Byline: Edward Black
IT COULD be the High Court showdown of the summer. For decades the Birley family name has been synonymous with London's most high-profile clubs such as Annabel's and Mark's Club but now it is the subject of a legal feud between clothing tycoon Richard Caring and Robin Birley. Some are billing it as a fight to the death between the old and the new order. Mayfair has certainly never seen anything quite like it.
Representing the old order is Robin Birley, whose late father, Mark, sold the family club empire to fashion millionaire Richard Caring for [pounds sterling]90 million in 2007. Caring now runs such iconic London venues as Annabel's in Berkeley Square but has become alarmed at Robin's plans, unveiled to The Evening Standard, to build his own multi-million-pound private club on the doorstep of Caring's ventures in Shepherd Market, Mayfair.
In a bid to recapture the glory days of his lost family business Birley wants to put his own name above the door of his new venture. Not possible, says Caring, who feels that when he bought the Birley stable of clubs it gave him exclusive rights to use the Birley family name. Birley said he was "stunned" to receive a letter from Caring warning him that any attempt to use his own name for his own club would be illegal.
"My name is Robin Birley," he explains. "It never occurred to me I'd have a problem and I don't quite know how I'm going to handle it. I wish he'd [Caring] just called me and said, 'Can we talk about this over coffee or over lunch, talk it through?' "The last thing I want to do is be fighting a legal battle for the next year and a half. I want to focus everything I have into making the club a wonderful place for people. I'm mortified really, rather than angry. He's [Caring] basically sent a legal notice that he's going to take me to the High Court as of Thursday unless I stop using the name Birley in any capacity, including my own name. I cannot see how that's equitable and fair, quite frankly. That's very painful for me. I'm stunned."
Birley, who is married to Bryan Ferry's ex-wife Lucy Helmore, insists he has no personal truck with Caring or that his new club would signify any commercial threat to his rival's much larger empire: "I'm a minnow compared to Caring with all his restaurants and clubs, and good luck to him. I've met him a couple of times. I've got no personal rancour against Richard Caring at all."
Birley insists that the 2007 sale of the clubs did not cede control of his family name to Caring. "It's not true to say the name went with the clubs," he adds. "Caring bought a series of worldrenowned clubs, and good luck to him. It's five clubs he bought, each with their individual trademark.
So why is Caring worried about the Birley name? "Why? Because I think he's frightened. I can only look at it as a backhanded compliment. I could do without it, frankly. But I can only look upon it in that way. I think it's going to make very little difference to him."
The Caring camp insists that the 2007 sale did give him, and him only, the right to use the Birley name. Caring explains: "Robin cannot, in my understanding, open a club called Birley's because his father, Mark Birley, sold the brand and its properties for over [pounds sterling]90 million in 2007. We have no problem with Robin Birley opening a club in Mayfair. I have had no contact or approach from Robin Birley regarding his proposals for a club, despite him being fully aware of our prior registration of the name Birley's, which was done at the request of Mark Birley following the purchase of Mark Birley Holdings."
However, a Caring spokesman later adds, in a more conciliatory tone, "Subject to certain provisos, Richard Caring has never said that he would not be willing to discuss Robin using the name Robin Birley."
To add further spice to the story the 2007 sale of the club empire to Caring came against the backdrop of an extraordinary bust-up when Mark Birley sacked his own son Robin from running Annabel's a year earlier. …