In an age of astonishing wealth, nothing reveals the lives of the ultra-rich like the FT’s unashamedly ostentatious luxury magazine.
BY By Andy Beckett for THE GUARDIAN
On 7 October 1967, the Financial Times, then the most buttoned-up newspaper in Britain and quite possibly the world, discreetly added a regular new page to its Saturday edition. Buried deep inside the paper, behind the usual thicket of articles about share prices and companies and pensions, the page was introduced to readers a little euphemistically, as “a guide to good living”. In small letters across the top of the page, the FT spelled out what “good living” meant. The page was called How to Spend It.
In the still slightly austere postwar Britain of 1967, where the gret majority of the FT’s prosperous readership of 150,000 lived, spending opportunities were limited. The new, monochrome page had an article about installing home central heating, then a relative luxury; about a new electric coffee maker; and about how to select and cook a pheasant: “Choose carefully. Hens are always best.” The most expansive piece was on an old-fashioned Scottish hotel owned by state-run British Rail. “The visitor is received with all the ceremony of an arrival at a country house,” wrote the reviewer. “You go into the immense hall and no one takes any notice.”
Fifty-one years later, the rich are very different. It may be hard to imagine now, but for much of the 20th century, they were a relatively small, even beleaguered group: held in check in Britain and other western countries by high taxes and steadily more egalitarian social values. Today, they are an ever more dominant and international elite: lightly taxed, politically pivotal, admired as much as criticised, and so untethered from everyone else in their lifestyles that they exist in “a parallel country”, as the American investigator of the wealthy Robert Frank puts it. Since 1980, the share of national income taken by the richest 1% of Britons and Americans has almost trebled. Across the world as a whole, the 1% now have half of all the wealth, the highest proportion for almost a century:
The cover of the 13 October 2017 edition of the FT’s How to Spend It magazine.
Sometimes this elite life is fleetingly visible to the rest of us – the chauffeur-driven car waiting outside a boutique in a smart part of London or New York. More often, it is invisible – the super-yacht out at sea. The 2008 financial crisis and subsequent global recession and austerity have left this life largely unaffected – and often enhanced, with emergency measures such as quantitative easing hugely benefiting the rich – while altering the lives of almost everyone else. Books and articles about the 1% have become a booming genre; many newspapers, including this one, now have “wealth correspondents” to report on the super-rich. Yet journalists and academics often struggle to capture more than the hard, glossy surfaces of this private world: the size of the yachts, the profusion of servants. If you want to understand the underlying desires and pleasures – and the restlessness and competitiveness – of the 1%, then you need to read How to Spend It.
The original one-page section has swelled into a thick, lustrous, large-format magazine, almost the size of a tabloid newspaper, which now appears 34 times a year, distributed with the FT across the world on Fridays and weekends. There is also an elaborate website, updated daily – and, unlike the FT’s main website, presented without a paywall. Under consumer capitalism, you are what you buy – or would like to buy. But the rich are different from everyone else in their consumption, because they can afford almost anything. Their challenge is choosing. The key role in this process played over decades by How to Spend It has made it an almost unique social lens, through which we can see how much the world has polarised since the egalitarian 1960s and 70s.
Together, the magazine and website form “an elegant luxury environment for readers and advertisers”, as the FT’s promotional material puts it. At How to Spend It, “the world’s most desirable audience, with the largest purchasing power and highest net worth” is – in theory at least – judiciously steered by expert FT journalists towards the correct purchasing decisions. The magazine usually has between 80 and 100 pages. About half of them are advertisements, for the biggest global luxury brands and for more singular commodities, such as art and property. The other pages are a gleaming parade of articles – not always easy to tell from the ads – about the most expensive fashion, travel, food, interior design and other consumer goods imaginable.
A long recent feature suggests “a sumptuous gastronomic tour of Spain by private jet”, three days long “from £6,995 per person”. An artfully casual page of recommended “knick-knackery” includes a “Chaumet Liens Lumière Watch in gold with diamonds and mother-of-pearl on alligator strap”, costing £12,870. A 2012 article on home furnishings with an aeronautical theme included a decommissioned Sky Flash air-to-air missile, polished to a perfect sheen and mounted on a pedestal: “This could be sitting in your drawing room for a mere £29,500.” To read How to Spend It, depending on your income level and attitude to extravagance, is to enter a world that is seductive or ridiculous, escapist or intimidating, a voyeuristic thrill or utterly enraging – and possibly all at the same time.
