Photos — Maurice Haas Date — 24 May, 2011
Even today he can still feel the sense of pride that accompanied his first IWC steel watch, a Portuguese bought second-hand and paid for in installments
His building on the Greenwich Village waterfront is a monument to modernity. His office occupies the same sort of surface area as a tennis court. His desk could comfortably seat 16 people for dinner. The walls are hung with the trophies of modern riches: Basquiat, Prince, Hirst and Doig.
At one end, sliding doors, which move noiselessly at the touch of a button, open to reveal the 21st-century secular riposte to the scriptoria of medieval monasteries. From shortly after dawn until long after dusk, pretty fashionable young women and equally pretty fashionable young men toil at desks; pore over detailed architectural drawings and models; bustle busily between meeting rooms loaded with moodboards and fabric swatches; and from time to time tread awestruck into the sepulchral space of their employer, to which they refer as the throne room.
And indeed he behaves like an Absolute monarch of the 18th century or a Renaissance prince. He regards himself as the ultimate expert in everything: an arbiter of taste, a financial genius, a networker par excellence, a modern Maecenas, and to be fair he has risen far and fast.
The many laudatory newspaper clippings and hagiographical magazine articles tend to say that he started work as a banker twenty years ago and this is almost true. His first job was indeed at a prestigious finance house, but he worked in a humble role in IT, spending his days sorting out computer glitches and telephone problems for young men not much older than him but much better paid. He wanted what they had: the clothes, the cars and the watches, particularly the watches … even today he can still feel the sense of pride that accompanied his first IWC steel watch, a Portuguese bought second-hand and paid for in installments.
And then, he got lucky. A friend of his got involved in a dot com start up, and needed someone to help him tweak the hardware. They sold out before the bubble burst and he made enough from his tiny percentage to buy a flat, give it a lick of paint, lay a new carpet, and put in a power shower. His stroke of genius was to buy a huge, and hugely expensive flat-screen television, bear in mind this was 1998, which he bolted to the wall of the flat’s tiny second bedroom and called it a “media room”. He put it on the market and it sold within a week, netting him a handsome profit. He then bought a bigger flat into which he put a bigger TV and sold that for an even bigger profit … he was off to the races.
After that it was but a short journey to buying sites and working with named architects to create what in real estate jargon became known as “landmark developments in intelligent contemporary urban living”; translated into English this means glass-sided apartment buildings with carbon fibre detailing and more electronics per square metre than NASA needed to put a man on the moon.
He became synonymous with a new kind of opulence: blending good design and the highest quality finishes with the sort of residential theatre that allowed rich young bachelors with boring but highly salaried jobs to feel like they were appearing in their own Bond movie, every time they crossed the threshold of their remote-controlled apartments.
A clever man who saw which way the wind was blowing he has always managed to be just that bit ahead of the trend: not so far ahead as to be challenging, but far enough to become profitable. From his initial idea of a small flat with a big TV he has managed to build a global company with offices in London, New York, Hong Kong and Dubai.
Of course the crash has set him back a bit, he has had to shelve plans for a chain of sleek contemporary boutique hotels under his own name and the expansion of his nascent jet-and-yacht-refitting business has not been as swift as the business plan envisaged, but things are far from tough, these days he no longer has to buy his watches pre-owned, he has several safes (remote-controlled and voice-activated of course) of them and his current favourite toy is a rose gold Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar Digital Date-Month … and, although he has built his fortune on remote-control homes in which the owner barely has to lift a finger, he takes an unfeigned glee in the manual operation of the push pieces of the flyback column wheel chronograph with his own digits.
Nicholas Foulkes is an author, historian and journalist. Over the last 15 years his writing has appeared in most of Britain’s national newspapers at one time or another. He is a columnist on Country Life and the Luxury editor of GQ. His most recent book, Gentlemen and Blackguards – Gambling Mania and the Plot to Steal the Derby of 1844, is published by Orion Publishing Group