In what now seems the quaint era of Truman Capote’s baroque social diagrams, what distinguished the truly wealthy from the merely rich was the better vegetables they served: “tiny ones.”
Were Capote alive today to freeload off his social betters, the details he would most likely espy might not involve the fare at their tables — even the mega-rich do takeout — but the Hallstein water they import from Austria, or their $15,000 computer-operated Danish TopBrewer coffee systems, or the $700 hand-embroidered monogrammed towel sets they order from the cult Florentine linen shop Loretta Caponi, or even the subtle toggles they use to switch off a light.
Lately throughout gentrified Brooklyn — or Hollywood on Hudson, as some call a borough now home to Adam Driver, Matt Damon, Michelle Williams, and Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz — the brownstone superrich signal domestic chic with decorative details like a $220 light switch manufactured by the English company Forbes & Lomax.
For the average home renovator, of course, a $22 Leviton light switch from Home Depot does the job just fine. Yet no five-story Brooklyn Heights behemoth, where the obligatory uncurtained windows open up on scenes reminiscent of ethnological dioramas (Exhibit A: Lives of the 21st-Century Technocrats), can be considered complete anymore without Forbes & Lomax toggles in each room.
“They’re house jewelry,” said David Hottenroth, a partner in the architectural firm Hottenroth & Joseph, referring to the elegant 1930s-style switches made of nickel, bronze and brass.
Or they are a domestic version of Kendall Roy’s Loro Piana baseball cap in “Succession” (remember “Succession”?): absurdly costly, yet so subtle you only notice them if you already know how expensive they are?
Forbes & Lomax toggle switches, a Loro Piana baseball cap and Loretta Caponi towels.
“Nothing should be noticed” is a dictum often attributed to the heiress Bunny Mellon. In truth, the reverse was improbably the case. It was in Mellon’s ostentatiously modest habit of ordering haute couture garden aprons from Givenchy and hanging her best Braque in a basket room that one could detect early groundwork being laid for what would eventually be marketed as “quiet luxury,” according to the Mellon biographer Mac Griswold. “That sort of ‘What me — rich?’ attitude originates with her,” Ms. Griswold said.
For Old Money like Mellon’s, discretion was indeed a key value, while for those in the class of New Old Money — that is, great fortunes made, often in tech, in a time frame bracketed by Myspace and TikTok — wealth display is noticeable, but only to those who know what they’re looking for.
“It’s the Loro Piana effect and it’s a smoke screen,” said William Norwich, a novelist and editor who, in a previous professional incarnation, had a front-row seat on New York’s moneyed elite as a gossip columnist in the 1980s for The New York Post’s Page Six. “It’s code,” he added. “You telegraph status without seeming to do it.”
And, as trends go, “stealth wealth” was one well suited to a moment in which social media has made us all into de facto voyeurs, noses pressed to the digital window as the grotesquely wealthy flaunt their toys, their cars, their designer fashions, the closets in their 35,000-square-foot Calabasas mansions devoted to Hermès Birkin bags. “We are collectively spending more time checking out what the rich and famous are doing and less time on what Barry from H.R. and Sandra from accounting were up to last weekend,” said Nicholas Bloom, the William D. Eberle professor of economics at Stanford.
We are parsing Veblenesque narratives laid out for us by glossy strangers, people like the supermodel and philanthropist Karlie Kloss, who happens to be married to Josh Kushner — an investor whose stake in onetime start-ups like Instagram, Spotify and Slack yielded a personal fortune estimated at $3.6 billion.
In posts created for the delectation of her 12 million Instagram followers, Ms. Kloss conjures a narrative in which she and her family inhabit a digital empyrean, someplace universes away from the paycheck-to-paycheck worries of hoi polloi. In Kushner-Kloss world, the light is always honeyed, air travel quietly private and human and divine seemingly will converge somewhere in the Grenadines aboard the poop deck of the billionaire David Geffen’s humongous Lürssen yacht, Rising Sun.
“Wealth porn,” Stellene Volandes, editor in chief of Town & Country, termed such postings. And as with any permutation of adult entertainment, it’s free online: Anyone can watch.
