Being Rich in Philly Sure Doesn’t Look Like It Used To
From designer sweatpants to chicken coops: the lowdown on how wealth went stealth.
“Let me tell you about the very rich,” F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote in his short story The Rich Boy. “They are different from you and me.”
That story came out in 1926, and not much of what’s happened in the World of Money since then — the Kennedys, the Kardashians, the Trumps, Ferraris, face-lifts, SoulCycle — would strike me as very likely to change his mind. But if Fitzgerald were still alive and writing and if I were his editor, I might suggest an addendum for 2018: The very rich are different from you and me, although these days you wouldn’t know just by looking.
Here’s what I mean. Once upon a time — not so long ago — this magazine ran the most fantastic stories of wealth and its excesses, often with gleeful firsthand accounts from the wealthy and excessive. There was the $50,000 kiddie birthday party, the diamond-hunting service for people wanting five carats and up, the $100 cheesesteak for the one percent. At the height of 1980s ostentatiousness, the lawyer wife of a plastic surgeon who’d made a fortune doing rhinoplasties was the focal point of a story titled “Mrs. Nose Builds Her Dream Closet.” The story wasn’t just about the closet (800 square feet), but also about the $4 million Gladwyne manse she built around it — christened “Casablanca” — and the contents thereof, from the limo in the garage to the brass bed Mrs. Nose won at an auction for $1,000 after accidentally outbidding herself. “Don’t you worry, dear,” her husband told her, laughing. “A thousand sounds better than nine hundred, anyway.”
Today, stories like this have gone the way of brass beds. That’s not because people don’t still have money. On the contrary, there are more millionaires in the United States than ever — a record 15 million of them in 2017, according to a Credit Suisse report. (In Pennsylvania, by the way, if you have an annual income of $360,343, you’re officially a one-percenter.) You can see the dollar signs in the air, too: new day spas, boutique fitness studios and luxury condos everywhere. There’s the new private Fitler Club, like the Union League but hipper, which opens next year, aimed at Philly’s young and moneyed. There’s also the penthouse at 500 Walnut that went for $17.85 million in 2016 — a record — and Wheels Up, the NYC-based private plane share ($17,500 initiation fee, before flights) whispered to be more popular than ever among Philadelphians with real liquid.
What’s different about wealth today is that only an insane person or a Real Housewife would dream of letting the public in on her spending sprees, or allow a journalist to interview her personal limo driver, as Mrs. Nose did, to attest to how down-to-earth she is. There are, as you might guess, plenty of reasons for this shift, but for now, suffice it to say that flaunting it is out; blending in (well, at least giving the appearance of blending in) is in. “Yeah, you don’t see too many limos anymore,” says Marc Brownstein, president and CEO of the eponymous marketing firm and longtime mover and shaker. “Most people take Ubers,” he says.
It’s not just the rides that have come down from the stratosphere. “You cannot tell anymore who has money by what they’re wearing,” says Nancy Alperin-Regni, a Center City real estate broker who specializes in the high-end market. It’s yoga pants and jeans on everyone, she observes: “We can never judge a book by its cover. We qualify by bank sheets.” An acquaintance of mine recently told me about a customer who was standing at the counter with her at Bernie Robbins Jewelers in Villanova. The woman, clad in sweats and sneakers, proceeded to buy a $50,000 Rolex. “You would have never known,” the friend said. “She looked like she wandered in off the street.”
Yes, but did she look well-rested? I should have asked, considering what Rittenhouse-based interior designer Ashli Mizell told me about the uptick in clients decorating personal meditation rooms, including one Mizell worked on that had a sensory deprivation tank. (Commercial-grade tanks run between $10K and $30K.) Meantime, Chrissy Dress, owner of the upscale Cure de Repos spa in Chestnut Hill, says one of her most popular treatments is stem-cell micro-needling, a $300 process that uses needles to infuse the face with human stem cells, resulting in plumper, younger-looking skin. For best results, she recommends clients visit every four to six weeks, and plenty do. “Face-lifts and anything that looks overdone is so out on the East Coast,” she says.
