Why the super-rich love understated dressing

"The last person you'd think was a billionaire is the billionaire."

In Summary

• Some say it's a response to current economic turmoil, echoing similar shifts in fashion after the financial crisis of 2008.

• Lorna Hall, Director of Fashion Intelligence at trend forecasting agency WGSN thinks there's some truth in that. 

Image: BBC

Quiet "stealth-luxe" fashion is dominating runways and TV screens – but why now? Clare Thorp explores the low-key, under-the-radar world of stealth wealth.

If you're trying to blend in among the super-rich, carrying a handbag worth $3,000 might seem like a plausible way to do it. But, as the first episode of the current season of Succession showed, when you're mingling with the ultra-wealthy, it's not quite as easy as that.

In a scene that quickly went viral, Cousin Greg brought a date, Bridget, to the birthday party of Logan Roy, billionaire founder and CEO of media conglomerate Waystar-Royco. By inviting a stranger into Logan's private home, he had badly misread the situation. But if Greg made a faux-pas – his date made a bigger one.

By carrying a "ludicrously capacious" bag – as Greg's tormenter and co-conspirator, Tom Wambsgan designated it – Bridget immediately marked herself out as an interloper in this exclusive world. "What’s even in there?" asked Tom mockingly. "Flat shoes for the subway? Her lunch pail? It’s gargantuan. You could take it camping. You could slide it across the floor after a bank job." The ultra-rich, of course, rarely need to carry anything themselves. But it's not just the size that's the issue. The distinctive checked print is immediately recognisable– even without an accompanying logo. This is a bag that wears its price tag on its sleeve. It's flashy, attention-grabbing and everything the Roys and their ilk are not – because, once your bank balance is in the billions, you don't need to try to impress anyone.

Over four seasons, Succession has given us a glimpse – albeit a fictional one – into the lifestyles of the richest people in the US, and shown how billionaires differentiate themselves from a bog-standard multi-millionaire. The show famously has wealth consultants to advise on every minor detail, and costume designers who carefully construct a wardrobe that truly reflects the 0.01%.

Shiv Roy might be able to afford any couture gown she desires, but you'll most likely find her in a plain black polo neck, brown trouser suit or beige shirt (though one made from the finest silk).There might be the odd pinstripe or check – or an occasional flash of colour for a social event – but for the most part this is suppressed, not stand-out, style. Her brother Kendall, meanwhile, loves Loro Piana, an Italian label that specialises in low-key pieces made from the finest fabrics, where a coat can cost $25,000 (though you can pick up one of Kendall's beloved cashmere baseball caps for a bargain $495). As Colleen Morris-Glennon, costume designer for TV series Industry – another show that allows us to hang out with the fictional super-wealthy – explained to Vogue, the richer someone is, the harder they can be to pick out in the crowd. "The last person you'd think was a billionaire is the billionaire."

It's not just Succession that's shone a spotlight on stealth-luxe style. Cate Blanchett's character in the recent film Tár might be problematic, but her wardrobe is perfect; an immaculately put together collection of staple pieces from Margaret Howell, Max Mara, The Row and Dries van Noten. "I wanted to do costumes that nobody will look at," costume designer Bina Daigeler told WWD. Instead, Lydia Tár's understated style has turned her into an unlikely fashion icon.

Gwyneth Paltrow
Gwyneth Paltrow
Image: BBC

Then there's Gwyneth Paltrow's much-discussedrecent courtroom style. During an eight-day trial – in which the actress was found not at fault over a 2016 ski accident – Paltrow wore a series of low-key but luxurious outfits in earthy tones, including a cream cashmere knit from Loro Piana, a moss-green wool coat from The Row, a double-breasted grey trouser suit, Prada boots, Proenza Schouler leather culottes and pieces from her own brand, G Label by Goop. It was quiet luxury at its most powerful.

"We demonstrate our allegiance to our social groups, and distinguish ourselves from others through our clothing – Carolyn Mair"

It might be grabbing the headlines now, but the concept of stealth wealth is far from new. "The term 'conspicuous consumption' was noted by Thorsten Weblen in his book, The Theory of the Leisure Class, in 1899," Dr Carolyn Mair, Fashion Business Consultant and author of the Psychology of Fashion, tells BBC Culture. Weblen described it as the "the act of displaying ostentatious wealth to gain status and reputation in society", and determined that those new to wealth were more likely to indulge in this behaviour. "The idea is that if you're used to having money, you needn't show it off," says Mair.

