A Russian exile rebounds

LONDON: Evgeny Chichvarkin has been many things over the past two decades: a bilaire mobile phone retailer, a jetsetter who plays polo with princes, a wanted man in his native Russia, a political exile. These days he’s a shopkeeper – though at the kind of venture you’d expect from a man with his resume: a store with more than US$20mil worth of wine and spirits and customers that include A-list celebs such as David Beckham and Mark Walhberg.

Chichvarkin, 44, owns Hedonism, an over-the-top emporium that has shaken London’s staid wine scene since it opened in 2012. The place has a giddy, funhouse atmosphere. A chandelier of Riedel wine glasses hangs over a cast-iron staircase.

The walls of an alcove sprout dozens of hands, claws, and tentacles clutching bottles of Sine Qua Non, a California cult wine. A see-through panel in the floor reveals a gyrating mobile sculpture meant to look like tree roots.

The prices can be equally surreal: A £42,800 magnum of 1992 Screaming Eagle cabernet sauvignon from Napa Valley rubs shoulders with a 1945 Chateau Mouton Rothschild (£17,800). A nearby cooler brims with James Bond’s favorite bubbly, Dom Perignon, in vintages from the Roger Moore era (a 1973 runs £3,580). Patron Extra Anejo Lalique tequila in a French crystal decanter clocks in at £9,100.

“It’s the only wine shop I know where you’d spend less at the Porsche dealership next door,” says Jim Griffen, a former co-owner of Uncorked, a rival wine shop in London.

Despite the raised eyebrows, Chichvarkin has demonstrated the store isn’t just a vanity project for a rich expat with a penchant for conspicuous consumption. Hedonism earned a profit of more than £2mil in 2017 and Chichvarkin says he frequently receives offers to expand his franchise to Asia or the US.

The self-described “anarchist-capitalist” who plays polo with the likes of Prince William and Prince Harry has instead invested in fine dining. Last year, he and his business partner, British chef Ollie Dabbous, opened Hide, a 10-minute walk away, past the hedge funds and art galleries that line the streets of Mayfair. The three-story eatery, with a handcrafted spiral oak staircase, offers tasting menus from £115 to £610 per person.

Chichvarkin has invested £31mil in Hide and Hedonism, according to financial filings, and it could take the restaurant five years to show a profit.

“There’s actually not much difference between selling mobile phones and selling wine - retail is retail,” Chichvarkin says with a shrug in his Russian-accented English. “But restaurants? Whew. The economics in central London are difficult.”

Chichvarkin is deepening his ties to his adopted country even as many other wealthy Russians are feeling less welcome. When he fled to the UK in 2008, he arrived in what became known as “Londongrad,” a playground where oligarchs indulged their appetites for soccer teams, Georgian mansions, and costly claret.

Then in March 2018, British officials say, Russian intelligence agents traveled to England and poisoned a former spy and his daughter with a nerve toxin that killed a local woman and sickened two other Britons. Amid national outrage, the UK government last year expelled 23 Russian diplomats and cracked down on “golden visas” - residency permits for wealthy emigres who invest in Britain.

The authorities didn’t renew a visa for Roman Abramovich, the bilaire owner of the Chelsea Football Club and an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The rejection of Abramovich, who promptly moved to Israel, appeared to signal an end to the go-go playboy years of Londongrad.

“It’s felt like we’ve all been tarred with the same brush, even those of us who made a conscious decision to leave the country long ago,” says Katya Zenkovich, a Russian émigré and partner at the London real estate firm Knight Frank. “But Evgeny has reinvented himself as an Anglophile, and he’s not afraid to be very public.”

Chichvarkin flaunts his public persona with pride, spending many hours a week in the shop.

He twists the ends of his mustache into Daliesque points and typically sports outlandish clothes such as fire-engine red trousers, a faux-distressed white pullover with carefully curated holes, and curly yellow boots that might have been designed for one of Santa’s elves.

On a recent evening, a pair of twentysomethings ask him for a selfie. Chichvarkin complies, then pauses at a phonograph to drop the needle on The Doors’ “People Are Strange.” He cranks the volume. “That’s better,” he says.

His girlfriend and business partner, Tatiana Fokina, cuts a more restrained figure.

A former waitress and art gallery worker from St. Petersburg, Fokina moved to London in 2009 and the next year became Chichvarkin’s first hire for Hedonism. Today she serves as chief executive officer of both the restaurant and the wine store, and she helped develop a key part of Hide’s business model: Its wine list offers bottles from the store with no markup beyond a corkage fee of £40. Chichvarkin’s current ventures could hardly be more different from his first business, an electronics chain called Evroset. He built the company into Russia’s biggest mobile phone retailer, and by 2008 it was doing more than US$3bil in annual sales. Media reports estimated Chichvarkin, who owned half the company, was worth more than US$1.5bil. — Bloomberg

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