Smoke in the lipstick jungle

In a man-free zone in Sukhumvit, freshly manicured hands clutch Cuban cigars and single malt whisky By Miriam Bentham

It's not often you see the words empowerment and manicure in the same sentence, but the invitation informs me this is not your average social gathering.

ladies’ night: The Lipstick Society hopes to offer a different outlet for empowered women.

The Aug 2 launch of the Lipstick Society, a self-styled "ultimate ladies night", is taking place at Whisgars bar on Bangkok's Sukhumvit Soi 23. Whisgars is a low-lit, rather masculine location that draws in mostly-male crowds with its unrivalled selection of rare single malts and hand-rolled, luxury cigars.

The event promises a glass of Prosecco on arrival, a complimentary manicure and cupcakes galore. More appealing than the freebies is the chance for women to drink whisky and smoke cigars, while talking business in a strictly man-free zone.

As I arrive at Whisgars, I have to push past groups of men reclining in leather seats outside, eyeing the endless stream of well-heeled women entering the building. They seem to be wondering why they're not allowed to go too.

Inside, manager Bo Galberki greets me, resplendent in an emerald green evening gown. She escorts me upstairs to the manicure room, which is teeming with well-dressed women. A generous mix of Thai and expatriate ladies of all ages talk and admire their freshly painted nails, surrounded by stands of excessively-iced cupcakes.

nailed it: Right and above, the manicures and bubbly serves as a precursor to the whisky and cigars.

This must be one of very few rooms in Bangkok with a bar, a bevy of attractive women, and not a man in sight.

One woman is unimpressed by the snacks on offer. "I already baked 16 cupcakes today with my six-year-old twins," Sarah tells me. "I could really do with a steak."

It turns out Sarah hates more than just cupcakes. After working as a lawyer in the United States for 15 years, she came to Bangkok with her husband three years ago and has not been able to find suitable employment. She tells me of her anger when a woman at an expat group recently referred to her as a "trailing spouse".

"That term is so limiting and offensive," she says. "The experience really put me off those groups. But I feel like today is different, the atmosphere is not judgemental. It's fun."

I have to agree. One group of women are chatting away like old friends, but I find out they have just met. A mood of liberation is palpable, and I can't decide whether it's due to the absence of men or the free-flow champagne. Either way, it's not yet 5pm and the room is alive with introductions, reunions and camaraderie, all in a flurry of business cards and smartphone camera clicks.

Six manicurists sit at tables stacked with polishes and files. Those yet to be pampered are given numbers and wait to be called after selecting a shade of varnish from helter-skelter trays of glitters, neons and pastels.

A few minutes into conversation with Natalie and we realise we share both a mutual friend and a mutual distaste for networking events, and discuss whether this kind of gathering is really the right place to make contacts, considering the informal atmosphere. But soon we are eating ours words, along with our cupcakes, and have exchanged cards. Next, I meet two Thai women in their mid-twenties: Nicky, an executive at a removals company and her friend, Yui, a digital media executive. They tell me they love their people-oriented careers and came to today's event with the hope of meeting intelligent women, establishing a few contacts, but most importantly, having a good time.

The three of us agree the absence of men makes the atmosphere more conducive to new friends, and while Nicky has her nails painted, Yui follows up this observation with one of the many other perks for Thai women in a man-free zone on Sukhumvit: Not being mistaken for a lady of the night by foreigners.

Her nails freshly painted, Nicky has already made a new friend, Supawadee, who tells us about Photo Magneteam, her company that takes photographs at events and turns them into fridge magnets for guests. Her team is hard at work around us, and by the end of the night, I have an unsettling number of magnets of my own face.

I compliment Supawadee's friend, Ann Amanjidha, on the handbag she is carrying. It turns out it is one of Ann's own creations; she is a designer with a thriving business.

Over the next 10 minutes I meet five female entrepreneurs, each keen to offer advice on starting a business from scratch. I listen as the conversation gets technical. The new friends exchange numbers and make plans to meet up for a less-boozy discussion later that week.

A familiar face in the crowd, Anna Power, British expat and author of Bangkokgirlblog.com, tells me, "I have been to networking events before and been a guest speaker at a Business in Heels event, but this one seems to attract different people."

In a city that is often described as a playground for men, events that cater solely for women are rare. There are gentleman's clubs everywhere; Whisgars hosts its own elite men's club, boasting several influential Thai figures as members. While there are events for businesswomen and female meet-up groups, the women I meet here tell me these events do not appeal to a wide demographic and can be incredibly stuffy.

After a five-minute manicure, my nails have been expertly buffed and lacquered and I am taken downstairs to the main bar to sample what Whisgars is famous for. The shelves are stocked with rare, imported whiskies, many from 500-bottle batches. After selecting the Glenmorangie 10, I'm ready for a cigar. Bo unlocks a glass door and leads me into a tiny room full of miniature wooden drawers housing Whisgars' cigar collection. The room is refrigerated to keep the cigars at their optimum temperature and the smell of aged tobacco is intoxicating.

Even for a cigar novice, the decadence and finesse of the room are astounding. After selecting a cigar to match my whisky, I join the other women engulfed by small clouds of smoke. The sight of a Cuban cigar in one freshly manicured hand and a single malt in the other is something to behold.

I am introduced to Eddy Guerra, the brains behind the Lipstick Society, and tell him of my initial reservations about an event that promises both manicures and empowerment. "This is the kind of city that can make women cynical," he says.

Eddy goes on to tell me how his fiancee's frustration with existing ladies' groups made him personally aware of the city's need for an entertaining night for women.

He says he wanted the Lipstick Society to be the antithesis of stereotypical Bangkok ladies' groups. He describes one of the leading publications aimed at expat women as "miserable", referring to pages full of coping strategies for depression, stuffy event listings and boring meet-ups.

"I'm a firm believer that behind every successful man, there's a strong woman pulling the strings," Eddy tells me. Growing up in a large family in Miami, he wanted to recreate for Bangkok the sort of camaraderie he witnessed among the women in his own community; somewhere professionals could go, without men, to talk shop and feel good.

Eddy aside, Whisgars' senior staff are all female. They are whisky and cigar aficionados and are particularly knowledgeable when it comes to recommendations for beginners like myself.

Having this all-female crew on hand for questions and introductions bolsters the atmosphere of empowerment, and the fact they are all so tall only adds to the sensation of entering an enclave of Amazons.

In one evening, I met women of all ages from every corner of the world — CEOs, single mothers, models, business owners, writers and PR gurus. I left Whisgars buoyed by the promise of fledgling friendships.

While the Lipstick Society's key ingredients of booze, cake and beauty are stereotypical, the crowd it draws are not. Perhaps these are just the necessary icebreakers for any women-only group before the whisky and cigars come out and the business talk begins.

The Lipstick Society next meets on Sept 13, and I'm sure that by then word will be out that this is the sort of place where pampering and empowerment really can go hand in manicured hand.

About the author

Writer: Miriam Bentham