Nearly everyone I talk to about the city’s high earners also points to ritzed-up vacations, and not just any Four Seasons will do. “From what I see, people are taking their kids to these fabulous places that nobody else is going to,” one Main Line friend reveals. “Like Bangkok. Or Utah.” On top of all that, researcher Elizabeth Currid-Halkett notes in her 2017 book The Sum of Small Things that “inconspicuous consumption” — premium health care, pricey education, services designed to free up time, like nannies — has become a more prevalent signal of elite status today than flashing brands like Louis Vuitton or Louboutin.
It would seem, then, that the surest way to pick out the very rich from the rest of us these days isn’t to look for piles of stuff, but to find those out there who are living their best (read: thoughtful, healthful, well-rounded, I-woke-up-like-this) lives. If you were to slap a tagline on wealth in 2018, it would be: less Gordon Gekko, more Gwyneth Paltrow. Not so much flash, certainly, but arguably even more fabulous.
You’d think conspicuous consumption would be more than 100 years old. Isn’t it human nature to show off? It is, affirms Ludovica Cesareo, a postdoctoral research fellow in marketing at Wharton, who says flaunting wealth vis-à-vis one’s possessions has been with us at least since ancient Roman times. But nobody actually put a name to the practice until the late 1800s, when sociologist Thorstein Veblen wrote his famous treatise The Theory of the Leisure Class. In it, he zeroed in on certain members of the wealthy “leisure class” who were purchasing silver flatware rather than the durable aluminum that everybody else was using, simply because they could. “It was about showing you could afford a richer product, because this specific elite felt a need to show their status in this way,” Cesareo says. “It was a signal to the masses, a way to differentiate themselves from the have-nots.”
Cesareo, who studies luxury, tells me that as mass production ramped up after the Industrial Revolution, the traditional trappings of wealth became more available to more people and so were no longer useful in signaling status. Thus, conspicuous consumption — signaling to the masses — started giving way to more inconspicuous consumption, aimed less at showing status to the “out group” and more at proving one’s place within the upper echelon. The 20th century, Cesareo says, saw the wealthy begin to focus on a quieter type of luxury. (Or, as one Main Line friend of mine puts it, “It still says ‘money,’ but you only know if you know.”)
Oh, some conspicuous consumption obviously stuck around: Witness the Troop Beverly Hills decadence of the 1980s and the label mania ushered in by Carrie Bradshaw in the ’90s. But if all that wasn’t already feeling tired by 2008, the market crash pretty well cinched it. “When just about everyone is making do with less, sometimes much less,” said a New York Times article at the time, “those $2,000 logo-laden handbags and Aspen vacations can seem in poor taste.” Conspicuous consumption was declared definitively out of style. Remember the tales of Wall Street wives disguising their Hermès buys in plain white bags?
Ten years later, in most circles, using one’s things too obviously to stand out as elite still feels … dated. If in Dr. and Mrs. Nose’s heyday the ultimate compliment you could pay a one-percenter was “Look how much she has,” today it’s “You’d never even know how much she has!” While talking to people about other people’s money, I heard this statement so often, I started to believe it. I heard this about the one percent and the .001 percent, about people’s in-laws with three homes on two coasts, about friends of friends who belong to five different country clubs. I heard it about billionaire Brian Roberts, who not only drives himself, one observer noted admiringly, but does so in a comparatively relatable Audi. I also heard this about the local co-founder (a billionaire) of a major financial firm and his wife. He is so normal. She is so nice. You’d never even know they have their own helicopter.
It may be true that these people behave absolutely normally (which means, I guess, that they are humble and kind and sometimes eat Tostitos crumbs out of the bag while standing over the kitchen sink), but you can’t tell me that they don’t live differently than the 99 percent. Particularly now, at a moment when, I would argue, we’ve shifted out of post-conspicuous consumption and into post-post-conspicuous consumption (PPCC), which is a different era entirely. How could it not be? Our economy is out of the toilet. The rich are getting ever richer. We have an actual Trump in the White House. Ours is a moment in which instead of “making do with less,” the country’s wealthy are back to upping the ante, even if these days they seem to be doing it in the most socially conscious ways possible. They’re investing in status symbols that signal not just a simple “I’m loaded” to anyone paying attention, but also, seemingly, a more “with-it” worldview.
