Stealth wealth fashion: Quiet luxury in the age of an economic crisis

Stealth wealth fashion: Quiet luxury in the age of an economic crisis

Keeping things hush-hush

Text: Michelle Yeoh

Is it just me, or has the pandemic made us a lot more mindful? I for one, find that I've been mounting pressure on myself to be more attentive to the needs of those around me, whether that translates into giving strangers in the grocery aisle more personal space than necessary to feel comfortable or over-analyzing the tastefulness of my writing. At the risk of sounding like a cliché: these are trying times, why not cushion the vague, subtly repressed notion that the world is burning with a little more... sensitivity?

"A little more sensitivity" is also an effectual phrase to describe the rise of conservative fashion during the Great Recession circa late-2007 to mid-2009. Back before the financial crisis had struck, the extravagant mid-noughties were associated with peak level peacocking:  Velvet Juicy Couture jumpsuits stamped with blown up logos gilded in gold, or Louis Vuitton's Murakami bowling bag, teeming with rainbow-coloured monogram.

People wanted to broadcast the brands they were wearing in full volume, this was the age where logomania thrived. The hit of the recession made flashy branding feel gauche; flaunting luxury purchases could come across as vulgar and in bad taste, more so when considering those who may not have been doing so well.

The focus shifted back to the intrinsic value of luxury goods, as those who were wealthy enough continued to aspire to be part of the world through shopping and consumption. Luxury, however, had taken a vastly different meaning.

Logo-clad items were snubbed, making way for quieter, pared-back styles to step into the spotlight albeit a rather dim one. Rumour has it that Hermès had offered unsuspecting brown shopping bags as a substitute for its usual bright orange bags for customers to carry their purchases out of the store. As Christina Binkley of the Wall Street Journal pointed out in an article in Vox, "it was suddenly so uncool to look rich."

Let us not forget that this was also the time when Phoebe Philo (*cue sporadic curtseys and head bows*) ascended the throne of minimalism at Céline Celine, setting the tone for normcore and gaining a legion of fans who nodded in unison over her preposition for an understated, practical woman's wardrobe. The popular It bags of the time (see: Saint Laurent's Muse, the Bottega Veneta Ball hobo, and Chanel's iconic 2.55) rode the crest of discretion, lacking features such as visible logos, superfluous bling, and loud trappings.

Doesn't that remind you of the ebb and flow of trends in recent times? The pendular oscillation between maximalism and minimalism pretty much sums up the shifting tidal waves drifting fashion in the last couple of years. The starting point being 2015, when Alessandro Michele took over the reins of Gucci and marked the return of excessive showiness.

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Zany prints on prints...ON prints, elaborately embellished sunglasses in blown-up shapes and proportions, as well as tiled monograms were seen everywhere, infusing the period with a DNA that read "more is more". And then of course, we turned that phrase on its head even more recently, with streamlined fashion receiving a timely reboot signalling that an impending feeling of change had already been wafting through the atmosphere even before the current recession had hit.

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Even Gucci's spring/summer 2020 collection was noticeably more simplified; its array of pared-back silhouettes, column dresses rendered in a homogeneous saturated hues, and '90s Tom Ford-era homages (slip dresses and side cut-outs) were considerably toned down as compared to Michele's past seasons. The re-invention of Bottega Veneta, propelled to popular heights by Philo's pupil Daniel Lee, invites a welcome change towards breath-of-fresh-air minimalism, as many started flocking to quieter styles of luxury.

Quiet luxury so quiet that the allure of an item is undetectable in plain sight, but concretise at the hands of consumers who delight in quality craftsmanship. These items speak not to others, but to the wearer themselves.

Brands such as Gabriela Hearst, Jil Sander, Lemaire and The Row call to action a shift towards tightly edited closets that feature cleaner lines and thoughtful blink-and-you-miss-it details that add subtle panache. At the heart of it all lies a singular purpose: practicality, boiled down to its most essential form.

The economical impact of COVID-19 cuts deep, as stocks continue taking a nosedive and many find themselves out of jobs. A lot of us have cut back on consumption accordingly, but just like the events of the Great Recession, it appears that those with purchasing power continue to shop for luxury items that speak to them personally. And whilst doing so, practicing "stealth wealth" - the act of keeping one's wealth hidden from others.

According to Business of Fashion, retailers speculate that the virus and its implications will continue to boost and emphasise "practical items from brands with loyal followings, and a reliance on neutral tones and other simple, solid colour palettes."

Whether it's that oversized sleeveless maxi dress from The Row, void of any frivolous adornments or labels that point to its $2,000 price tag, or a $76 Tom Ford lipstick, luxury now exists on a visceral plane for many consumers.

Back to mindfulness: Could it be that our (I'm referring to society as a whole) sensitivities towards others tend to heighten during such anxiety-ridden times? Is it that during these times, when toes are red-hot and more reactive to being stepped on, we regress back into the sartorial caves with a big sign at the entrance that says "Anti-flexing from this point forward"?

It's like giving grocery aisle passers-by and maybe even social media onlookers the metaphorical space to breathe, and just be, without directing any attention to the symbols of wealth that could otherwise be internalised as stressful to some.

Instead of methodologically putting an outfit together to provoke the impression we want others to form of us, maybe we're focusing that energy into forming relationships to the designer pieces that we buy that is, for those of us who are still shopping.

Quiet relationships, relationships so intimate that they don't need a supersized logo smacked front and centre to be real.