Fashion is a powerful communication tool, and one that even the super-rich aren't above using. "We demonstrate our allegiance to our social groups and distinguish ourselves from others through our clothing," says Mair. "Like any language, unless you are fluent in that language, you are likely to miss, misunderstand or at least misinterpret, the nuances. This is the concept behind stealth wealth: buying understated products for their quality, beauty and rarity, but not leaving the price tag on (metaphorically speaking) so only those in equally wealthy positions would recognize the monetary value of the item." There is an inner-circle, semi-secret code about stealth-luxe dressing – a sense of "if you know, you know".

But stealth wealth has become more than just a way of life for the extremely privileged few. It's filtered down the food chain to become this season's dominant aesthetic. As New York Times' chief fashion critic Vanessa Friedman recently noted, the Milan catwalks saw a shift towards clothes that "don't shout, but whisper". Friedman describes the look as "the kind of clothes that don't advertise their value in obvious ways" but instead "rely on plushness of fabric and rigour of line – on insider information rather than influencer information – to suggest value." Think streamlined silhouettes, luxurious materials and a colour palette featuring every shade of sombre. Max Mara dubbed their collection "the Camelocracy".

British Vogue describes the trend as "more of a mood than anything else" and "essentially a synonym for elevated basics". Meanwhile on Tik Tok, hashtags like #stealthluxe are amassing millions of views, with fashion stylists breaking down how to get the "stealth wealth" look for less.

Conscious consuming

So what's driving it? Some say it's a response to current economic turmoil, echoing similar shifts in fashion after the financial crisis of 2008. Lorna Hall, Director of Fashion Intelligence at trend forecasting agency WGSN thinks there's some truth in that. "As insensitive as fashion can sometimes be, it is still acutely attuned to social dynamics," she tells BBC Culture. "Now as in the last financial crisis, brands look to strike the right tone. When huge bits of the population are struggling to heat their homes, flaunting extreme expressions of wealth looks tone deaf."

However, she thinks there's more at play this time – including a reaction to the extended period many of us spent in leisurewear, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic. "An overlooked and potentially bigger driver this time round is the shift in the trend cycle away from casual looks. Post-pandemic there is a need to dress up performatively, and we are seeing streetwear and sportswear give way to more formal or sartorial looks." Then there’s fashion’s continued obsession with all things 90s. "We've seen the youth market rampage through 90s trends but the last of them coming through, with much wider age appeal, is 90s minimalism. This look aligns beautifully to stealth wealth dressing and low-key luxury. Social media just ups the ante, and the frenzy around 'Succession dressing' serves to accelerate and fuel the proliferation of this look."

"If it's about consuming more consciously, and spending your money on pieces that will last, that's something we can all get behind – Sean Monahan"

Sean Monahan, founder of consultancy 8Ball – plus the man who helped coin the term "normcore" back in 2013 and predicted a "vibe shift" in a famous 2021 article – agrees that an emergence from the pandemic has ignited a desire for smarter dressing. "It's really boring to just wear sweatpants all day," he tells BBC Culture. But he also thinks it's intensified what was already happening; a reaction to the blurring of the boundaries between casual and work wear.

"In the 2000s and the 2010s, especially in the US, there was a strong shift towards casualisation. Strict dress codes at work really fell out of fashion, and your college wardrobe could be poured into your professional life." He's noticed an interest in older styles of dressing for a while now. "There's been a preppiness revival that's been bubbling under the surface for the last few years," he says. He thinks part of this is a generational churn, with millennials growing up – many are now hitting their 40s – and trying to develop a more mature style. "Part of what's happening is people trying to figure out, well, 'what does adulthood look like? What kinds of things should I be buying? What makes me feel like a serious person?'"

But can the stealth wealth trend really be something anyone can aspire to? Isn't getting the style of the super-wealthy for a fraction of the price kind of missing the point? Perhaps, if you're hoovering up as much cheaply-produced camel-coloured knitwear as you can lay your hands on. But if it's about consuming more consciously, and spending your money on pieces that will last – even if that means buying less but paying more – that's something we can all get behind.”

"I've been joking to my friends that I think King Charles is kind of a fashion icon," says Monahan. "But he does wear the same clothes kind of forever. One of his overcoats he's had since the 50s or 60s. If you actually want to do sustainability, you probably should be dressing more like King Charles." Tatler magazine recently named holey socks – as recently spotted on the King – as a stealth wealth symbol.

Monahan is unsure if the idea of stealth-wealth will power a lasting shift in spending habits, though. "It seems like people are interested in this, but because it's being framed from a trend angle, I don't know that it's actually going to impact on the broader dynamics in the apparel market," he says. As for logos – he thinks it's only a matter of a time before we see them back again. "I think that's just a pendulum swing thing. We're seeing a rejection of them come back through the fashion cycle, but I think we will go back and forth on this."

Even so, don't expect to see Logan Roy flashing a conspicuous logo belt any time soon. And, in the event you ever find yourself invited to a party hosted by a multi-billionaire, you might not want to, either.

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