“I think a lot of the shift away from flash is a reflection of education,” Mizell offers. “There are still plenty of people in Philly who need a Gucci handbag, but the more sophisticated people are more focused on quality and thoughtfulness and worldliness and living a well-rounded life than on a certain label. Someone who chooses a mint-condition used classic car seems like he has both taste and liquid to spare, as opposed to the guy who just buys the most expensive, newest thing out there, which anybody with a little money and an ability to get a lease can do.”
In The Sum of Small Things, Currid-Halkett notes this very phenomenon — the swing from overt materialism to less obvious expenditures that reflect knowledge. Any old schmoe with a credit card can throw on a shiny new Rolex, but not everyone can wear a vintage Patek Philippe that only certain people — people deep in the know — would even recognize as Patek Philippe. This sort of post-2008 “stealth wealth,” Vogue magazine noted a couple years back, gave rise to “discreetly luxurious brands like The Row and Céline, and a label-less, unadorned aesthetic that made it harder (to the uninitiated) to gauge how much a garment or handbag actually cost.”
That’s not all: By 2025, millennials and Gen Z — generations that are keenly invested in self-expression — will make up 45 percent of the global luxury market, according to consulting firm Bain & Co. Traditional “status” brands, hot to cater to their emerging customers, are offering new ways to customize and update offerings, Cesareo says. She points to Hermès’s recent four-city dip-dyeing tour, to which women could bring their old Hermès scarves to have them dyed in more modern hues — fuchsia, denim blue, violet. “Oh, and streetwear collaborations,” she adds, which are having a mega-moment. Louis Vuitton just named streetwear guru and Kanye West stylist Virgil Abloh as the company’s artistic director; Hermès recently brought a DJ in to spin amongst the $360 t-shirts at its Madison Avenue store. (Speaking of which: Bain reports that sales of luxury t-shirts rose by 25 percent in 2017.)
“Right now, you see the lower echelons inspiring the higher ones,” Cesareo says. “If you look at all the luxury brands, you’re going to see things like ripped jeans, overalls. It’s actually everywhere. You see people using potato chips in three-star Michelin cuisine.” In fact, Wharton wunderkind Jonah Berger and his colleague Silvia Bellezza coined a name for this phenomenon: The “trickle-round” theory posits that high-status groups poach from lower echelons to stand out from the “middle-status,” thereby affirming the coolness of a look that then ends up getting re-emulated by everyone — high, low and middle.
Your head spinning yet? Just try telling whether those torn jeans on the woman in front of you at Starbucks are Levi’s or Meghan Markle’s favorite brand, Mother ($228). Or if her cute kicks are your basic Adidas Stan Smith ($75) or the aggressively down-to-earth pre-aged Golden Goose luxury sneakers ($550).
“Luxury,” Cesareo says, “can get away with things that are, to me, incredible.” She points to Balenciaga’s 2017 Areana leather bag, a near replica of the blisteringly blue shopping tote that Ikea sells for a dollar and is a sturdy favorite of college students on laundry day (and also bag ladies). Retail price for the designer version: $2,145.
But take heart. There’s more to the wealthy’s new “with-it” worldview than just shopping. In fact, Currid-Halkett’s main thesis for her book revolves around what she’s dubbed the “aspirational class” — a new elite defined less by tax bracket and more by shared cultural capital and a certain value set. This is a class that prizes knowledge, she’s written, and turns its nose up at “overt materialism,” instead “investing significantly more in education, retirement and health — all of which are immaterial, yet cost many times more than any handbag a middle-income consumer might buy.” It’s about aspiring to be better human beings, she explains — to reveal “social consciousness and environmental awareness through consumer choices.” Some hallmarks of her aspirational class? Reading The Economist, for one; “buying pasture-raised eggs,” for another. Also big: the Ivy League; drinking artisanal pour-over coffee; buying organic; listening to NPR; wearing TOMS shoes (bonus points for being both sustainable and philanthropic).
