It was the legendary Coco Chanel who famously said, “Luxury is a necessity that begins where necessity ends.” Truly, people’s fascination with luxury is undeniable; according to Statista, revenue in the luxury goods market is expected to reach nearly $355 billion this year, and, barring another pandemic or anything of the sort, the industry is only expected to grow about 3.3 percent annually until the end of the decade.
Following the scourge that was COVID, there is once again a gradual, almost imperceptible movement in the world of indulgence and luxury. The catch-all term for it is “quiet luxury,” which shouldn’t be that unfamiliar especially when you’re on Tiktok, where it’s gotten over 35 billion views and counting.
The ostentatious display of wealth has always been considered tacky, but there’s been a resurgence of the concept of understated elegance thanks to current pop culture touchstones led by HBO’s Succession. The biggest houses, the gaudiest designer logos, the flashiest cars—all are being eschewed in favor of minimalist homes, subtle branding, restrained sophistication. It’s a reflection of the personal tastes and style of the individual triumphing over the visual impact of the product. It’s about choosing the obscure and inconspicuous over the garish and overexposed. It’s under-the-radar rather than in-your-face.
It’s quiet luxury a.k.a. stealth wealth.
Stealth wealth, as a term, isn’t exactly new. Word historians trace the phrase back to 1991, when the United States was in the midst of a major recession, although the concept itself may have originated during the so-called Gilded Age in 19th century America or even further back in 1700s France. 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 (or even billionaire) 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 Guardian, “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.
One distinctive characteristic of a stealth wealth brand is exclusivity—the fact that it’s familiar to only a small group of clientele. Forbes magazine, in a 2000 article, 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? Maybe skip the wine or champagne and open a rare Hennessy cognac like the Ellipse, instead. And if you really want to go all out, maybe step out in a bespoke Ozwald Boateng suit.
It becomes increasingly clear, then, that stealth wealth requires thorough research and the willingness to scour the landscape looking only for the absolute 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.
In fashion, stealth wealth has become much more pronounced. Consider the fictional Roys of Succession, or the very real outfits actress and entrepreneur Gwyneth Paltrow wore during her much-hyped ski collision trial. Screaming logos and obvious branding has been replaced by subtler designs and more understated labels. It’s come to a point where true fashion insiders can tell the brand from signature designer details (Paltrow in head to toe Gucci, for instance). The point, of course, is that true members of the elite do not need to flaunt what they’re wearing if they are in the company of their peers. Call it 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 Veneta, Hermes, and Loro Piana are benefitting from this movement. Loro Piana, in particular, has become something of a poster brand for quiet luxury (even though it’s part of the giant luxury conglomerate that is LVMH). Mentioned in nearly every other thinkpiece about stealth wealth, Loro Piana earned a special mention in LVMH’s 2023 first quarter earnings report as one of the brands that had an “excellent start to the year,” alongside Rimowa, Marc Jacobs, and Berluti.
Rather than purchase an item that everyone else at the next social event is wearing or carrying, the stealth wealth effect is pushing advocates to invest in those that carry less obvious branding with timeless designs that are not so easily counterfeited. It’s almost as if merchandise with splashy, obvious branding has created the complete opposite of its original intent—owning and flaunting them is a clear-cut signal that you’re not part of the elite.
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.
Enter something like American Express’s Centurion Card, or simply, the Black Card, arguably one of the most coveted credit cards in the world. Made of anodized titanium and weighing only 15 grams, the card is available by invitation only. It’s reportedly offered to individuals who charge more than $250,000 (about P14 million), has a $10,000 initiation fee, and an annual fee of $5,000. Members get exclusive services such as a 24-hour concierge and travel agent, personal shoppers at exclusive retailers and other elite club memberships. It’s certainly a lot, and even Filipino billionaires might bristle at the outrageousness of it all, but to carry this card is to create a statement louder and more potent than any verbal or visual display of wealth.
Ultimately, quiet luxury or stealth wealth is cultivating an appreciation for the absolute finest things that life has to offer, which is the opposite of 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, the concept is more concerned with personal thrills rather than bragging rights and learning 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.
This is an updated version of a previously published article.