ads. She is pretty and rich, unfailingly pulled together, and friends with everyone you hate-watch on the internet. She is not a household name, but if the name Audrey Gelman does ring a bell, you have an opinion about her. She is highly conductive, radiating heat in the current era of guilty pleasure. “I can’t explain it,” she tells me when I ask her why she thinks people have such a strong reaction to her. “I guess I am just not for everyone.”
People started tripping over Gelman nearly a decade ago, when, at 26, she managed to wrangle all the downtown kids and New York celebrities to care about a snooze of a candidate in a snooze of a race for the New York City comptroller. No one had much heard of the candidate, Scott Stringer, yet all the great rags, from Page Six to New York magazine to Women’s Wear Daily, turned up to write about a fundraiser he held at the Maritime Hotel in Chelsea. “Not since Bloomberg banned smoking almost everywhere in town have city hall politics garnered so much interest among the downtown fashion set,” Vogue wrote of the evening. New York called it “the most hip fundraiser in the history of the office of New York City comptroller.” But nobody was there for the candidate. People turned up because of Gelman. She was a thing—Lena Dunham’s best friend who worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign, dated Terry Richardson (who has been accused of sexual misconduct, though he has said his actions were consensual), and followed the Stringer gig with a stint as senior vice president at the P.R. firm SKDKnickerbocker. “Let’s Go Mets” was tattooed on her inner lip. She listened to speed metal, wore Chanel and Jimmy Choo, and played a recurring role in Dunham’s hit HBO show, Girls, a wink of a cameo, as she plays opposite the character Marnie, who is said to be based on Gelman. After Stringer’s win, before she left politics and P.R. to start what would eventually turn into The Wing, TheNew York Times called her a “boldface name” in her own right, “dogged” in her pursuits, dubbing her “the Girl Most Likely.” She was everywhere, toggling between meetings and parties, D.C. and New York, a top contender in the Busy Olympics. She got tired of changing for events in Starbucks bathrooms, so she came up with the idea for Refresh Club, a practical place where women could access well-appointed locker rooms, maybe redo their hair, and meet up with friends between work and play. She brought on a cofounder, Lauren Kassan, who expanded the concept to make it more of an all-encompassing coworking space for women. The women went out to raise money alongside other millennial female-founded start-ups like Glossier, Away, and Outdoor Voices. All of them faced the headwinds of seeking funds from primarily male V.C.s and investors (that is to say, women receive less than 3 percent of all venture money invested in start-ups, closer to 2 percent in the last year). Amid the twin phenomenons of Donald Trump and the #MeToo movement, Gelman, like many women executives at the time, leaned in (reference intended) to a mission beyond the fundamentals. The cofounders renamed the idea The Wing to hearken back to Virginia Woolf’s notion that women need an entire wing to themselves, and the company began racking up millions of dollars from the likes of Adam Neumann at WeWork and Whitney Wolfe Herd of Bumble, Valerie Jarrett, Mindy Kaling, and Megan Rapinoe. Their “beauty rooms” were wrapped in a custom toile wallpaper of women hopping from taxis to race to yoga and school pickup. Conference rooms and phone booths were named after Lisa Simpson and Ramona Quimby and Christine Blasey Ford. The Perch, its café, sold wine from female vintners and a “Fork the Patriarchy” bowl. They hired women architects, hung women artists, booked women speakers from Serena Williams to Lorena Gallo (formerly Bobbitt). Keychains declaring “girls doing whatever the fuck they want” could be had for $15.
The world that Gelman built with The Wing, as we know, ended up eating her. Her knack for the narrative has been both her hook and her heel. People believed in what she was selling at The Wing so much that when the inherent tensions between capitalism and feminism pulled at its seams, too much had been stuffed inside of it, by her, by the media writing piece after piece about her and other so-called girlbosses of the time, that it could not contain itself. The resulting explosion was both general to the time and specific to The Wing. Gelman, like her contemporaries, was in the thrall of a toxic loop: In order to raise money, they needed to stand for something, be public facing, and hit incomprehensible growth targets. But being public facing and responsible for a mission greater than just creating extreme growth subjected them to intense scrutiny and to the higher standards they themselves had set. At times, it seemed like The Wing was a piñata with Gelman’s face on it, in part because she sold herself as a leader who could cure cultural ills.
