Why quiet luxury is bad news

Quiet luxury, stealth wealth, “money talks, wealth whispers”, old money aesthetics: these are all buzzwords on social media right now.

HBO’s Succession was one of the most discussed shows in fashion this year with its old money aesthetic trending. The character Tom Wambsgans scoffed at the “ludicrously capacious” Burberry bag toted by another character called Bridget, sparking the conversation about what lowkey luxury bag would make you look ‘old money’. Meanwhile, Sofia Richie Grainge has inspired more obsessing over quiet luxury thanks to her classy fairy tale wedding. Plus, major fashion publications Vogue, Elle, and Harper’s Bazaar have all reported on the latest trend that you have to hop on: quiet luxury.

What is quiet luxury?

 

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Quiet luxury or coded luxury refers to subtle, understated luxury clothing with no visible logo, and no trendy noticeable items. They are what you may call, if-you-know-you-know brands. It is a perceived signifier of the ultra-wealthy and the old money.

To visualise the aesthetic, think Loro Piana, Brioni, Zilli. Maybe a dose of The Row or Brunello Cucinelli. And the uniform? Loafers, trench coats, tailored trousers, blank T-shirts, leather bags. The colour code is fixated on neutrals: cream, beige, black, white with an injection of the finest selvedge indigo denim – probably from a Japanese mill.  No loud colours, please, and certainly nothing as gauche as a splash of Barbie pink or electric blue.

As for materials only the finest natural fibres are fit to touch skin this affluent. We’re talking cashmere, silk and vicuna wool, all spun and then crafted by skilful artisans, creating that hailed “old money” look.

The result is deceptively simple and super elegant. When you have this much money, you do not need to flaunt your wealth and status. Leave that to the nouveau riche clamouring for validation with their logomania and monogrammed bags.

Quiet luxury and the statistics

TikTok’s hashtag #oldmoney has amassed 5.5 billion views and counting. And #quietluxury currently sits at 80.2 million views, with similar hashtags like #bestquietluxurybrands, #quietluxurystyle, #quietluxury2023 all racking up over 600,000 views. Meanwhile on Instagram,  #oldmoney has been used on 458,000 posts.

In March 2023, WGSN reported that it has been tracking #LowkeyLuxury and according to Google’s global Year in Search 2022, the simple key staples in the wardrobe like oversized shirts, mom jeans, wide-legged trousers, and loafers were the most searched fashion items. In the same article, WGSN rated the impact score of the trend as: “Invest: Strong investment case. Analysis suggests this trend will have consumer longevity that will impact multiple industries.”

Quiet luxury and the runway

 

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The SS23 Ready-to-wear (RTW) collections that debuted in September 2022, presented a trend that WGSN called “fluid careers”. This is a focus on multifunctional pieces, that incorporate comfort into formalwear and allow the interchangeability between workwear and existing items in the wardrobe. Key items include wide-leg trousers, trench coat, oversized blazers, reworked shirts and kitten heels.

There were plenty of examples among key brands including Stella McCartney, Jil Sander, Miu Miu and Prada. This nod to 90s minimalism and paring down from dopamine dressing continued onto the FW23 RTW shows, where “lowkey luxury” flourished. Timeless items and streamlined silhouettes walked the runway. The focus is still on quality and versatility. The fashion houses that put lowkey luxury down the runway this time included Prada, Miu Miu, Bottega Venetta, Peter Do, Ann Demeulemeester and Khaite – quite the line up. Prada, of course, is the original flagwaver of 90s ugly chic, while Ann Demeulemeester and Khaite are two of the three brands mentioned on the Lyst Index of Q1 2023 Breakout Brands.

Quiet luxury and economic recession

As much as it seems like Succession and the internet’s obsession with how to look old money are the only reasons for quiet luxury to thrive, minimalism and quiet luxury are actually a result of economic stagnation and recession. Early in 2023, TikTok fashion commentators and trend forecasters had called it recessioncore, describing the minimalist direction fashion is heading towards in response to the state of the economy. WGSN’s report “Lifestyle Trend: Quiet Luxury” in March 2023 had confirmed “#Recessioncore has begun”.

The state of the economy very much influences the world of fashion. The Great Recession started from 2007 to 2009, but its effects lasted for years. It saw an end to the flashy y2k McBling era, and minimalism dominated the fashion world. The recession left millions without jobs, homes and the world’s economy stagnated. Luxury retailers Saks, Barneys and Neiman Marcus held massive Sales to clear out their inventory.

In a 2008 article titled “Recession Chic”, Time Magazine described how fashion houses including Balenciaga, Lanvin, Narciso Rodriguez and Yves Saint Laurent shifted back to black for their main colour palette. At the same time, Phoebe Philo at Chloé was one of the most beloved designers fronting the sort of minimalism that chimed with the recession era. The trend was classic versatile utilitarian pieces, dubbed quiet luxury now. Consumers favoured lowkey luxury bags with minimal logos and sleek tailored clothing.

The wealthy, ultra-rich is not much affected by the recession and their consumption of luxury goods does not decrease. However, they opt for lowkey looks instead of the logomania pieces. According to Business of Fashion, in difficult times, the rich tone down their display of wealth and brands shift their focus onto the top spenders. In a 2012 article, The New York Times wrote about a Hermès bag on the rise — Evelyne.

The bag originally was made to carry grooming tools for horses, but Hermès moved it into the leather goods department in the mid 2000s. The bag is lowkey, the H for Hermès was intended to wear inwards. The New York Times interviewed the rich and affluent on how the Evelyne gained its popularity among them. The subtlety of the bag was preferable to its popular counterpart the Birkin during the time, while many people were still suffering the effects of the recession. In January 2023, Mintel published an article that proclaimed “quiet luxury is booming”. It detailed the Italian luxury clothing and lifestyle brand Brunello Cucinelli having 29.1% year-on-year increase in sales to €919.5 million in 2022 despite the cost-of-living crisis.

The pattern of lowkey luxury repeats now that the economy is becoming stagnant. The above-mentioned “fluid career” trend could be attributed to fears over job security, reported WGSN. Late 2022 saw massive layoffs at major companies: headliners included Meta laying off 13% of its workforce while Elon Musk slashed half of Twitter’s employees.

The war in Ukraine created a shock in the global economy as an energy crisis sent costs of gas and electricity skyward for European countries. Lowkey luxury is a continuing indicator that the global economy is moving closer to a recession. During this time, customers tend to look for higher quality “elevated basics” pieces that would hold value against time and in the second-hand market. In “Lifestyle Trend: Quiet Luxury”, WGSN cited the World Bank’s economic growth outline for 2023 was decreased from the original prediction of 3% to 1.7%. The massive layoffs continues in 2023 from multiple global companies like Twitter, Meta, Goldman Sachs, Microsoft, Google, etc.

The sombre state of the economy once again pushes quiet luxury onto the frontline and dopamine dressing to the back. In these times, quiet luxury helps the ultra-rich to fly below the radar, and we all say goodbye to vibrancy, frivolity and economic stability.

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