NEW YORK — As scouting trips go, Jamie Mulholland and Robert McKinley’s visit to Africa this summer was especially fruitful. But instead of looking out for wild game, they sought authentic objects and animal skins to outfit Cain, a new 3,300-square-foot nightclub opening in Chelsea next week.

“We didn’t want things that were obviously out of Africa, like shields and masks and spears and things,” explains owner and South African native Mulholland, who picked up 70,000 tribal beads to decorate raw wooden columns and seven zebra-skin pelts to upholster the bar. Mulholland, who has previously worked in managerial positions at Quo, Lotus and P.M., wanted his first club to evoke the game lodges of his homeland, while also acting as a watering hole for those willing to pay for bottle service and lucky enough to get the phone number, which will be given out to only about 500 people initially and changed every three months.

This story first appeared in the October 19, 2004 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“We want people to come in and be treated well and we want this really comfortable, warm, inviting environment,” says Mulholland, who will open the space with the help of three private investors. “If people come in the club, we shouldn’t treat them like, ‘You’re so damn lucky to be in here.’ We’re here to serve them.” To that end, there will be nine African-inspired drinks using exotic ingredients such as kaffir lime leaves and coconut. Among them are the Cape Grace, a vodka cocktail made with African honey and suspended basil seeds meant to look like the spots of a cheetah, and an unnamed variation on the Bloody Mary that will use grilled tomatoes, cilantro and jalapeno peppers.

For his part, McKinley, who designed the space at P.M. and has worked in the visual departments of Giorgio Armani and Donna Karan, added minimalist elements such as simple dark-wood tables and burnt orange banquettes to the overwhelmingly decorative space.

He also took inspiration from Yves Saint Laurent’s safari collection for the khaki-colored uniforms and, in order to protect the zebra skin on the bar, floated an inch-thick piece of structural glass over it. “You can walk on it, jump on it, dance on it,” McKinley says, no doubt aware of the fact that Cain has obtained a very hard-to-get cabaret license.

Given that fact, the centerpiece of the club is the DJ booth, a stone boulder that Mulholland and McKinley found in upstate New York. “It would have been so much easier and so much cheaper for us to build a fake boulder that looked identical,” says Mulholland. “[But] the elements about this club that are so beautiful is that everything is real, there’s no fakeness to it.”

Even the door knobs have a proven provenance: they’re leather elephant heads from Cameroon that are used to welcome new tribal kings and, quite appropriately, symbolize new journeys.

— Jamie Rosen

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