Things were not always thus. Back in the remote Reagan ’80s, also an era of unbridled wealth creation, opulent status display may have been occasionally grotesque (think birthday parties for 500 in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Temple of Dendur), and yet they were far less visible to the general public. Hedge fund moguls, predacious leveraged-buyout kings and real estate tycoons competed shamelessly to out-party, out-dress and out-spend one another, mounting lavish entertainments for “Champagne-swilling, caviar-supping, Lacroix-wearing” guests, as The New York Times once noted. Yet their excesses were noted by a relative few.
“In the ’80s, you could give a private party in a public venue like the Met, wear Lacroix poufs, have Robert Isabell design a one-night-only Versailles décor for you, flying in all the flowers in Holland,” Mr. Norwich said. “And the only risk to your privacy was maybe a few media outlets hovering outside with a pen and pad.”
Showiness of that kind is not only frowned upon in the age of New Old Money. It risks courting the dangers common to countries where the greatly wealthy are obliged to live heavily guarded and sequestered lives. “You don’t want to become a target,” Mr. Norwich added. Hence in recent years, the offspring of plutocrats — the billionaire Mort Zuckerman’s teen daughter for example — find themselves chauffeured to drop-off at elite private schools in S.U.V.s replete with tinted windows and attendant security detail. “Those ’80s excesses could not have happened if everyone had an iPhone,” Mr. Norwich said.
Privacy, discretion and to a large extent anonymity are the baseline for stealth wealth. The quiet luxury trope developed to conceal the unvarying truth that the essential status marker is “how much space you take up,” as Mr. Norwich said.
He meant economic space. And in that respect, Americans dominate the world, the superrich here making up more than a third of the global population of ultrahigh net-worth individuals (UHNWI), according to a Wealth Report issued by Knight Frank, an independent real estate consultancy that has its headquarters in London. It is that group, far more than the “1 percent” (a club whose entry point is a mere $30 million in net worth) that increasingly comes to define a new world order at the upper echelons of income.
Not surprisingly, that UHNWI group also occupies space in a literal sense, given that between them, the 13 largest individual landowners in the country — think John C. Malone, the owner of Liberty Media and the Atlanta Braves; Ted Turner; or Peter Buck, the Subway co-founder — control over 16.9 million acres of land in the contiguous 48 states, an area equivalent to the size of West Virginia.
If ’80s style excesses remain — and they assuredly do — they are played down, low-key, hidden in plain sight. This was subtly evidenced at a Manhattan benefit held this year for the Society of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, an event celebrating the opening of the prestigious TEFAF Art Fair. Assembled at the Park Avenue Armory were 91 of the world’s top-ranked dealers in fine art from all periods, high jewelry and antiques dating to 18th Dynasty Egypt.
The view from above at the TEFAF Art Fair in May.Credit…Madison McGaw/BFA, via Shutterstock
Assembled, too, were members of more freshly minted dynasties, who turned out in robust numbers for an event that, despite platinum-level tickets priced at $10,000, has historically drawn one of the toniest crowds from among New York’s ultrawealthy elite. What was conspicuous about the event was not so much the presence of shoppers undaunted by six- and even seven-figure price tags for objects like a Gustav Klimt sketch study of a Gorgon or “The Mountain Bar,” a louche, atmospheric barroom installation by the Cuban American artist Jorge Pardo, but how inconspicuous the attendees were in their manner of dress.
There was nary an “it” bag to be spotted that evening. And, while people were undoubtedly dressed in costly designer labels, the labels they wore were from Khaite, the Row or Prada — chic but anonymous and decidedly logo-free. Far from presenting the usual wall of $7,000 suits from Kiton, the men at the event were illustrations of what the Robb Report termed the “Succession” effect — subtle sport coats from Brunello Cucinelli or Loro Piana, “dress” sneakers like a currently popular model from Berluti that, while it wouldn’t be out of place on a shelf at Modell’s, cost $1,600 a pair.
To the extent that people wore jewels at all, they were not creations by traditional zillionaire go-tos like JAR — whose pave brooches studded with rubies, pink sapphires and tourmalines were long worn like pledge badges by society folk like Jo Carole Lauder, Princess Firyal of Jordan and Anne Bass — but ostentatiously low-key baubles like the much-coveted Harmony bangle made by the storied Munich jeweler Hemmerle.
