Let's pretend that you're a globe-trotting plutocrat with a few spare billion. You own a private jet, spend weekends on a large yacht, and knock around town in a fleet of noisy supercars. You drink at Annabel's and Tramp, spend Christmas at Sandy Lane in Barbados, ski the pistes of Gstaad or St Moritz, and disappear to St Tropez for August. You enjoy high living, and don't care if people think you've got more money than sense.
In this most rarefied of modern circles, you can have everything going, yet you will be rendered a nobody by the lack of one crucial accoutrement: a hi-tech, luxury flat created by two young property developers called Nick and Christian Candy.
The Candy Brothers, as they are known, are not celebrities in the sense that they can walk the streets of Knightsbridge and draw little more than the occasional, knowing nod. But in recent years, their impact on our capital city, its skyline and its soar-away cost of living has been little short of stratospheric. Candy and Candy are the property barons behind pretty much every piece of high-profile, high-end real estate built in booming London during the past decade.
Brash, self-confident and inscrutable, the thirtysomething brothers have a very simple role in life: they create fantasy homes for people with limitless budgets. Their trademark properties boast the style – if that's the correct word – of a Mayfair hotel, the technology of a James Bond automobile and the "lifestyle solutions" – concierges, health clubs, and the like – of a top-end holiday resort. Their properties look and feel as if an adolescent boy has been told to create his ideal home.
Cross the threshold of a Candy Brothers flat – they also fit out boats, planes and cars – and you won't just glimpse how another half lives; you'll step into a parallel universe. Wallpaper is hand-painted Italian silk; floors are rare marble. Lights dim automatically. Fitted furniture is made from rare, exotic wood. The air-conditioned rooms smell of a combination of expensive leather, scented candles and opulent fresh flowers. It is, to those properly versed in such things, the smell of serious wealth.
Behind £4,000-a-roll wallpaper, you'll find state-of-the-art technology. Bathroom mirrors might turn out to be a video screen on time delay (allowing you to perform a 360-degree turn and answer that age-old question about whether your bum really looks big). A Candy home is extraordinary – and proof, if it were ever needed, of that old adage that money can't really buy you class.
Little wonder, then, that Nick and Christian Candy's grandest designs make constant headlines, usually involving pound signs. Last year, a single flat at One Hyde Park – their Richard Rogers-designed tower block opposite Harrods – was reported to have been sold for £70m. The real figure was closer to £75m. Though it's scheduled to be a building site till 2010, the development is now 60 per cent sold.
This week, they were back in the news with another, even more jaw-dropping deal. On Thursday, their firm CPC – in conjunction with the Qatari government – paid a staggering £959m for Chelsea Barracks, the former military headquarters built on a 12.8-acre slither of land near Sloane Square in Chelsea. According to breathless reports, the brothers intend to transform the site's collection of 1960s pre-fab buildings into 2,000 flats.
At £75m an acre, it will be far and away biggest residential property deal in British history; a statement of testosterone-fuelled self-confidence. It will also transport Nick and Christian Candy further into the public realm, cementing their place as two of Britain's most alluring celebrity entrepreneurs: the up-and-coming Richard Bransons, Alan Sugars, or perhaps Mohamed al-Fayeds.
All told, the brothers now own 20 acres of prime real estate in central London, mostly in Westminster, including the former Middlesex Hospital just north of Oxford Street, and the Grosvenor Waterside complex in Chelsea. Globally, they also own sought-after tranches of Qatar, Monaco and Beverly Hills. According to the so-called "power lists", their global business portfolio is worth anything up to £13bn.
Not everything about Candy and Candy is entirely straightforward, though. Having sought a high profile in the early stages of their career, the brothers have lately refrained from interviews, perhaps deeming it incompatible with the secretive world of billionaires in which they now move. Their business, meanwhile, appears opaque – controlled through a complex web of 15 companies, many in tax havens such as the British Virgin Islands and Gibraltar.
Some rivals have questioned how they became quite so rich so quickly, and have wondered who has been providing backing. Their latest blockbuster deal was oiled by Sheikh Hamad, former foreign minister and now emir in the unlovely government of Qatar. To others, however, the Candy corporate structure merely represents good business practice. Indeed, a two-year investigation into their affairs by the Inland Revenue concluded that they were no crooks: a statement issued in October last year said that it had now been settled – to the satisfaction of both sides.
Either way, the Chelsea Barracks deal does raise pertinent questions. How, for example, can a stagnant property market, in a nation on the brink of economic slowdown, support such financial sabre-rattling? Should a Middle Eastern regime with, at best, questionable credentials, be allowed to gain part-ownership of a prime London location? Does a city with a chronic shortage of affordable homes need yet another ghetto for billionaires? And who really are the buccaneering wheeler-dealers who have made it all happen?