Sometimes, How to Spend It is almost comically refined – a French restaurateur describes her “perfect weekend”, featuring “brioche flavoured with orange blossom” and a visit to a favourite hat maker; and sometimes it is crassly ostentatious – a regular themed issue called Boats That Rock. According to the FT, 61% of How to Spend It readers are men, and the average age of this readership is 47. The same trophy products for the middle-aged alpha male appear again and again: vintage motorbikes, fast cars, private aircraft. Alongside these paeans to old-fashioned masculine luxury – appropriate to our age’s Edwardian levels of inequality – are pages and pages of ads for the most delicate and rarefied women’s jewellery.
Most consumer journalism draws readers to products within, or just beyond, their financial reach. But How to Spend It “is not aspirational”, says Qing Wang, a professor at Warwick Business School and an authority on the consumption habits of the very wealthy. “It’s for those who’ve made it, for the exclusive enjoyment of them and their kind.” Not all How to Spend It readers are rich, but a lot of them are. According to the FT, “Half have or would consider paying $14,000+ on a high-end watch” and “1 in 5 have or would consider using the service of a private jet”.
Wang says: “How to Spend It can be sophisticated, but in the end, it’s all about status. Many of its readers are bankers, or businessmen from China and India – quite blunt people. They like the magazine’s directness. They pick it up thinking: ‘Just tell me what I need.’”
“The magazine has a great conversion rate for advertisers,” or turning ads into sales, says Alice Pickthall of the media research firm Enders Analysis. A former FT journalist says: “Some readers take How to Spend It into a shop, point at a picture in it, and say: ‘I want that watch.’ It’s the Argos catalogue for rich people.”
The consumption habits of this elite matter increasingly to all of us; the spending decisions of the rich are now economic and social forces of enormous power. “As the rich have been getting progressively richer,” an analysis by the US investment bank Citigroup found in 2005, they have been “saving less and spending more”. Unlike other consumers, the report went on, the rich find many products, such as designer clothes, more desirable the more expensive they become. The countries where the rich congregate, such as Britain, Canada and the US, have been changed radically by this frenzy of spending: they have become “Plutonomies – economies powered by the wealthy”.
Plutonomies have ever more dominant and sterile cities, spiralling property prices, worsening social segregation and increasingly polluted environments – as the 1% travel more and more, and take up more and more space, their luxury towers literally casting everyone else into shadow. Above all, the increasingly separate world of the rich consumer sends a divisive message: if you have enough money, you can escape.
Another sign of a plutonomy is that more and more high-profile institutions – universities, museums, media organisations – are dependent on the wealthy for funding or subsidy. Today’s FT is more cosmopolitan and influential than when it produced its first How to Spend It page in 1967. It is one of the most prestigious and important newspapers in the world. Less than a third of its 900,000 subscribers now live in the UK; and as well as authoritative business reporting, it is increasingly known for its urbane tone and its investigations – notably in recent months about sexual harassment at the Houses of Parliament and the (now disbanded) Presidents Club in London, and about alleged bullying at the British advertising giant WPP.
Yet the FT is also a less secure paper than it was half a century ago, with print media in decline and the advertising revenues from online journalism uncertain. In 2015, the paper was sold for £844m by its owners since 1957, Pearson, to the Japanese media company Nikkei. In 2016, the latest year for which accounts are available, the FT as a whole made a pre-tax profit of £6.2m on revenues of £311m: a substantial success for a traditional media brand, but a thin profit margin by corporate standards.
Nobody outside the FT knows exactly how much of that revenue comes from the advertisements in How to Spend It. Like other papers, the FT does not release financial results for individual supplements. But periodically there are proud hints from the FT’s management. In 2001, the then editor Andrew Gowers said the magazine had been “profitable from the first issue”. In 2007, the FT’s current chief executive John Ridding described How to Spend It as “a fantastic franchise”. Julia Carrick, who conceived the How to Spend It magazine and was its publisher until 2015, told me: “Some of the issues were way over £1m in profit.” At its current publication rate, a conservative estimate of How to Spend It’s annual profits would be above £10m.
At a recent meeting of FT executives, convened to discuss the long-term future of the paper, the current editor, Lionel Barber, reportedly declared: “What we need is another How to Spend It.” Among senior FT management, a piece of melodramatic business jargon is sometimes used to describe the importance of How to Spend It and its editor since 1998, Gillian de Bono, to the FT’s continued existence. They are said to be “mission-critical”.
The 20th anniversary issue of the FT’s How to Spend It magazine, from November 2014.