These unassuming adornments are in themselves a case study in the evolution of the status symbols, since in earlier iterations of the 30-year-old design it often came studded with gems and was about as subtle as a Mighty Morphin Power Ranger bracelet. Gradually, the Harmony design was refined to oblige a developing taste for things that, however costly, did not scream money. Many Harmony bangles are now formed of base metals like aluminum, iron or carved olive wood. Inset with tiny cola-colored diamonds, some look like relics unearthed from a Celtic burial mound.
Yet they are hugely in demand despite being no one’s idea of a bargain. “We don’t really give prices,” Christian Hemmerle, scion of the family company, said by email. For perspective, consider that an iron Harmony bangle was hammered down at a Christie’s London auction in June for $13,000 and that one made from wood and brown diamonds sold at Sotheby’s in April for $103,000.
“You know, I want something I can wear every day without looking ridiculous,” one Hemmerle client at the TEFAF fair said, on condition that her family’s well-known name not appear in print. “Let’s face it,” she added. “The status pendulum has swung on the Birkin bag.”
In a sense, status at all times and in every society is calibrated, “according to the group you associate yourself with, your position and rank in relation to others,” said Ronit Lami, a wealth psychologist and therapist to UHNWIs.
Not only is flaunting wealth now frowned upon at the highest levels of income, Dr. Lami added, it sets in play competitive games there is no guarantee one can win. “Let’s say you have one private plane: So what?” Dr. Lami said. “For a multibillionaire, one private plane probably won’t be considered a status symbol. They may have five or six.”
Similarly, that $20 million brownstone in the West Village or that penthouse on Fifth Avenue may not be the trophy you thought it was, given that for many in certain income strata, extensive residential portfolios are routine. “Fifty million and above is a trophy,” Kurt Rappaport, a Los Angeles real estate agent specializing in elite properties, said flatly.
Consider a Spanish colonial Malibu mansion Mr. Rappaport sold last year. Its buyer was an Oscar-nominated producer and heir to a brewing fortune. The price tag was $91 million and very likely, Mr. Rappaport said, the bluff-top estate was not intended as its new owner’s primary residence. “These properties are extensions of the owners’ presence and persona, but in an elevated way,” he said. “It’s on a much different level from posting your bling on Instagram. That’s not status. That’s showing off glitz.”
For the New Old Money, discretion is the ultimate flex, said Ms. Volandes of Town & Country. “The power move is not posting, not sharing,” she said. “It’s knowing where to go first, what to buy first, pivoting away from the crowd, not in any way following it and not showing off. ”
Yes, she added, there will always be those that load themselves down like caparisoned pack mules with status symbols like logo bags and diamonds. Assuredly, clueless billionaires will ride rockets into space with Stetsons clamped to their heads. But gaucherie is not arrival. And taste as currently constituted demands the hushed tones of a quiet luxury that, as Ms. Volandes added, is not in fact all that quiet. “You just have to adjust your hearing.”
Or change your sightline. Notable in a new line of men’s wear from the Italian designer Brunello Cucinelli, for example, is a sports coat so low-key as to look generic. Pale camel in color, it has three buttons, patch pockets and a sporty band collar. Some version of the jacket can probably be found in most every haberdashery in Italy and, for all one knows, on the sales floor at Macy’s Herald Square.
Yet Mr. Cucinelli — a farmer’s son from Umbria who parlayed a line of cashmere sweaters into a billion-dollar personal fortune — does not design clothes for Everyman. He proudly creates “uniforms for the wealthy,” as he recently said by telephone.
He designs with such devoted clients in mind as Marc Benioff, co-founder and chief executive of Salesforce. As a multibillionaire and longtime Cucinelli aficionado, Mr. Benioff would most likely recognize the jacket as being from the Italian designer’s exclusive line of creations rendered in vicuña — a rare, ultrafine wool harvested from llama-like animals in Bolivia. And he may not be daunted by its $24,500 price tag since, to a man worth $8 billion, that is roughly equivalent to someone earning $80,000 a year spending a quarter on a coat.
“When you talk about wealth, it is all a matter of scale,” Dr. Lami said.