He liked The Ivy so much he ate it, and then went on to gobble up Le Caprice too. But the news that Richard Caring has now devoured London’s most famous nightclub, Annabel’s, has really got the old guard worked up. The FT reports that habitués of the Berkeley Square club, long the playground of the British upper classes and glamour set, are “in mourning”. They rue the feud that forced founder Mark Birley to sell and question the credentials of a buyer “who made his first fortune in the garment industry” and became embroiled in Labour’s cash for peerages scandal. What, they say, will become of the place?
Caring, it should be noted, was never actually in line for a peerage as a quid pro quo for his £2m loan to Labour. But with his coiffured locks, brite-white teeth and perma-tan, he hardly cuts the part of an aristocratic host. Indeed, his £90m acquisition of Annabel’s is depicted “as if council house rowdies were taking over a stately home”, says the Daily Mail. But this is snobbish rubbish. Annabel’s “faux country house atmosphere” is tired and its clientele is actually “no more eminent than Peter Stringfellow’s”. Indeed, far more pertinent than Caring’s social credentials is the question of where he got his cash, says Chris Blackhurst in the Evening Standard. It’s the sheer scale and speed of Caring’s buying that has made him the talk of fashionable London. “Money appears no object” (he pays over the odds) and Annabel’s is merely the latest in a string of trophy assets. As well as his London restaurants (he also owns J. Sheekey, Daphne’s and Scotts), Caring has snapped up Wentworth Golf Club, a chunk of Camden market, and the US Navy building in Grosvenor Square. True, he raised £140m last week through the sale of the Strada restaurant chain, bought from Luke Johnson for £57m in 2005. But this is “pin money” compared with what he’s been spending.
The standard line is that his wealth, put at £450m by The Sunday Times, derives mainly from his partnership with retail supremo Sir Philip Green (Caring is pictured with Green’s wife, Tina). But although it was through Green that Caring became noticed, and the two are reportedly as close as “brothers”, Caring was a player long before he became involved with Bhs and Arcadia. The son of Lou Caring, a US GI who settled in Britain to start a clothing business, he grew up immersed in London’s rag trade. By the mid-1980s he’d built a sizeable business, including a joint venture with Freemans catalogues, but it was his manufacturing base in Hong Kong that made the money, says Blackhurst. “He was the key fixer for major chains” wishing to source in Asia.
Caring has a flamboyant streak and “a predilection for the grand gesture”, notes The Sunday Times. His Hampstead house is a mini Versailles, and he presented Green with a red Ferrari Spider on his 50th birthday. Two years ago, he spent £8m shipping dozens of celebrities to a “Napoleonic Ball” in St Petersburg. Yet Caring is notoriously secretive about his own business interests. However, we do know his influence in retail is in decline, says the FT: he is no longer needed as a middleman and his main vehicle, International Clothing Designs, filed a loss in its last accounts. A near-death experience in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami (he was scuba-diving when the wave came) also convinced him to start spending his money on the things he loves – restaurants, apparently. His cash arrangements may remain a mystery, but “one by one, the gold dominoes are falling into his hands”.
What will Richard Caring do with Annabel’s?
Aristotle Onassis once danced there with Jacqueline Kennedy, and it is said to be the only night club the Queen has ever visited. But there’s no doubt it’s the end of an era for Annabel’s. Mark Birley, who founded the club in 1963, naming it after his wife, had vowed to keep this “exquisitely mannered and understated” piece of London history in the family, says the Evening Standard. He hadn’t bargained on a ruinous feud between his children, Robin and India Jane, which began when Robin hired a detective to investigate his sister’s boyfriend. For months, the investigator fed Robin – who paid £200,000 – false stories. Mark “suspected a dark motive”, sacked Robin and put the club up for sale.
Caring, a frequent visitor to Annabel’s with Philip Green, has been dancing around the club for some time, says The Sunday Times. He clinched the deal by vowing not to commercialise the business, yet such promises would seem to fly in the face of his “avowed instincts”. Annabel’s patrician members will be hoping that Caring will be “too preoccupied with the four other posh establishments that came in the job lot” (Harry’s Bar, George, Mark’s Club and the Bath and Racquets club) to muck around with Annabel’s. But at the very least, says the FT, they should probably steel themselves for “brand expansion” and “cross-marketing opportunities”. Caring has only ever given two interviews, so “divining his commercial intent is tricky”. But as he stated after buying The Ivy, he likes businesses with names that no one else can emulate. “The world today is brands.”