It might strike you, as it did me, that Currid-Halkett’s aspirational class really just sounds an awful lot like your average coastal millennial or Gen X’er — not all of whom are wealthy. That’s correct, she emphasizes: “Many who have acquired education and prize knowledge are indeed affluent labor market elites, but plenty are not.” Still, I would say that where cash meets this value-driven aspirational class offers a pretty decent picture of what socially conscious PPCC wealth looks like. Who do you think is buying the $1,500 Williams Sonoma chicken coops you see popping up all over the Main Line these days?
Speaking of which: Farmers and hipsters laid claim long ago to raising their own chickens, but the appeal of plucking eggs from the coop in the backyard also seems to lie within a particular vector of modern wealth that puts “simple,” organic living into hyperdrive, exemplified by expensive purchases that feel like they’re a butter churn away from pioneer-dom. I’m talking about weekly trips to buy farmers’ market produce, but I’m also talking about chef Alice Waters’s now famous/infamous $250 egg spoon the Times recently wrote about — a “primitive” iron utensil designed solely to cook a single egg over a fire. I’m talking, too, about the $245-a-head chef-driven dinner in Bucks County I just saw advertised, at which attendees eat amidst the crops that went into their meal. And I’m talking about the recent story that New York Magazine ran online addressing the trend of elite children’s clothing brands putting out items like a $98 plant-dyed linen onesie. That story’s title: “Why Are People Dressing Their Babies Like Peasants?” In an ironic parallel to the silver-spoon wielders of the 1800s, the answer would seem to be: because they can.
But back to chickens. As a status symbol, they seem really funny, says one poulterer I know. Her kids go to a pricey Main Line private school where, she tells me, the parking lot is littered with Teslas, another hallmark of 2018 aspirational-class wealth (eco-friendly!).
“There aren’t many women I encounter at school who clean their own houses or do their own gardening,” she says, “so the chicken thing is fascinating to me because it’s messy and it’s dirty. You don’t even get that many eggs, and — while we love our chickens — it can be sort of disgusting. I just wonder whether soon we’ll be hearing about chicken nannies on the Main Line.”
If, God forbid, chicken nannies do become a thing, don’t expect to hear about it from the people who employ them.
“I know people who have a full staff but won’t say, ‘This is my housekeeper, Rosa,’” one acquaintance of mine notes. “They say, ‘This is my friend, Rosa.’ But Rosa is standing there with a rag in one hand and Windex in the other, so it’s fairly clear what she’s doing there.”
“So many of the people I know with serious money pretend that they don’t have that type of money, like they live absolutely like everyone else,” confides another friend, who lives in Newtown Square and rubs shoulders with the .01 percent. “I find it a little offensive. It underplays the reality that most people live.” On the other hand, she allows, “I don’t know exactly what I expect them to do” — talking about one’s wealth all the time isn’t the answer — “but you just appreciate it when you find people who want to be real about it.”
At a time when the subject of income inequality has gone mainstream, you can understand the instinct some might have to play down what they pay for. If you’re reading The Economist all the time — or, really, reading anything these days — how can the growing disparity between the rich and the poor not play into your “with-it” worldview? Maybe you saw the recent NYT piece — “What the Rich Won’t Tell You” — written by a sociologist who interviewed a bunch of millionaires. “Rather than brag about their money or show it off, they kept quiet about their advantages,” the author wrote, out of a desire to distance themselves “from common stereotypes of the wealthy as ostentatious, selfish, snobby, and entitled.” One of the interviewees admitted to tearing the $6 price tag off a loaf of bread to keep the nanny — a Latina immigrant — from seeing it. (The author dryly noted that the nanny likely had a clue about the socioeconomic gap between her and her employers.)
