The rich, as everyone knows, don’t try to look rich. Real money has nothing to prove and no one left to impress. It is comfortable. It wears what it likes. There may have been a time when the tippy-top of the wealth pyramid had a distinctive look. Now it’s trainers in the boardroom and shorts for the $750 prix fixe dinner at Masa.
So we are told, anyway. It’s half true, at best. Tech zillionaires, Hollywood moguls, blue bloods of the Martha’s Vineyard waterfront, double-barrelled British gentry, oligarchs, King Salman’s assorted cousins. They have their own moments of insecurity, and images they take care to project. The status game never ends in total victory.
Dressing down is a status move, and at this point a more or less obvious one. Who is fooled by “stealth wealth”? What garment, exactly, is supposed to signal money more obviously than a vicuña wrap coat or a pair of Loro Piana Open Walks? A top hat and monocle? Give us a (very expensive) break. “Quiet luxury” is a kabuki performance of moneyed ease and indifference.
What the quiet luxury idea gets right is the importance of signals that only some people can read, little nods to people like you or, more likely, to people you would like to be like. To do their job, the signals have to be just subtle enough, and change when they become too widely legible.
Sometimes there are no signals at all, and even experts are left to guess. Paolo Martorano, a bespoke tailor based in New York, remembers a customer coming to a Palm Beach trunk show in a tank top and basketball shorts. He ordered a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of clothes.
“It’s pretty hard to tell” who has real money to spend, he says. Sometimes the opposite is true: a customer comes in wearing a bespoke suit, but “they only own one and they wear it to death” and they only buy one or two things. It used to be that serious customers only shopped during the week; Martorano now does a lot of business on weekends.
Accents, once a reliable class signifier in the British Isles, are no longer useful in assessing who has a country pile in Gloucestershire to redecorate or a private jet to ferry home a pair of 17th-century Imari porcelain vases, according to Timothy Langston, an antique dealer in London. Nor are clothes. “Standards have really slipped over the years sartorially — it’s very rare you see anyone wearing a suit, let alone a tie and jacket these days,” he says.
Spencer Hebron, a sales associate at Bergdorf Goodman who has worked at a who’s who of high-end New York stores, remembers how different things once were. “In the 1980s, when I first started at Barneys, fashion was everything. Someone would wear head-to-toe Comme des Garçons or Donna Karan. It’s not that way any more. Now people don’t care; they mix it up.”
Indeed, it is now hopelessly vulgar to dress in a way that announces elite status too plainly. A British stylist who dresses celebrities and business executives for publicity tours asks: “Why look rich, of all things? It’s not hard to look rich. Don’t you want to look like you, like a story, look creative, look interesting?”
People do want to look rich, though, and the signals are there for the reading. Someone who chooses to dress up, and has the money to really dress well, won’t wear a single item that outshines the rest (a rough formula is that the shoes cost a third of what the suit does, the shirt an eighth).
Jonathan Sigmon, owner of Alan Flusser Custom, a New York tailoring shop, says that when the wealthiest customers walk through the door, “more often than not they are wearing old chinos and Sperrys, and an aspirational person might be wearing one beautiful thing, but that might take up their whole purchase budget for the season”. He points out that people at ease with money are able to mix high and low more smoothly — a pair of handmade trousers and an old Shetland sweater, say.
“I have women who come in, maybe they have Chanel boots on and a pair of old jeans and a T-shirt from The Row,” says Hebron. “But the watch is a Rolex 18k gold, with a Lady Dior bag.”
The particular signals of wealth change, but patterns repeat within that variety. One of them is owning the best while performing indifference to it in carefully choreographed ways (“Oh, that old thing?”). Similarly, mixing high and low is a classic technique — as is displaying conspicuous wear and tear on expensive items. In The Talented Mr Ripley, tattered Gucci loafers and carelessly creased bespoke jackets, cut to look Roman-made, went a long way to making Jude Law’s turn as a dilettantish American shipping heir so convincing.
If too many people recognise your possessions, you’re playing the game wrong. All but a few should have to wonder what brand you are wearing. Before Tiina Laakkonen closed her super-high end boutique in the Hamptons last month, she told The New York Times: “The aspirational retail world has been taken over by big luxury brands . . . my customer is no longer aspirational. They don’t want logos or any of that stuff. They’re done.” There is “aspirational” again; a very dirty word. The real rich don’t reach, or rather are not seen to.
In assessing a man’s wealth, traditionally one looks to the watch and the shoes. This remains true. With watches, though, it’s easy to try too hard, as HTSI contributing editor Nick Foulkes explains. A Patek Philippe Nautilus, lovely as it is, “is a bit obvious now; it has become a victim of its own success”. An antique Patek 1518, by contrast, picks you out as a real connoisseur, while a simple Rolex Oyster Perpetual in stainless steel shows more confidence. And, with really good clothes, a cheap Casio could be an even bigger flex — one that billionaires and presidents have long depended on.
Rich men today wear loafers, even with a suit. Laces, even on high-end shoes, are suggestive of work. Loafers convey the autonomy to remove one’s shoes at any moment. They are matched, ideally, with the ruddy complexion of someone who has time to exercise.
Well-off women say they look to fabric quality and grooming when assessing the wealth of other women. Hair is thick, glossy and subtly coloured (a half-head of bleach highlights is a budget giveaway). Skin is well-oiled and well-nourished; professional blowouts are a matter of course (it’s not unusual for wealthy women to fly their hair and make-up teams with them). Usually, there is plastic surgery — Botox, a lift to cheekbones and eyebrows via fillers, a half-facelift.
As with men’s watches, a woman’s jewellery can be telling. “It’s the rare colour diamond that no one else can get,” says longtime British Vogue jewellery editor and podcast host Carol Woolton, or “very chic gold — not demi-fine”. It can also be a piece that is recognisably Cartier or JAR, but not one that’s available to anyone who walks into a store. “It shows that you’re at the level above.”
The same logic can apply to handbags — Hermès collectors will recognise bags that only top clients can get. Conversely, no handbag might imply that a driver or personal assistant is hovering nearby.
These days, antique dealer Langston depends on non-visual clues — “a certain aura” and conversation. “Often they don’t say very much, and often don’t give away very much. But they just have a certain something — a sort of confidence that the very rich possess.”
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