How to Spend It and its readers usually radiate confidence. But its pages also inadvertently reveal that the rich have anxieties. Unlike in many other luxury magazines, almost everything covered is extremely expensive. Most products have the same kind of satiny, unblemished finish, both showy and perfectionist. Interiors are invariably neat. Interviewees are immaculate in their dress and speech. Everything is under control. Only rarely and awkwardly are references made to relevant but unsettling events outside this carefully curated world. “Post-protracted recession, repression and years of general national malaise, Zimbabwe,” an article announced in May, “is now one of the most exciting places to safari on the African continent.” As one of the magazine’s staff puts it, “Gillian gives readers permission to be rich and not feel guilty.” (This escapist approach may have attracted at least one infamous reader: in 2011, a reportedly “well-thumbed” copy of How to Spend It was found in a compound belonging to the besieged Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.)
Yet while it reinforces the rich’s sense of entitlement – their sense that the world is their playground – How to Spend It also serves to remind them that they frequently lack taste. With striking bluntness, the magazine’s name says as much. “Compared with the truly fashionable, who are often less well-off, and have acquired their edge by having to choose between products,” says a prominent British writer on class and style, “seriously rich people are often ever so slightly behind the beat.”
In an age of mass luxury – of mobbed designer concessions in department stores, of designer shops proliferating in seemingly every major city – how can the rich stand out? How to Spend It often advises its readers to buy limited-edition or hand-made goods. But sometimes the discernment required seems never-ending. In an issue in May, the British designer of upper-class menswear Jeremy Hackett recommended a London shoemaker, George Cleverley, whose bespoke products cost “from £3,600”. “My current order,” said Hackett, “is for some tan and white Oxfords … made from a batch of reindeer leather salvaged from the Metta Catharina – a 53-ton brigantine that sank off the southern coast of England during a voyage from St Petersburg to Genoa in 1786. The leather was tanned in St Petersburg by artisans whose techniques were secret for centuries … ” Hackett might have been joking – except that How to Spend It doesn’t do jokes.
There are rarely any people in its formal, crystalline photos of palatial hotels and homes, as if readers need to have these places to themselves, as sanctuaries from the rest of the world. “How to Spend It sells a kind of tranquility – a promise that luxurious products and experiences will have a restorative effect,” Qing Wang says. “That’s what many of its readers need.”
Unlike the wealthy of previous gilded ages, most of today’s rich have made their own money. Many are workaholics. “They are time-poor. They want instant satisfaction – and they also want relaxation,” adds Wang. It has been the lucrative but strenuous task of How to Spend It to fulfil these contradictory needs.
How to Spend It began as a more carefree enterprise: the product of a reader’s letter and an extramarital affair. In 1958, Sheila Black, a clever former actor who was married to a tabloid editor, wrote to the then editor of the FT, the famously staid Sir Gordon Newton, to complain that his business newspaper rarely actually wrote about consumer goods. Newton responded by hiring her. She became the FT’s first female journalist, first consumer reporter, and Newton’s lover.
The FT can be a conservative place, and it took nine years for Black’s work to be formalised as the How to Spend It page. She and a tiny staff were given their own office, to which Newton “would go in the evening to share a gin and tonic with Black,” her FT obituary recorded after she died in 2007. “Other staff usually took the hint and left.”
Newton retired in 1972, and Black left the paper with him. For the next decade and a half, How to Spend It remained a minor part of the FT, a double-page spread at best, with breezy articles about women’s sandals, or collecting carved wooden birds; sometimes it was part of a section in the paper a little patronisingly called Diversions. A puritanism lingered among the paper’s readers, and some of them objected to the name How to Spend It. In 1982, with Britain emerging unsteadily from a deep recession, one wrote to complain that the name was “inapposite to our time, vulgar and an affront”.
“I sat there shaking in my shoes at the criticism,” recalled Black’s successor as How to Spend It editor, Lucia van der Post. “But I decided to publish the letter on my pages, and let the readers decide about the name, with the best response winning a case of champagne.”
The section kept its name. During the mid-80s, it began to cover more luxurious products. But it did so with a degree of irony and caution. A 1985 piece about designer sunglasses reassured readers that they were “no longer just for Mafia bosses” but “an acceptable accoutrement for gentlemen”. A 1990 piece described vintage grand pianos as “a reasonable investment”. Van der Post was the daughter of the explorer and conservationist Laurens van der Post, best known for celebrating the ascetic lives of African Bushmen. The contrast between his and her attitudes to possessions seemed striking – the shift to a more materialistic world in a single family. But she wrote with infectious enthusiasm about “whatever interested me”, she told me, and she acquired a cult readership.