In practice, tensions had been mounting since well before the pandemic. After the New York City Commission on Human Rights investigated the club in 2018 for gender discrimination, it began allowing members of all genders. (The investigation concluded the following year when both parties reached an agreement.) This was followed by an incident at the West Hollywood location when a white guest allegedly yelled at a Black member over a parking space. In the fall of 2019, the company hosted a series of community meetings about race, around the time Gelman posed for Inc. magazine’s Female Founder issue, making her the first visibly pregnant CEO on the cover of a magazine. In February 2020, she wrote a short piece in Fast Company admitting that she had erred in “selling a new version of a decades-old fantasy that didn’t account for the reality that running a company is messy, terrifying, and often chaotic.”
“When your product is community and the emotional and professional ecosystem that people create together, your work is inherently challenging,” she went on, “especially without the consistent self-interrogation of our own blind spots as white cis women—[this] has led to serious stumbles and outright failures.” The hardest part, she added, “was that these failures led us to inadvertently replicate some of the very social hierarchies we’d set out to dismantle.” Soon after, a New York TimesMagazine story raised questions about the company’s, and Gelman’s, treatment of staff, particularly women of color, who worked in hourly roles at The Wing. And then the COVID lockdown took hold. When The Wing posted on Instagram that it would donate $200,000 to racial justice organizations in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in June 2020, former employees continued to speak out about what their experiences had been like working with The Wing, from low-wage positions to unfair treatment, an experience that seemed antithetical to the public ideologies that Gelman and the company spent years building up. Gelman resigned as CEO on June 11, 2020, the week after her 33rd birthday, and issued a public apology. In the months around Gelman’s cancellation and resignation, a handful of other white women founders, including Steph Korey of Away, Leandra Medine of Man Repeller, Christene Barberich of Refinery29, and Yael Aflalo of Reformation, all stepped down amid similar accusations of racism and toxic workplaces. “It’s clear that there was a gap between the values we expressed publicly at The Wing and the day-to-day experiences our employees had working at the company,” Gelman told me recently. “Many of those complaints were centered around race, and I deeply regret the experiences these employees had at The Wing, and that they weren’t addressed appropriately. As the CEO at the time, the buck stopped with me and I take full accountability.”
She has taken the time to speak to former employees in what she called private and meaningful conversations. She maintains she is proud of the richness and specialness of The Wing, the friendships and relationships.
“It’s correct and important for people who are running companies and made the decision to take on that responsibility, knowing that it comes with the territory, to take responsibility for the mistakes that you’ve made and ways you’ve fallen short, and being a woman is not a shield or a way to shield from accountability around mistakes that were made.” At the same time, she explains, it felt like there was an idolatry that was part of the female founder mythology. She was expected to be both the engine and the hood ornament, someone once told her. “In terms of investors, employees, the media, there are mismatched expectations—and yes, different standards. And there are a lot of young women who are afraid to start companies because they think that is the price of admission.”
When Gelman resigned, she told the Times that she was looking forward to spending time as a stay-at-home mom. Which she did and she loved. She and her husband, Ilan Zechory, who sold his company, Genius, for $80 million last year, tucked into their home upstate. She is uncomfortable when, over the course of reporting this story, I ask her about the period of time between when she had left The Wing and started working on the Six Bells. I told her that I’d heard she sold her $3.3 million house in Brooklyn last year (this is true). I had also heard that she worked as a waitress part-time for three months at a diner not far from their home. (Also true. “I wanted something to do and I knew the women there, and they were like, ‘Come on in.’ ”) Her husband went back to school to become a practicing psychoanalyst.
She was alienated and at home, for the first time—along with everyone else. The hustle-culture sterility gave way to a slow era of cozy pandemic maximalism, one in which those grandmillennials wore nap dresses on Zoom calls in homes outside of cities that they absconded to for months on end. She would read her son a book, It’s OK, Slow Lizard, about how all these animals are so anxious and going as fast as they can and doing a million things, and then there is this little lizard there reminding them that there is a different way to live. “I became very into that, philosophically.” So Gelman built a world around that feeling, albeit one in which everything was for sale.
