"I could walk downstairs now and buy a Ferrari, but all of my friends are hurting. I don't feel like buying random toys." This wealthy coxcomb, one Michael Hirtenstein, has fallen prey to what Newsweek terms the new phenomenon of "luxury shame," in which rich people feel uncomfortable throwing money around. So now luxury goods makers will have to trick them into shopping!
Says Newsweek's Johnnie L. Roberts:
Unofficially, profligacy became passé on Oct. 6, when disgraced Lehman Brothers CEO Richard Fuld appeared at a congressional hearing after the firm's historic $600-billion bankruptcy. He encountered a blizzard of scorn over his half-billion-dollar compensation and baronial lifestyle: a $21 million Park Avenue penthouse, a $25 million estate in Greenwich, Conn., and an estimated $200 million art collection.
Since then, we've seen Vogue slumming it at Wal-Mart and luxury ad numbers drop.
It seems like even if the uberwealthy are not personally suffering, it's now in poor taste to flaunt what you've got. Call it conspicuous austerity: a newfound sensitivity has made restraint temporarily chic. And not all luxury brands can keep up: according to the New York Times,Time Style and Design, which closed before the economic downturn, now feels anachronistically tone-deaf as the totaled items "would cost more than $51 million, or about 340 times the annual income of its average reader." As one woman told The Guardian, "now, when someone admires my dress, I never say it is by Balenciaga or Bottega Veneta. I tell them it's an old Phillip Lim. This neatly conveys the message that, just like everybody else, I've cut back on shopping and am happy to wear something by a modest label." And according to the article, luxury goods makers are taking different tacks: "highlighting heirloom appeal, ", "cultivating a guilt-free image" by teaming up with charities, or allowing secret splurging with sites like Gilt.com, that send purchases in unmarked brown boxes. Says The Guardian article, "the web offers the perfect opportunity for a new breed of 'stealth shoppers', embarrassed about flaunting their wealth, or what is left of it."
While asceticism is a reality for most of the world right now, it seems unlikely that everyone with riches of this magnitude will be able to maintain such a low profile after the novelty really wears off: empathy has its limits, after all - that or the luxury industry will get wily enough to get around peoples' guilt altogether. The Depression, as we know, saw some of the starkest contrasts the country has ever known, and historically speaking, great poverty has never dampened the relative pleasures of money much. If restraint is in with people who can afford it, well, they can afford to get tired of it in a year, too - which is probably what the $175-billion global luxury market is counting on.
Luxury Shame [Newsweek]
Celebrating Luxury In The Time Of Melancholia [New York Times]
Stealth Shoppers Shun Stores And Splash Out On Luxuries Online [The Guardian]