Meanwhile, the potential market for luxury journalism was changing. For much of the 20th century, from the end of the first world war until the 80s, the share of national income taken by the 1% in Britain and other wealthy countries had been in almost continuous decline. But with the election of radical rightwing leaders such as Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and Ronald Reagan in 1980, and a shift towards a more winner-takes-all global economy, this decline went into reverse. Slowly at first, during the 80s and early 90s, with their regular recessions, then faster from the mid-90s onwards, the 1% multiplied and got much wealthier. In the US, they received about a tenth of the national income in 1980, about a sixth in 1995, and around a fifth by 1999.
Demand for prestige goods grew, and their prices rose sharply. Since 1982, the American business magazine Forbes has been tracking the cost of the same 40 “ultraluxe items”, such as caviar and tennis courts, to create what it calls a “Cost of Living Extremely Well Index”. This index has risen almost twice as fast as the cost of consumer goods overall.
During the 90s, makers of luxury products began to merge into ambitious conglomerates, such as Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton (LVMH). There were relatively few exclusively upmarket magazines for them to advertise in: mainly women’s monthlies such as Tatler and Vogue. During the early 90s, Julia Carrick, a shrewd FT veteran who oversaw the commercial side of How to Spend It, spotted an opening. “I knew that FT readers, who obviously had a certain disposable income, were not reading the glossies,” she told me. Then as now, most FT readers were men. “I went to see the [luxury] brands, and got them to support me.” In 1994, she persuaded the FT to turn How to Spend It into a magazine.
The cover feature of the launch issue was a manifesto by Van der Post, who sounded suddenly liberated: “A society … weary of the drabness … is more than ready for something new. With the worst of the recession behind us and a renewed sense of optimism in the air, it is time to dress up again, time for artifice … [for] new-style glamour.” There was an article on men’s tuxedos; ads for Ralph Lauren and a TAG Heuer “18k solid gold sports watch”; and a new, aristocratic Scottish model, Honor Fraser, wearing a floor-skimming velvet coat by Emporio Armani.
Yet the lavishness of it all was skin-deep. Carrick had insisted on high-quality paper stock, to attract luxury advertisers, but there was a national paper shortage, so it had to be borrowed from another glossy. Many of the featured clothes were from then slightly fusty British heritage brands; and most of the goods in the magazine cost hundreds rather than thousands of pounds. There was even an ad for the Vauxhall Tigra, a cheeky, mass-production British sports car sold for a modest £10,995. The 1% were not as rich as they would become; nor was How to Spend It their shopping list quite yet.
The person who has made it so since, more than anyone else, is Gillian de Bono. She joined the FT in 1994, to help Van der Post, who was not an experienced editor, run How to Spend It. De Bono was in her early 40s, and had already edited women’s magazines and the consumer journal Which? It was a populist rather than elite CV, but she had a reputation for limitless energy and fastidiousness. In 1998, Van der Post returned to full-time writing, and De Bono succeeded her as editor.
For the next 20 years, as the rich became even richer, How to Spend It became ever more successful and sure of itself, steadily adding more pages to each issue and more issues to each year. Even during the shocking downturn of the 2008 financial crisis, when the opinion pages of the FT filled with stern warnings and reprimands about modern capitalism and its reckless elites, the magazine “made very few changes”, De Bono told the website Fashionista in 2014. “If you’re wealthy and you lose 20% of your wealth, it’s not going to stop you from eating out in fine restaurants and going on holiday and buying a new watch.” In 2009, during the recession caused by the financial crisis, How to Spend It launched its website. “There are still an awful lot of wealthy people in the world who don’t read How to Spend It,” said De Bono expansively.
One of its most fascinating but brazen regular items is a close look at the consumer desires of an individual, titled “the Aesthete”. As its name suggests, the page is meant to be more about taste than price – a chance to show connoisseurship. But rich people and costly products predominate. In 2012, with Britain enduring the austerity policies of George Osborne, the page featured the Conservative chancellor’s father, Sir Peter Osborne. He revealed that he had his eye on a “wonderful” desk costing £19,000, and had recently been “lent a villa by an Italian friend” on the exclusive Caribbean island of Mustique.