On paper, the Nick and Christian Candy success story makes fascinating reading. But it isn't quite the rags-to-riches fable that they might have you believe. Nick was born in 1973, Christian in 1974, and both went to public school in Epsom. After university, Nick (the smooth, bullish one) went into advertising; Christian (the dry, introverted one) got a job in the City.
They started their business, so the story goes, with a £6,000 loan from their grandmother, which they used to help to buy, do up and sell a small flat in Earl's Court, at a vast profit, in the late 1990s. After that, they began buying and selling other properties, spotting a gap in the market for top-end boltholes, with gadgets and attendant security features, aimed at the nervy, super-wealthy international elite moving to London.
In business, timing is everything. In that respect, Nick and Christian Candy hit the jackpot. At the start of the millennium, they catered to one of the highest-spending, fastest-growing social demographics in history: HNWs, or "high-net-worth" individuals. These people, an assortment of oligarchs, Arabs and hedge-fund billionaires, wanted (and still want) properties that are unthinkably flash, reassuringly secure and occupy the most desirable urban sites on earth. And they don't care how much they pay for them.
"Candy and Candy are the biggest arrival in the property industry this decade," said Giles Barry, editor of Property Week, recently. "The establishment has turned its nose up at them, saying that they are too young, and that they overpay for sites. But at the same time, it's secretly envious of their success."
Today, the brothers' firm, which will both sell ready-fitted properties to the HNWs, or redecorate their existing properties, occupies rambling offices a stone's throw from Harrods. Acquaintances describe their business manner as a touch "wide".
"They've spent a lot of time hanging around with very wealthy people, and their rise has been in complete parallel with the large influx of Russians and Arabs," says one friend. "It rubs off on the homes they build, which come with their own nightclubs, bars, health clubs and concierge service. Buyers are obsessed with security and want to live in a hermetically sealed world. They're the sort of people who would like the congestion charge to be £100 to keep out the riff-raff."
As to how they work, business associates describe an operation that is "super slick". According to an agent at Savills, their 100-strong team of employees consists of an exotic collection of designers, interiors experts and "research and development" teams who make gadgets. "They surround themselves with the kind of smooth operators you'd get working for a Formula One team," he says. "Nothing in their dealings is left to chance. They've rewritten the book about how you carry off a property bid. Their attention to detail, level of surveys and investigation into the market are extraordinary.
"When the Candy brothers bid for something, they'll probably know more about the site than the existing owner. That means they can exchange contracts very quickly. They've had deals worth hundreds of millions through in 72 hours. Most people struggle to sell a £200,000 flat in 12 weeks."
Behind this undoubted "front" the brothers remain something of a mystery. They are tax exiles in Monaco, and their normal working week includes a stop-off at offices in the Channel Islands. Nick recently split from his long-time girlfriend, an Italian interior designer called Brigitta Spinoccia, formerly the firm's creative director. Both brothers are footloose and fancy free.
The only cloud on their horizon is the potential global downturn. Yet their reliance on the super-rich could actually turn out to be thing that sees their firm through difficult years ahead. "They deal in 2,000 to 60,000 properties, and I'm talking square feet, not pounds," says an associate. "If you're spending five mill on a posh flat, which most of their customers are, you're part of an international elite that hasn't been touched by recent wobbles. In fact, if I could buy shares in the Candys, I'd fill my boots. The HNW world is a wonderful place – and they are its painters and decorators." Nice if you can afford them.
A Life in Brief
Born Nicholas Candy, 23 January 1973, Surrey. Christian Candy, 31 July 1974, Surrey.
Early lives Christian graduated with a business management degree from King's College London in 1996. Began work as a commodity trader. Nick Candy studied human geography at Reading University. Moved to auditor KPMG, then in to advertising.
Career Brothers began to invest in luxury property in the late 1990s. Their firm, Candy & Candy, worked with architects including Richard Meier, Lord Richard Rogers and Lord Norman Foster. Now have building projects in the US. Christian has also founded property trading group CPC Group, in 2004. In the same year, the brothers paid £150m for a flagship development, One Hyde Park, in Knightsbridge.
He says Nick Candy: "We've also got a Rolls-Royce Phantom. We've had Ferraris, Aston Martins, Porsches. We've probably got about 10 cars."
They Say "Candy & Candy are the biggest arrival in the property industry this decade." Giles Barry, editor, Property WeekReuse content