This article first appeared in the May 2010 issue of Lifestyle Asia magazine
Forget gaudy logos and show-off styles. When it comes to ultimate luxury, subtlety is key
By Paul John Caña
Image from Wikimedia Commons
“The only question with wealth is, what do you do with it?”
– John D. Rockefeller
“Luxury is a necessity that begins where necessity ends”
– Coco Chanel
As the world gradually recovers from the most recent financial meltdown, there is a simultaneous, almost imperceptible movement in the world of indulgence and luxury. The ostentatious display of wealth has always been considered tacky, but in recent times, more people are understanding—and embracing—the concept of understated elegance. The biggest houses, the gaudiest designer logos, the flashiest cars, all are being eschewed in favor of minimalist homes, subtle branding, restrained sophistication. It is a reflection of the personal tastes and style of the individual triumphing over the sheer visual impact of the merchandise. It’s choosing obscure and inconspicuous over garish and overexposed. It’s under-the-radar rather than in-your-face. It’s called stealth wealth.
How exactly did stealth wealth come about? The term itself isn’t new. Word historians trace the phrase back to 1991, when the United States was in the midst of its last major recession. There is no textbook definition, only the general idea that flaunting one’s wealth isn’t as classy or as appropriate as keeping it tastefully under wraps. However, just because the millionaire next door is trying to be more discreet doesn’t necessarily mean that money isn’t flying off their purses and wallets. “Stealth wealth,” writes Lucia van der Post in The New Statesman, “is not about spending less, but the power and the swagger are subtler. It’s not a diminution of luxury or quality, merely a recognition of where it truly resides.”
And where it resides is in brands that don’t shout as much as they whisper, in items not found on every other rack in every other high-end boutique, but in exclusive ateliers or at the shop of a craftsman in some far-flung Italian province. The most premium of luxury goods are coveted only by those who know what they are—often unheard of, sometimes vaguely familiar, but always of the greatest quality and highly prized precisely because they are not mass produced and are not readily available to everyone else.
Luxury On The Wrist
Stealth wealth is easiest to understand in wristwatches. Mr. M, a respected and familiar player in the local watch industry understands the impact and significance of wearing an understated brand of watch. “When it comes to watches, there are two kinds of stealth wealth brands. One, it can be a relatively unknown brand. You walk around and very few people know or are familiar with it. And two, even though the brand may be a bit known, the design itself is very discreet and low-key.”
He identifies three watch brands that fit into both categories. “Panerai is one. It was originally Italian- made, but is now crafted in Switzerland. Their strategy of limited production and being true to their history has really been the cornerstone of their success.”
“Patek Philippe is a stealth wealth brand in the sense that they are really in a league all their own,” he adds. “They have followed the same principles since they were established. Their company philosophy is not to make a lot of watches, and that they sell only to a limited clientele. They are always true to their claim in terms of quality and true to their history also in terms of design.” Mr. M goes on to describe how a very simple Patek Philippe watch produced in the 1950s that was recently offered for auction fetched almost three million dollars. Its rarity and exclusivity pushed the worth of the classic watch to much, much more than expected.
“Another example of a stealth brand that has been very popular lately is Hublot,” he adds. “It’s a relatively unknown brand, but the design is not discreet. It’s quite strong, sporty and masculine. There are two reasons why people buy stealth brands especially in watches. One is they’re just very low key persons; they don’t even want people to know what it is and they don’t even want people to know the brand and understand its value. The other reason is, they want people to see it, but they only want people who know watches to understand it. Hublot falls in that category. It’s a relatively unknown brand, very small production but it is such that even from three meters away, you can tell it’s a Hublot. The brand has grown tenfold in the span of four years. Even the King of Spain is wearing it.”
