Future Women, June 2018 (link)
Your Instagram feed may not depict it, but under-the-radar extravagance is the new status symbol.
There’s a sumptuously fabulous scene in the original Dynasty between Alexis Colby (Joan Collins) and Dominique Deveraux (Diahann Carroll). As the two fierce icons meet over a glass of Champagne, expert bougie shade is tossed. Fur is worn. So are jewels. Hairspray is evident. It sums up ’80s excess like nothing else. “It’s burned,” complains Deveraux, sipping the Champagne handed to her by Colby. “This Champagne was obviously frozen in the bottle at some point.” “The caviar, I trust, is not burned,” slings Colby. “I really wouldn’t know, this is osetrova, I prefer Petrossian beluga,” purrs Deveraux. The exchange is not only iconic and typical of the affluent, capitalist, luxuriant-centred drama, but a comment on the lifestyles of the wealthy elite in the ’80s and ’90s.
Back then, and up until a few years ago, signs of wealth included designer threads, “It” bags, luxurious holidays, fancy cars and how much “stuff” you owned. Enter the rise of the internet celebrity where, with the right number of clicks, likes and influence, literally anyone can become famous or join the millionaire’s club. Combine that with a new wave of brand accessibility (particularly luxury fashion’s streetwear trend), technology readily available to the middle class, and instantly, tell-tale definers of the elite are no longer, well, special.
So, what defines it now? Those things that money can’t buy: culture, privacy, time, responsibility, self-improvement, global awareness and curated happiness. Less than a decade ago, the wealthy started buying organic food, designing grand eco-homes and indulging in private Pilates classes. Flash forward and they’re boasting home-grown food, founding globally-conscious companies, training for ultra-marathons and readying their body for space travel. And they’re doing it all under the radar.
“At the moment, lots of people can buy luxury products, access luxury brands and luxury spaces,”says Ruth Marshall-Johnson, foresight editor of trend forecasting agency, The Future Laboratory. “That’s something that has changed quite considerably over the last 20 years, so the real expression of wealth is now in things like privacy. It’s being able to build your own [digital and physical] personal space that is completely protected, that nobody will be able to enter without your permission.”
This should come as no surprise. There is a certain smugness in mystery. So, what is a key factor in defining the A-list versus the D-list? Over-exposure and accessibility.
Flexing Influence Under The Radar
Going hand in hand with this yearning for anonymity, inconspicuous consumption, and rising global consciousness, the new connoisseurs are flexing their influence to support activism and globally-positive initiatives more than ever. And, unlike the Real Housewives of charity balls past, this is not an act for show or school-run gossip, but a behaviour more on par with the rest of the world’s desire to help the planet.
According to a Nielson study, three out of four millennials and 51 per cent of baby boomers say they will spend more on a product if it is attached to a sustainable, social or environmentally-positive initiative. It is this reasoning, but on a much larger scale. “The difference we’re talking about is not just giving money, but also just building foundations,” says Marshall-Johnson. “Making sure that poorer communities get fed, but not publicising it. That’s a much bigger chunk of signifying your wealth these days than it used to be… the elite today are mentally preparing for a future where the difference between the very rich and the very poor will not be tolerated anymore.”
Further than this is the separation of how the wealthy are perceived – the old-school identifiers of “wealth” can be tossed aside. “Today’s luxurians are really passionate about not being seen as the rich people of the past,” insists Marshall-Johnson. “They really don’t want to be part of an elite society that has an ‘uncaring’ perception around it. They don’t want to be seen as taking more than their fair share, or as arrogant, or enjoying the elitism that they have been given.” Conversations around privilege, abuse of power, digital identity and global sympathy in the zeitgeist are also helping drive this shift.
Of course, the age-old trope that time is money still holds true, but being cashed-up and drinking cocktails by a pool or stretching out by a fire at an Aspen chalet? Forget it. Time means more room for creating, learning, travelling (incognito) and bettering oneself from the inside and out.
For some time now, we’ve seen the aspirational class instead invest in “cultural capital” flashed by referencing the right articles, listening to the right podcast, being on the right board, supporting the right political candidate, having the right education and doing the right workout. This has progressed into having the right everything, but today it is the right everything for you. The 2018 idea of bespoke outsourcing will allow this to occur in the not-too-distant future. From neurologists that will design your daily routine to AI companies that can build the perfect companion Blade Runner-style (because who has time for heartbreak?); digital butlers that use your entire life’s data to know what you need before you do and cars that will automatically drive you to where you need to go; this new on-call life curation aims to save time, while enriching one’s cultural capital. Spare minutes convert to spare time, and spare time creates space to work on the brain and body, community engagement, activities and entertainment pertaining to an end goal of becoming some kind of super human. It leans more towards Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark, than Harvey Specter.
The Wealth Chasm
The question remains, does this elite cultural capital and self-improvement increase the divide between the wealthy and poor? Are we simply creating a new, privileged class? “There is a danger of that,” says Marshall-Johnson. “There are different types of people who are very high net-worth individuals with different politics, of course. But because of the technological outreach and our increased access to education and information, whoever you are, that is less likely to happen.”
In fact, this new mindset instead looks outwards as a new crop of socially and environmentally-aware leaders are set to emerge. Mostly led by wealthy, privacy-loving, globally conscious, culturally capital-rich millennials, there is a generational drive to find solutions for the world’s problems. “That’s what is colouring our elite at the moment – they feel they need to be tools for the future,” says Marshall Johnson. “They have been educated, they’ve been able to network with important people around the world and I think they’ll be able to communicate, visualise and conceptualise a different way of doing things. They will have access to all the power and influence that is required to be a successful political leader and be able to bring a very new take on what that means to the world.” To be a political leader you need to be economically astute, but these elite leaders are digital natives, highly productive and well-educated. This is a very different kind of leader to the ones dominating our news feeds. Yet, fewer Donald Trumps and more Elon Musks can’t be a bad thing.
Main image credit: Patti Andrews