Like many of the rich themselves, the pages of How to Spend It have spent the turbulent decade since the financial crisis in a state of comfortable equilibrium, at the very least. “The design hasn’t changed for 10 years,” says a former staff member. The articles still unfurl in wide, stately columns; the enormous photos of products are still precisely arranged and white-bordered, as if for an unusually elegant catalogue. The few pictures of people are usually of artisan producers, characterfully lined and smiling, like trusty retainers on an idealised country estate.
A special boating-focused edition of the FT’s How to Spend It magazine from June 2017.
In some ways, this conservatism is precisely what makes How to Spend It appealing to an itinerant international readership whose working lives are often in flux. The same goes for its association with the steady, respectable FT, and with a certain version of England – as a place to buy a handmade shotgun or a well-cut suit. London in particular has presented itself very effectively since the 90s as a civilised, slightly retro pleasure ground for the global rich, and How to Spend It has helped burnish that myth.
If there is a How to Spend It ethos, De Bono has come to see herself as its guardian during her 20-year editorship. If she is presented with work she considers inadequate or unsuitable, she will say: “This is not How to Spend It. It’s not how we do it.”
A small, formal woman in her mid-60s with a perfect bobbed haircut, De Bono rarely stops working. In 2014, she told the website Politico that organising the 20th anniversary issue, in which every product mentioned was eventually auctioned for charity, “consumed me day and night for nine months”. Carrick said: “She’s incredibly hard-working.” A staff member said: “When Gillian goes on holiday, she looks at every single page proof on her sun lounger, on a laptop, and then phones in changes.”
The How to Spend It offices feel a little separate from the rest of the FT building in central London. The rest of the floor is open-plan, but How to Spend It’s space – a couple of dozen desks, and a corner office for De Bono – is behind a glass wall. The atmosphere is quiet and reverent: trophies won by the magazine and website stand prominently on a cabinet. The staff are mostly experienced journalists, men and women of varying ages, who work long days according to a weekly production rhythm that has been strictly maintained for years. A few are embarrassed by some of the material they process. “A 3,000-word piece on perfume – who’s reading that?” one asks rhetorically. But in the office they keep such thoughts to themselves. “Mind your own business, and do what you’re told – that’s the culture,” says another.
Serving the rich is usually not for the faint-hearted. The industries that cater to their elaborate tastes are often very exacting and top-down: the rich expect the best, and are not squeamish about hierarchies. Luxury magazines are no exception, and staff at How to Spend It have often worked for others. But complaints about How to Spend It’s working culture have recently provoked a crisis at one of the FT’s most profitable assets.
Last November, 18 of How to Spend It’s current and former staff filed a formal complaint under the FT’s whistleblower procedure, which permits serious allegations against managers to be submitted anonymously. As a result, the paper launched an internal inquiry into allegations of bullying against De Bono, going back more than a decade. The FT’s human resources department collected testimony from employees (some of whom now work on other sections of the FT), and compiled a dossier more than 40 pages long.
Seven months later, on 7 June, the inquiry finally reported. Its findings were not made public. According to a summary of the report written by the FT’s director of HR, the inquiry described De Bono’s “management style” as sometimes “erratic and, at its worst, didactic, high-handed and … (by her own admission) impatient”. It said there was “a perception within the team that certain individuals are being ‘targeted’” by De Bono. But it found that there was “not sufficient evidence of a history of harassment and bullying,” and cited “examples of Gillian evincing great thoughtfulness, understanding and empathy with individuals in her team, even among those who accuse her.” The “individual complaints” against her, the summary concluded, “have not been upheld.”
This verdict has not satisfied many of those who took part in the inquiry. They feel that it was not sufficiently independent or thorough, and that the paper is protecting one of its editorial stars. “People at How to Spend It are angry,” says one. The National Union of Journalists is backing the complainants. On 20 June, its large chapel at the FT passed a motion criticising the inquiry and promising “to support the whistleblowers should they decide to take further action”.
Over recent months, I have spoken at length to current and former How to Spend It staff. None of them have wanted to be named, or to have their complaints reported in any detail, for fear of being identified – luxury journalism is a small world. But their complaints are raw. One of them told me: “With Gillian, It’s always verbal. Sometimes, she does it one-on-one in her office, with the door shut. Sometimes, she explodes at you in front of everyone.”
“If you cross her, or fall out of favour, for any reason, everything you do is wrong,” one former staff member said. “People become like ghosts,” another staffer told me. “I’ve seen 15, 20 people in tears. I’ve seen so many of them just sitting on the steps [outside the FT building] after work.”
