GILDING THE IVY; A Formerly Reclusive Multimillionaire Has Suddenly Stepped into the Centre of a Social Storm: Buying the Ivy Restaurant Throwing [Pounds Sterling]8 Million Parties in Russia and Lionising Clinton. What on Earth Has Come over Richard Caring, Asks Paul Palmer

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Byline: PAUL PALMER

By any standards, a grimy, former steel plant in the heart of smokytown America would appear to have little in common with an extravagant [pounds sterling]8 million party in St Petersburg thrown by one of London's richest men. The host of the sumptuous charitable ball in Russia just before Christmas was Richard Caring, the British clothing multimillionaire who, in less than a year, has gone from anonymity to being one of London's most high-profile figures.

Caring's personal fortune is conservatively put at around [pounds sterling]300 million. The real figure could be more or less. 'I think the Sunday Times Rich List vastly underestimates his fortune,' reveals a source high up in the retail industry.

'I think the real figure is at least two or three times what they suggest.'

But no one, apart from Caring, really knows. What we do know is that even before November's Russian extravaganza, of which more shortly, this dapper, sleek-haired Londoner bought three of the city's top celebrity restaurants: The Ivy, Le Caprice and J Sheekey. The cost to Caring: [pounds sterling]31.5 million, in cash.

But no sooner had Caring taken personal control of The Ivy, than this elusive businessman became the subject of controversy among Ivy perennials such as Sir Elton John, Joan Collins and the Beckhams. The reason being claims that Caring is planning to open a private members' club in the function rooms above the restaurant, charging [pounds sterling]1,000 a year for membership.

What has put the regulars' noses out of joint is the suggestion that members of Caring's new Ivy Club would get preferential treatment in booking dinner tables in the main restaurant downstairs. One regular claimed: 'Everyone is mortified.

The regulars are all stars who can always book the table they want whenever they want. The idea that members will get priority table bookings goes against the whole ethos of The Ivy.' 'It is a rich man's folly,' commented another insider. 'He paid a very high price for it, for the pleasure and kudos it will give him.

Once you have all the basic things you need in life, then you start wanting more exotic accoutrements. It is all about vanity.' Others are more sanguine. Ronnie Wood, the Rolling Stones guitarist and portrait painter, who was commissioned to paint a triptych of The Ivy crowd, says, 'The Ivy has always been a private party - that's the reason everyone goes there.'

Whatever happens to The Ivy - and, as Wood says, its A-list regulars are hardly likely to boycott the place - this latest row has established Caring as one of London's most intriguing figures.

Not least because of his ball in St Petersburg. It saw 450 of his close friends and business associates, all donating [pounds sterling]5,000 a head to a children's charity, flown out on private and chartered jets for a weekend of Tsarist indulgence.

The ball is described to me by one guest as 'the party to end all parties'.

The eclectic guest list included former US president Bill Clinton, Elizabeth Hurley, Cilla Black, Sir Cliff Richard and Caring's close friend and longstanding business associate, Arcadia high street billionaire Philip Green. Even by Green's own extravagant standards - his 50th birthday party three years ago cost [pounds sterling]5 million with Tom Jones and Rod Stewart performing - Caring's Russian adventure was impressive.

At Caring's party in Catherine Palace, the vast former royal country estate outside St Petersburg, there was pre-dinner champagne and, according to one guest, 'huge' caviar canapes. They were served in the exquisite Amber Room, the dazzling salon now recreated after the original ornate wall coverings disappeared during the Second World War.

Dinner was in the adjacent ballroom.

It was, in fairness, all for a good cause: the entire extravaganza may have cost, by Caring's own admission, over [pounds sterling]8 million. …