When one real estate agent tells me that more of her clients than ever are buying homes under LLCs for both tax and privacy reasons, I ask whether she thinks an increased awareness of income inequality (or, you know, that class war fomenting as we speak) has anything to do with this desire for privacy. She pauses and says: “Well — how can I say this? Among some of my liberals, yes. But the conservatives? Not so much. They’ve always been private.”
This brings up a valid point. Political leanings aside, much of the desire to keep your Benjamins under wraps is baked right into living in Philadelphia, where bloodlines and bank accounts go way back. And old money, as they say, whispers. Some people come from long traditions of having a ton of cash and refusing to discuss it; some people have been warned by previous generations of the pitfalls of wealth. Garrett Snider, grandson of the late tycoon Ed Snider, shares one bit of advice his grandfather gave him about keeping it real: “Be nice to people on the way up. Because you’re going to pass them on the way down.”
Along with photos of cute children, inspirational memes and Russian trolls, social media is great for peeping the lives of the well-to-do (or those who can convincingly fake it). A cursory scroll through my feed one night turned up breezy trips to Art Basel, windblown smiles next to private planes, a fully stocked floor-to-ceiling home wine cellar, black-tie charity galas, a Hawaiian babymoon, and enough SoulCycle pedal power (at $30 a class) to light up a small nation. It would seem that while fear and/or good breeding and/or socioeconomic guilt might keep some of us from shouting about what we’ve got, posting is a different story.
“I actually feel like in a way, people are showing their wealth more than ever and it’s all social media’s fault,” says Margo (name changed so she doesn’t get pummeled by friends), a salesperson on the Main Line. She grew up in that area amidst reasonable wealth: “I went to private school, and we took nice vacations. But my parents were absolutely floored, in their 60s, when they found out some of their friends had private jets. You just didn’t know the difference back then, because people didn’t talk about it. Now there’s Instagram.”
Ah, Instagram, where the humblebrag (or not-so-humblebrag) has been elevated to an art form, where the line between #blessed and #boasting long ago blurred into oblivion. Nowhere else does the modern-day tension of wealth signaling vs. just blending in play out so strangely as here, where choosing to post a picture of an exercise class or a meal or a hotel room can convey more than you ever dreamed (or … exactly what you dreamed). The online-wealth-flaunting cautionary tale of the decade just might be that of Louise Linton, the willowy blond wife of millionaire U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, who leapt into the spotlight in 2017 after she posted a photo of herself exiting a government plane dressed like a supermodel and tagged it with descriptors: #rolandmouret pants, #tomford sunnies, #hermesscarf, #valentinorockstudheels, #usa. The tone-deafness was shocking. Less so was the hilarious blowback from the public, which immediately labeled her everything from #deplorable to Marie Antoinette, a comparison that one Politico writer suggested was unfair … to Marie Antoinette.
Obviously, Linton is an extreme case, but there are only slightly less flagrant versions of her all over Instagram. Think of it as signaling, with filters. “I have friends constantly posting ‘@PureBarre class!’ and they’ve got a $15 smoothie in their hand,” Margo says. “And oh my God, the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl! All anyone talked about out here for weeks was how expensive tickets were, and then you started to see pictures pop up of friends on private jets, flying there. Or people in their coats at the game, captioned with ‘Trying to stay warm’ but tagged #SuperBowl. I mean. Come on.”
One publicist I know tells me that a hotel she represents — a luxe place that costs up to $700 a night — has been booking the rooms with sweeping city views to a noticeably younger clientele happy to pay for the stellar photo backdrops. In general, she says, tourism and travel are huge right now: “Everyone says, ‘Where have you been lately?’ The story matters so much more than a label. It’s not cool to take a picture of a bag, but it is cool to take a picture of yourself against a sick backdrop in Bali.”
We all know the online world is a squishy one — what’s real and what isn’t? Who’s posting? Who’s not, and why? How filtered is that picture, exactly? — but it seems certain that the quest for the story and the focus on the experience are common denominators among the online and the offline, the haves and the have-nots and the have-mores. “New wealth is not about the big mansion,” Marc Brownstein says. “New wealth is about the big experience. It’s about enriching your life rather than just being rich.”