De Bono and Barber declined to be interviewed for this article. But an FT spokesperson said: “We can confirm that complaints about the management of How to Spend It were lodged last year. These were fully investigated in a rigorous, professional internal process. The complaints were not upheld. We are, however, actively looking at ways to better support the magazine’s continued rapid growth.”
A senior FT source was franker: “We’re trying to bring the culture of How to Spend It closer to the rest of the paper … to improve its employee relations. Gillian is a tough cookie; the damn thing wouldn’t work unless she was. But she is not the easiest person.”
The magazine and its editor are still “mission-critical” to the FT. On 7 June, it was Barber who presented the inquiry’s conclusions to the How to Spend It staff. “Lionel marched into the How to Spend It offices,” says an FT staff member, “stood right beside Gillian, and said: ‘You work for a great magazine. Gillian is a world-class editor. But it has been a difficult time for everyone. We’re going to implement changes. And then we want to draw a line.’ He then asked for questions, but there was a stony silence.”
In an age of fragmenting media, there is something old-fashioned about a single publication telling the rich how to live. Over the past dozen years, other newspapers have tried to copy the How to Spend It formula. Rival magazines and websites such as the Times’s Luxx and the Daily Telegraph’s Luxury have less clever names, but in content and format are not always easy to tell apart from the original. For now, there is enough advertising to go round: luxury magazines, being highly tactile, useful badges of status, and free of online clutter, are one of the few remaining boom areas in print media. But gauche millionaires seeking advice on shirtmakers can now shop around.
Meanwhile, a different approach to luxury journalism has been evolving – one that suggests that the good life requires eclectic experiences and products, not just pricey ones. You can find this less glossy approach in the New York Times’s T magazine, the Economist’s spin-off, 1843 (previously Intelligent Life), and Monocle magazine – whose founder, Tyler Brûlé, wrote a column for the FT until a complaint last year that he used it to mention clients of his creative agency. In these magazines, upmarket consumer recommendations sit alongside articles about Asian street food and Scandinavian public transport, and about politics and social trends. Some analysts think this mix is better attuned to the tastes of prosperous millennials – the 1% of the future. “A 30-year-old’s idea of luxury is very different to a 50-year-old’s,” says Caroline Burkart, of Scorpio Partnership, a London consultancy that studies and advises the wealthy.
In 2017, a regular survey of the luxury goods market by the management consultants Bain concluded that a “millennial state of mind” was “changing purchasing habits”, forcing companies to focus more on products that were simultaneously upmarket and downmarket, such as deliberately trashy-looking designer trainers. How to Spend It does have articles about trainers, but it prefers to write about shoes that send more reliable signals about wealth, like brogues.
How to Spend It also occasionally features affordable, seemingly everyday products. In the latest issue, the Danish designer Øivind Slaatto recommends a Copenhagen restaurant for its porridge. But the need to impress is always lurking in the background. The restaurant owner, Slaatto points out, “has become a kind of rock star – he does porridge demonstrations at music festivals”. How to Spend It never stops being aware of status; and nor, it implies, should its readers. For all the leisure it depicts, How to Spend It makes being rich seem hard work.
In recent years, one of the places it has recommended repeatedly as a shopping destination is Mount Street in Mayfair. Once a backwater of offices and antique shops, the street has been transformed since the mid-2000s into a canyon of forbiddingly exclusive boutiques, selling designer clothes and leather goods. Staff unlock doors to let you in, then follow you solicitously but watchfully round the creamy interiors, which are a little like bank vaults, often partly subterranean and much bigger than they appear from the street.
Inside the boutiques, the rest of the world recedes. There are rarely many other customers; just staff waiting patiently to serve you, and walls of soft, flawless products. Mount Street is a perfect microcosm of the exquisite, sometimes airless, increasingly separate world that How to Spend It has helped construct for the rich since the 60s.
But this sort of experience may no longer be what the rich desire most. An even more significant indicator of what separates them from the rest of us can be found in The Sum of Small Things, a rare clear-eyed book about the rich, published last year by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, an American academic who studies the west’s wealthiest cities. In recent years, she argues, the rich have begun to “spend significantly less on conspicuous consumption and more on inconspicuous consumption”, such as “education, healthcare, pensions, and personal insurance”. They are buying the security and long-term elite status that are more valuable, in perilous times, than escape or pleasure.
“Top income groups,” she continues, “are not just living good lives in the present, but making sure this standard is maintained into the future and for [their] family members” – ensuring that another generation will have more wealth than they know what to do with. Which is good news if you’re in the business of telling them how to spend it.