A new trend in high-end fashion has emerged that speaks of a new era in how the ultra-wealthy convey their identity: Quiet luxury.
Breaking from the days of loud logo-boasting in the early and mid-2000s, quiet luxury gives a nod to subtle and almost invisible branding, while focusing on the overall fit and feel of an item of clothing. It has an “old money” feeling where a fashion time capsule transporting through the 1930s, 50s and of course, the 90s would capture similar styles and colours: Trench coats, leather, cream linen, 100% cotton, white button-ups, navy suede, cashmere and head-to-toe neutrals. There’s a reason these fabrics and styles have made a place for themselves in every decade since the turn of the 20th century: Quiet luxury is about clothing that possesses longevity, and it’s not phased with fitting in nor standing out.
Compared to the days at the start of the new millennium of blingy design embellishments where even the short-sighted could spot a Gucci bag or a Dolce and Gabbana shirt, quiet luxury is less about attracting attention and more about embodying a lifestyle. Don’t get us wrong - quiet luxury still means status. However, if we look deeper into this trend, a change in consumer behaviour and psychology is noticeable, while the factor of economic anxiety permeates both buyers, luxury brands and mid-range brands trying to copy the trend.
What does quiet luxury, also known as “stealth wealth”, mean for the fashion arena as well as sustainability? How and why has consumer behaviour changed in this manner? What lessons can brands and retailers learn? Omnia discusses this new trend as it pertains to the state of fashion, e-commerce and retail.
Fashion continues to reflect the economic mood
When the internet revolution optimised entire economies in the late 90s and early 2000s with growing wealth and booming revenues, consumer sentiment matched this energy. Shoppers wanted to show their successes and ambitions with material objects, and branded clothing and accessories were one of the best ways to do it.
However, decades on, those same consumers as well as their children, who are now in the millennial and Gen Z age groups, are experiencing a totally different economic climate. “The idea of buying disposable or flashy fashion at this particular moment doesn’t feel as right as it did a couple of years ago,” said Robert Burke, chief executive of retail consultancy Robert Burke Associates, who shared this with Business of Fashion in an interview. “The psyche of the customer today, people are attracted to buying luxury goods that have longevity,” said Burke.
Emphasising “this particular moment” that Burke refers to, consumers are more price-conscious today than they have been since the start of the covid-19 pandemic in early 2020: For two months in a row (May and June), US consumer spending has decreased by 3% versus last year, despite inflation falling significantly since this time in 2022. High-income earners are not excluded from this, as credit card and debit card spending for consumers earning more than $100,000 per year shows:
As shown above, high-income earners have found ways to steadily decline their spending over the last 12-24 months, reaching -3% year-on-year spending in June 2023. As spending confidence declines among shoppers of all income brackets, shoppers are looking for a sense of long-term stability in their fashion choices so they don’t have to spend more money on clothing when the next trend cycle begins in a few months. “It’s a mirror to the current economic climate,” said Heather Kaminetsky, the North American president at Mytheresa, a global e-commerce marketplace for luxury brands. “There are times in the world when everything’s great and people want to show off, but right now, everyone’s a little bit uncertain.”
During the height of the covid-19 pandemic in 2020 when travel bans and social restrictions were in place, consumers reflected the economic landscape with the casualisation of their wardrobe. Sweatpants, jumpers, t-shirts and sneakers became common choices for social or professional gatherings.
Just as consumers reflected their feelings on the state of the world through their fashion purchases back then, they are repeating the cycle today as geopolitical tensions remain high, and inflation, food and energy costs cause consumers to crave the security and simplicity the quiet luxury trend purveys. “We came out of the pandemic and we had that maximalist moment, which was such a release,” said Lorna Hall, director of fashion intelligence at trend forecasting firm WGSN. This explains the 21% increase in global revenue from fashion retail between 2020-2021. “Now, reality has bitten: not just the economic reality, but the reality of real life. We’re back to daily norms.”
What opportunities can quiet luxury give mass-market brands and retailers?
Quiet luxury doesn’t only have to belong to the 1%. Since the emergence of it, more affordable brands that aren’t in this highly exclusive category should find ways to capitalise on it - and some already are. The bulk of consumers mostly purchase from fast fashion brands like Zara, Old Navy, Zalando, and H&M or from mid-range luxury brands like Banana Republic which have worked in the quiet luxury trend in unique ways.
Banana Republic advertises that they design suits in Italian mills, and so does luxury brand Brunello Cucinelli, allowing this more affordable brand a step into the quiet luxury category. Other brands may create “capsule collections” that suggest they are a once-off phenomenon created for a specific person or time.
Country Road’s 2023 winter collection includes a number of minimalistic basics, including a white fitted turtle neck knit that’s made from extra-fine Australian Merino wool with 20% silk. The item has no branding, bling or embellishments, however, the luxury of this item comes from the quality of the wool and silk and the sustainable practices that went into creating this garment. Upsell this with a strategic marketing plan, and Country Road becomes part of the quiet luxury inner circle before you can take out your debit card.
The key for marketplaces like Zalando and ASOS or mass-market brands like Mango, Zara or Adidas to attract quiet luxury shoppers is to market their other winning attributes. Conveying agelessness or exclusivity will look different for each brand. For example, Adidas’ Adiclub rewards program conveys exclusivity by gifting members with first access to brand-new clothing ranges, giving invites to live events, discounting certain items, offering rewards for taking part in sporting community events, and even giving birthday gifts.
A rewards program for a fashion-centric brand like Mango would not fit, which is why they opted for a video campaign featuring handmade and hand-painted ceramics made in La Bisbal d'Empordà, a small town in Spain, which are part of their new home collection. The campaign gives shoppers the feeling of owning something distinctive; something bespoke; and something that contributes to the economy of a small place far, far away.
Both Adidas and Mango, which are brands that are unique to one another, used their individual winning attributes to convey either exclusivity or timelessness, which are central to the look and feel of quiet luxury.
What minimalism is to home decor, quiet luxury could be to fashion
For home and DIY retailers, quiet luxury intersects with the minimalism trend that has remained strong since before the Covid pandemic arrived. Minimalism spurred a number of brands to create furniture and decor ranges that focused on neutral tones, clutterless spaces and comfy textures. This offers even more brands and retailers opportunities to attract new customers, higher relevance and more sales.
Trends like quiet luxury have staying power due to the fact that they offer accessible, easy-to-style pieces that can be replicated in both the luxury and mass-market categories. This dichotomy would not exist in 2006, the year the world delved into the high fashion scene of “The Devil Wears Prada”, where luxury leaders remained the gatekeepers and creators of trends. Today, social media allows anybody to become a viral trendsetter, from fashion to travel to homeware.
Viral trends can be lucrative opportunities for brands and retailers if their sales, marketing and fashion merchandising teams work together to build a creative, robust strategy.