This is almost verbatim what lifestyle publicist and founder of J2 Communications Jamie Joffe says: “When there are auctions for charity or whatever, the jewelry and stuff doesn’t go anymore. But the rental home in Tuscany for a week? The special dinner at a special restaurant? Those are the things that go.” Joffe recently launched a new branch of J2 aimed at curating experiences: “People who want a special experience can have us do the research for them to make it all happen.” She’s not talking about Disney World — more like custom itineraries for far-flung exotic vacations. Or, say, passes to get behind the scenes at Fashion Week. For a price ($125 to $300 an hour), Joffe can hook you up. She’s calling the service Selcouth Society. Definition of selcouth: Rare. Unfamiliar. Marvelous. Wondrous.
“If you have tremendous wealth, you’re looking for things that are exclusive,” Brownstein says. “Exclusivity is a high benchmark. Access has real badge value now.” Access to what, exactly? You name it: private planes. Private dinners with famous chefs. Floor seats at the Sixers next to M. Night Shyamalan. The sorts of things your average Joe, or even your upper-middle-class Joe, couldn’t swing without selling a kidney. Stuff that makes for a happy memory, a fun story, a life well lived. Also, maybe, a great photo.
Depending on what music you listen to, you probably know that money can’t buy you love, happiness or class. It can, however, buy you fuller, more luminous, less wrinkly skin — without surgery — and this is something several of my female friends who aren’t rich bring up, enviously. The million-dollar closet has been replaced by the million-dollar medicine cabinet.
“You don’t see Gwyneth preaching Botox and face-lifts,” one Bucks County friend says. It’s true; you see her peddling her own line of $90 cleanser, as well as other brands’ $250 calming serums and tinctures. One of the newer debuts on the Center City day-spa scene is 3000BC, a place devoted to nothing but tuning up the face and body with pricey treatments. “The stuff that stresses me out isn’t that I’m not buying this brand or owning this bag,” the same friend says. “It’s oh my God, I need to have that $700 face cream so I don’t look haggard.” (Same.)
Still, trendy and all-consuming as it may be at the moment, the world of skin care is but an offshoot of the real obsession these days, and the ultimate luxury status symbol: wellness (a.k.a. self-care, health). When, a couple years ago, Vogue ran a piece about the connection between money and wellness, the writer quoted one spinning enthusiast who noted that exercise remains the “only acceptable lifestyle brag” — a truth that seems to explain both the rise of “luxury activewear” and the glut of social media photos hashtagged PureBarre, SoulCycle, CoreFitness and so forth.
The old silver-spoon set would no doubt have laughed at the notion of exercise and vegetables as markers of class. But there you have it. To eat well, to exercise often, to vacation, to hit the farmers’ market, to see doctors of your choosing, to try acupuncture, to feed your kids fresh eggs, to slow the ravages of aging, to read the freaking Economist — these things don’t just take money. They also take time.
“I think that’s the hardest thing to swallow,” one 30-something mom says. “The idea that money leads to wealth of time. If you can hire people to watch your kids and clean your home, then you can get a manicure and volunteer. You can live your life. And it all comes back to money.” She sighs.
Another word for this, Garrett Snider points out to me, is freedom. He’s talking about his charitable work and the benefit of money in that world, but what he says applies in all realms, I think: “Money means the freedom to pursue what you want.”
Right. Time, and health, and the freedom to live your best life, whatever you deem that to be. (Okay, and maybe a private plane.) Who wouldn’t want that? It makes me think of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s idea of rich people again, and the infamously snarky rebuttal his frenemy Ernest Hemingway squeezed into The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Originally, Hemingway used Fitzgerald’s own name in the story, writing:
He remembered poor Scott Fitzgerald and his romantic awe of [the rich] and how he had started a story once that began, “The very rich are different from you and me.” And how someone had said to Scott, “Yes, they have more money.”
Published as “Hush Money” in the June 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.