The Six Bells was the productive application of hundreds of hours of reading through stacks of G.K. Chesterton and Anthony Horowitz and watching all the British crime shows there ever were. Gelman and Pardue hired an Irish illustrator named Niamh Langton to draw a map of the town that would be interactive, where people could scroll over the different locations and click on characters. She says she didn’t know this at the time, but Walt Disney’s first illustration of Disney World looks very similar to the Six Bells’ interactive map. She showed me a photo of a brass plaque hung where you walk into Disneyland that reads, “Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy.” So, yes, it’s a commercial enterprise. “But in some ways,” says Gelman, “that is secondary, because you are so absorbed by the storytelling.”
There is a snapback to reality from running a company on the unicorn track, managing tens of thousands of square feet of real estate and hundreds of employees, to stocking antiques and baskets in an eensy neighborhood storefront. But the smallness so far suits her. “There is a grinding pressure that comes along with growth and scale, and it can end up degrading things that begin small and special, and I did want to resist that here.” There are the things that you think are going to make you happy, she said, and the things that actually make you happy.
So far, customers seem happy to be in her world again, even if they don’t want to admit it. In a piece for The Cut, writer Danielle Cohen wrote that she “rolled my eyes so hard my eyeballs just about left my skull” when she heard about the concept. “Drawn in by the prospect of hate-browsing this problematic fairy tale/brand concept,” she continued, “I soon came to the realization that, actually, I would very much like to buy some of this stuff [and]…frankly, I’m ready to move in.” The Cut posted the story to its Instagram referring to Gelman as “disgraced founder,” prompting scores of comments about how harsh the tone of the post was. (The word disgraced has since been removed from the post without a note.) The antiques sold out so fast—the first week—that she had to make an emergency trip to Virginia to restock. So, too, did the little soaps made to look like purple grapes, made by a family that’s been crafting soap in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli since 1803. Online shoppers are spending more than their in-store counterparts, and they have hailed from faraway lands: Plano, Texas; Birmingham, Alabama; Perkiomenville, Pennsylvania; Winooski, Vermont; and Bremen, Maine.
Just as the Six Bells aesthetic of quarantined ladies needlepointing in their gardens supplanted the aspirational perfectionism of The Wing, so, too, tastes will shift again. “I actually think the aesthetic of the Six Bells is rooted in changelessness,” Gelman told me, “which is why it supersedes trend.” In June, she hosted the Six Bells’ first summer fête at Inga’s Bar in Brooklyn Heights, where editors and writers from Architectural Digest,The Wall Street Journal, and Vogue, brand founders, and friends of Gelman’s drank orange ginger spritzes and solved a semi-immersive mystery hosted by the Barrow’s Green town gossip, Ursula Lumley. Another gathering is planned for the fall. She isn’t thinking about opening a second location yet, though she’s not not dreaming of what’s next. The Vermont Country Store, a company she has loved since she was a child, comes to mind. According to the map, Barrow’s Green has a fictional inn, which begs the question of whether Gelman could open a real one. “I think the way to evolve and grow a brand like this is through new forms, and not necessarily through changing the product to shift to whatever the new tastes emerge,” she says. “I’m approaching this with a different mentality.”
Jerry Falwell Jr. was the Trump-anointing dark prince of the Christian right. Then a sex scandal rocked his marriage and ended his lucrative stewardship of the evangelical education empire founded by his father. In a series of exclusive interviews, Falwell—accompanied by his wife, Becki—describes the events that led to his ouster, their fallout, and why he’s finally ready to admit he never had much use for his father’s church anyway.
Prices are ballooning as an influx of city dwellers subsumes the East End. “There’s so much money now it’s nauseating,” said one longtime homeowner. “I’m a 1-percenter. But I bear no resemblance to these people.”
The 26-year-old turned herself in this week following a search that captivated certain corners of New York. Her lawyer argues she’s being overcharged, and the case seems destined to become the latest front in the ongoing debate over criminal justice in the city.