In his twenties, James Duigan slept on night buses. Now he has created a cool new gym that goes beyond the physical
It’s a sign of the times that what was once a local post office on Westbourne Grove, west London, has now become one of the most luxurious temples to fitness around. Not that James Duigan, the Australian founder of the Bodyism: Clean and Lean empire, had anything to do with the closure. (“It was five years ago,” he points out.) But now, there it stands: two floors of fitness and a cafe serving healthy food and bulletproof coffee (no milk, of course, just a dash of butter and coconut oil all blended together; yours for £3.50).
The global consumer health industry is expected to be worth £500bn by 2017, according to a report by Accenture. Bodyism is riding this wave. Thanks to a multimillion-pound investment by Duigan’s new business partners, Dogus Group, standalone Bodyism gyms are set to open in Miami and Los Angeles by 2017, and a UK chain of Clean and Lean cafes is in the pipeline, after the first outlet opened to acclaim in Fenwick Bond Street in October. However, Duigan, 41, whose starry clientele includes Hugh Grant, Lara Stone and the Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke, hasn’t lost touch with the real world. For while top-tier membership at the gym will cost in the region of £20,000 a year for unlimited personal training and group classes, he is also trying to organise community classes. “We’re talking to spaces in the local area where we can put them on for people who can’t otherwise afford it. And we’ll do a running club and hold nutritional talks in the cafe.” He’s also looking into a scheme whereby when you buy a coffee, you can pay for a second one for someone at a nearby food kitchen. “We’re a unique place,” Duigan says. “We don’t focus on what we do, but more on why we do it, and it really is to help people. That’s what makes me happy, and with Bodyism and Clean and Lean, it’s about finding the key to help people transform and change.”
It all sounds a bit earnest, but the thing about Duigan is that he genuinely wants to spread a message of a healthy lifestyle, which for him is about having a life well lived, in which you look after yourself inside and out, rather than pursuing a certain body-fat percentage and losing any sense of joy about your body. Food should nourish you and exercise make you feel strong. Duigan was in the vanguard of the anti-sugar brigade, and his books — a revised version of Clean and Lean Diet has just been published — have been international bestsellers. To hammer home the ethos, the message “Be kind to yourself” will be chiselled all over the outside of the building (both of his logos also appear, but in much smaller type). This has required special permission from the council, but the stonemason is booked to start this month.
“Our philosophy is what’s important, not the branding. We’re trying to bring mindfulness to everything — movement, food, thoughts. It’s so easy to get into a spiral of dark and unkind thoughts about yourself. It’s often why diets don’t work for people, because they don’t feel they deserve to be happy or that they’re not good enough. Without being too worthy, we just want to remind people that they’re great and deserve a happy, healthy life.”
So he’s helping all he can. The lighting expert Sally Storey chose full-spectrum lights for some areas not only to help everyone look their best, but also to replicate daylight and thereby improve wellbeing, stimulate mental alertness and lift the mood. Even the air is posh: it has been purified so that it’s oxygen-rich. The training itself will follow the usual Bodyism philosophy of using body weight and dumbbells, rather than sitting on equipment. “A treadmill is a deadmill” is Duigan’s philosophy; he would rather “bring life into the movement of movement”.
For this is a place where fitness is more about gentle encouragement than bootcamp. “If you were being mindful about what you were doing, you would never let someone in hot pants scream at you until you threw up. That’s not normal,” he says. “We will set an intention at the beginning of our classes. It won’t be a load of moralising for 10 minutes, rather setting out that you’re here to move and do something incredible for yourself.”
Classes include boxing, Pilates, ballet and his own style of yoga, with a maximum of 10 people at a time (a class-only membership costs £1,320 a year, which includes four classes a month), and there is interest in rolling them out across the country, particularly in Manchester and Birmingham.
In the wellness arena, the new face of luxury can’t be all about money; it has to have heart and soul. It’s about killing the competition with kindness, and Duigan seems to be a past master. Perhaps it has something to do with his life before he built his empire. He arrived in London 20 years ago, at the age of 21. “I had no plan for when I got here, so I had nowhere to stay and someone told me to head to Earls Court, as that’s where a lot of Australians go. I ran out of money pretty quickly and ended up having to sleep on night buses. And then I washed dishes in a pub for a couple of months, working there at night and sleeping on the floor. It was horrible and for a long time I was ashamed of it, but now I’m not, it’s just a part of what happened.”
Eventually, though, he landed a job at the Harbour Club, in Chelsea, and then went on to study massage therapy, nutrition and personal training, ending up working at a gym in Kensington, a job that has paid dividends. “It turns out the landlord of our new space was a member of that gym. I used to be really polite to him, and he remembered me and said I was lovely, so he has given us a shot. We’ve been outbid on the site several times, but he has stuck with us.”
How this new bastion of wellness will affect the gym market as a whole has yet to be seen, but with its vitamin infusions (administered by a nurse; they had to apply for a special treatments licence in order to offer this service), a “visiting practitioner” programme to “bring people we love from around the world” to offer their skills, a menu of hale, hearty and healthy food (even a wheat-free cheese toastie, for £6.50), and its own line of supplements, shakes and gym clothing, the chances are the competition is building up a serious sweat.