Image from <fendrihan.com>
The Connoisseur’s Secret
While Hublot may not be subtle in terms of its design, the fact that it is familiar only to the most obsessive of watch connoisseurs elevates it to stealth wealth brand status. The same is true for many other items of luxury. In a similar article, Forbes magazine identified the top stealth wealth brands in a range of luxury products. Those on the lookout for the most precious writing instrument, for example, would do well to look past the most obvious brands and reach for a limited-edition Omas pen. Celebrating a special occasion? Skip the wine or champagne and open a rare Hennessy cognac like the Ellipse, instead. Carrying a Vertu phone gives the impression of ignoring what’s in and cool and choosing what’s stylish and exclusive.
Stealth wealth, it becomes increasingly clear then, requires thorough research and the willingness to scour the landscape looking only for “the best.” It’s going a step above what is already considered posh and extravagant and delving into ultra-luxurious territory. There is a certain thrill in the “connoisseur’s secret,” one that only a select few share and enjoy. It’s not enough that one cultivates an appreciation for, say, foie gras; it’s realizing that foie gras made from artisanal methods, like those from the La Ferme des Marchandoux in France, is worlds better than more commercialized foie gras production. While first class air travel, with its silk pajamas, private spas, designer amenities and restaurant quality food, is all well and good, true luxury is sidestepping the hassles of going through giant commercial airports, security lines, baggage check lines and delayed flights. Traveling by executive or private jet, then, is the only way to truly be a cut above the rest of the hoi polloi.
Branding by Non-Branding
In fashion, stealth wealth is becoming much more pronounced. Slowly, screaming logos and obvious branding is being replaced by subtler designs and more understated labels. In an article in the Boston Globe, writer Kate Jackson says the focus has shifted from signature logos to identifying signature designer details. The idea, she says, is that true members of the elite do not need to flaunt what they are wearing if they are in the company of their peers. It’s branding by non-branding. The concept has caught on particularly in the wake of greater accessibility of once “exclusive” brands. Because more people are able to get their hands on recognizable and trendy designer bags, dresses, or shoes, disciples of stealth wealth have taken to wearing more inconspicuous designs from classic or lesser-known brands.
Premium designers and fashion houses like Bottega Venetta, Hermes and Loro Piana have benefitted from this movement. Rather than purchase an item that everyone else at the next social event is wearing or carrying, stealth wealth advocates invest in those that carry less obvious branding with timeless designs that are not so easily counterfeited. The perception, Jackson writes, is that logo-splashed apparel and accessories have become so ubiquitous that they’ve created an environment where having them means no longer considered being part of the elite.
Image from <privatejetdaily.com>
The Ultimate Credit Card
While high-end consumer purchases provide clues to personal styles and taste, sometimes, true status is bestowed upon the individual; a clear, measurable sign that separates the truly rich from the merely well heeled. When the word “luxury” gets thrown around every chance people get, and its meaning gets diluted to a fraction of what it truly signifies, the need to restore its true definition becomes imperative. American Express understood this need and created a super-exclusive card for this reason. The Centurion Card, or simply, the Black Card, is without a doubt the world’s most exclusive card. Made of titanium but weighing only 15 grams, the card is available by invitation only. It is offered to individuals who charge more than $250,000 a year and carries an annual fee of $2500, plus a onetime membership fee of $5000. Members get exclusive services such as a 24 hour concierge and travel agent, personal shoppers at retailers such as Escada, Gucci and Neiman Marcus and other elite club memberships. To carry this card is to create a statement louder and more potent than any verbal or visual display of wealth.
Ultimately, stealth wealth is cultivating an appreciation for the absolute finest things that life has to offer, as opposed to settling on what’s readily available. It’s looking beyond any trend or flash of innovation and seeing a true classic that will live on long after “what’s hot” becomes “what’s not.” It’s a world where being a show-off is non-existent, where private pleasures are more fulfilling and real than public swagger. Most importantly, stealth wealth is more concerned with personal thrills than bragging rights. It’s being able to enjoy whatever it is that brings happiness. Because in the end, true luxury shouldn’t have to be so hard. One need only know where to look.