MOSCOW, Russia — The mid-winter frost on the velvet ropes at Imperia Lounge starts melting around 1 a.m. The line heats up when a shiny black Maybach pulls up in front of the bouncers.
The door opens and two middle-aged, bald men in suits and pointy shoes hop out. In Moscow, a $200,000 car parked out of sight is a $200,000 car wasted.
A 20-year-old model joins them, flicks her eyelashes, stiletto heels clicking on the icy pavement. Snowflakes shimmer on her sleeveless minidress.
Who needs a coat when you are in front of Russia’s hottest club that grants entry only to the hottest people?
The bouncers whisk them past the line of mortals, some of whom were dropped off around the corner by Zhiguli taxis from 1970s. Somehow, they aren’t at all annoyed by the unfairness of the line-jumping episode. They gaze at the three in absolute awe.
Here they are, just a few Prada moccasins away, contemporary Russia’s role models: the rich, the beautiful and the all-powerful.
The Russian economy might have dipped in the last few years, the ruble has weakened considerably and most of the billionaires who live here lost more money than some countries generate as GDP, but none of that matters at Imperia Lounge.
Talking about financial troubles has always been considered a social faux pas in Russia – even for people who barely get by – and for wealthy Russians it would be the height of bad manners to complain about money or haggle over the price of anything. What matters here is the ability to have the most fun with the money that’s left. What matters is one’s commitment to today. Tomorrows have always been uncertain in Russia.
And Imperia Lounge, one of Moscow’s hottest clubs and a newest product of the nightlife mastermind Aleksey Gorobiy, is the perfect place to spend money. It’s been around since the summer of 2010, which — in pre-crisis Russia — would have been too outdated and passe, but the global financial crisis changed the nightlife business. It also showed Russians that money might run out one day.
“There are still thousands of beautiful, fashionable, well-known, influential and wealthy people who love the night life,” general manager of Imperia Lounge Nikita Tataev said. “All you need to do is create a feast for them.”
The key to joining that feast, of course, is being able to get inside. And in Moscow, that means getting past “Face Control,” or as they spell it here, “feiskontrol,” a Russian invention with the sole purpose of deciding whether one’s face is good enough to complement the club’s stunning interior.
Imperia's front door opens slightly and out peeks Pavel Pichugin, or as he is widely known in Russia, Pasha Face Control.
Pasha is a local celebrity and a man of great powers. After all, he decides people’s social fortunes by declaring whether they deserve to be in the club, mingling with the rich or the beautiful, depending on which part of the “ideal Russian” formula one’s missing.
A popular song called “Pasha, Let Me into the Club” a couple years back described the desperation of women rated inadequate on the hotness scale. Pasha is rumored to have X-ray vision, able to — from across the road — spot unmanicured hands, cheap bags, crooked teeth or fake Dolce & Gabbana belts. Some girls change outfits several times a night and are refused entry each time. Pasha has an uncanny memory for faces.
On Friday or Saturday night about 1,500 people visit Imperia Lounge. Pasha controls the gender ratio, aiming for 20 percent more women than men.
“The ratio is quite logical,” said general manager Tataev. “Men are those who mostly spend money, and it's more fun to spend money when there are a lot of women around.” (The actual ratio on most nights is closer to 50-50).
By mastering the art of the mix, Pasha is — willingly or not — the ultimate matchmaker for some of Russia’s most demanding customers. For that, he is loved by hundreds and despised by thousands.
Contrary to his fierce reputation, it’s almost disappointing to see he doesn’t look intimidating. Medium-built, with light brown hair swept to the side and framing his roundish face, Pasha looks more Connecticut preppy than Russian nightlife-badass.
“Are you on the list?” he asks, probably a hundred times a night. The three from the Maybach enter the club. Most of the rest don’t.
Of course, there is no actual list.
It’s a way for Pasha to get to know his guests beyond what his X-ray vision tells him. “I am asking this question just to speak with people, to understand their mood. Are they going to spend money or cause problems?” said Pasha. “Even 10 seconds of discussion can show you a lot.”
Pasha says the chitchat reveals if patrons are too aggressive, too drunk, if they speak Russian or English (the rules get bent more for English-speakers because they are never as beautiful but they, supposedly, tend to have money). It also indicates if they are lying, or if they have bad teeth.
Pasha's expertise is teeth. He is a dentist by trade and when he is finally done being Russia’s No. 1 Face Control guru — which will be soon, he thinks — he wants to open his own clinic and improve people’s Face Control odds one incisor at a time.
For now though, he's paid $2,000 a night. Clubs gladly invest in expensive Face Control because each man Pasha hand-selects typically spends far more than that amount in table service, if there are enough beautiful women to impress.
"Women want to see successful, rich, handsome guys. Men want to see model-looking girls,” he said.
The real alchemy behind the success of Imperia is three-fold, according to management. First, is the club's interior. Imperia’s wall-screens feature 360-degree panoramic views of the world (200 different worlds created by 3D artists, to be precise.)
Second, the club has three different halls allowing guests to choose different music and entertainment programs.
Last, but not least, Imperia apparently attracts the most beautiful girls.
Natasha, a 25-year-old Muscovite, standing by the club’s main round bar in a fox-fur vest and a miniskirt, said that Imperia and rival Soho Rooms compete for the best audience in Moscow. She is hot enough to get in either of them without much door drama, but according to her, it was the Hermes Birkin bag she bought last year that opened the doors for her social life.
She has been carrying it everywhere — to work, on vacation and to clubs — because she only owns one expensive bag. Even though it’s big enough to pack essentials for an entire weekend trip — absurdly big for a night of dancing — it has its advantages.
Everyone can recognize it instantly. She can make it seem like she’s coming straight from work and didn’t really put any effort into preparing for a night out. But most importantly, as far as Face Control is concerned, an expensive handbag for a woman is like a Maybach or a Bentley for a man. It says she takes her clubbing seriously.
Natasha might have spent upwards of $10,000 on a purse, but once inside a club, she is no different from the droves of young Russian women from rural areas who come to Moscow in search of a better life, hoping a man would pick them and buy that $30 cocktail for them and like their looks enough to — maybe, just maybe — see beyond a one night stand.
Miguel Francis, an American who frequents Imperia, said that in clubs, “everybody is always on the hunt,” but men and women hunt for different things. While women typically think a club is a “place to display themselves and wait for somebody to buy them,” men typically just wonder, “Who am I going to go home with tonight?”
In that respect, clubbing in Moscow probably isn’t any different from clubbing anywhere else, said Francis, who has worked as a promoter in L.A. and Miami. But if you were to take any Moscow club and plant it into the U.S., it wouldn’t have the same results, he argues.
What is different here is the energy, the appreciation for design and beauty, the clear-cut gender relations, the open market on which beauty and wealth get traded blatantly and without apologies.
“Most Americans have a robot-like lifestyle. They always have a plan. Nine-to-five job, two weeks vacation, kids, then you die,” he said. “Russians live like it’s the last day of their lives.”