When too much is too much.
There is nothing quite like the feeling of security one gets from uncorking a $28,000 2003 Chateau Petrus in your own formal dining room encased in bulletproof glass. Or the self-satisfaction that arises when you have your $300 million Airbus A380 jet, capacity 525, to yourself. Or the comfort that comes by walking into your $135 million, 95-acre estate in Aspen, Colo., after a long, grueling day shushing down the slopes. It’s nice to be excessively wealthy.
These days, though, having mere money appears to count for very little: You have to show you have it. And it’s clear things have gotten out of hand when even Donatella Versace—she of the navel-deep necklines, golf ball–sized diamond rings and glittering Lake Como villa—has seen enough. “Today, in-your-face excess can be annoying and vulgar,” says the designer, “so people shy away from being too excessive because they will be criticized.”
Really? Where exactly has Donatella been hanging out lately? Clearly not in the bling-laden restaurants of London, Moscow, Shanghai, Macao or even New York. The world’s newly rich oligarchs, real estate moguls and hedge fund managers seem to be abiding by Mark Twain’s dictum, “Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.”
They’re buying up art, property, cars, watches, wine and even social status in what appears to be a macho game of who’s got the biggest. Consider Ken Griffin, who shelled out $80 million for a Jasper Johns painting in 2006, nearly five times the artist’s previous record sale price. Or SAC Capital’s Steven Cohen, who bought Damien Hirst’s shark in a formaldehyde tank for $8 million. Now, perhaps fueled by the rush of that sale, the Young British Artist is marketing his much-publicized platinum human skull covered in more than 8,000 diamonds, for $100 million.
But even at that price it doesn’t touch Jackson Pollock’s No. 5, 1948, which a Mexican financier reportedly bought from David Geffen for a record $142.7 million.
Perhaps no money manager these days is quite as adept at big spending as Steve Schwarzman. The Blackstone Group co-founder eats $400 stone crabs for lunch and bought an historic Palm Beach manse for $20.5 million— just to tear it down. In February, he took the cake with his 60th birthday extravaganza by renting out the Park Avenue Armory and turning its front room into an exact replica of his own plush living room at 740 Park Avenue for cocktail hour. Martin Short emceed the affair, and both Patti LaBelle and Rod Stewart performed (Stewart was reportedly paid $1 million). As one of Schwarzman’s friends told WWD, “It was over the top, but [Steve] never pretends to be anything else.” (Rumored to cost anywhere between $3 million and $10 million, Schwarzman’s party was peanuts compared with the 50th birthday celebration the Sultan of Brunei threw for himself in 1996. It cost approximately $27 million and included a performance by Michael Jackson.)
Certainly Schwarzman’s 60th was the biggest personally financed bash New York had seen since Saul Steinberg’s 50th birthday in 1989. Then, the corporate raider’s wife, Gayfryd, pitched a fancy backyard tent at their home in Quogue, N.Y., and fashioned it to look like a Flemish eating and drinking house. She invited 250 of the city’s crème de la crème and hired actors to portray 10 tableaux vivants.
So is today’s climate of blatant consumption really so different from the past? Aren’t the Eighties referred to as the Decade of Excess? Or what about going way back, to the Gilded Age of the 19th century, when men named Rockefeller and Carnegie ruled the financial roost? After all, according to Time magazine, Rockefeller’s 1913 net worth of $900 million would be worth more than $150 billion today, three times Bill Gates’ fortune.
“Some of it is cyclical,” says Dana Telsey, chief research officer of the Telsey Advisory Group. “I think it’s generational, too. The time you grew up in, your surroundings and your parents and their values on how money is spent influences the values you’re instilled with.”
The current climate of excess also could be attributed to the fact that there are just more billionaires around now than there were 20 years ago. In 1986, Forbes counted 140 on its annual list. Today, there are 946. And, of course, luxury brands are only egging the moneyed set on by manufacturing more astronomically priced goods than ever before, tempting them to spend their cash on $20,000 shoes (Roger Vivier), $1.2 million cars (Bugatti) and $600 face cream (Dr. Gregory Brown’s Revive Volumizing Serum).
But what is unique about the spending being done today versus that which occurred 20 or so years ago is who’s doing it. In the Eighties, the majority of luxury consumers were Americans, just beginning to buy private jets and yachts. Now customers from China, the Middle East and especially Russia are picking up the purchasing slack.
“Most of our clients are Middle Eastern and Russian. We have very few American clients [for larger vessels],” says Kyri Kyriacou, board member of Liveras Yachts. The 23-yearold Monaco-based company rents out two superyachts, the 280-foot Alysia and 298-foot Constellation, for $127,000 a day and $1.04 million a week, respectively (both are outfitted with helipads and full-service spas).
Of course, now Kyriacou is beginning to witness the growing trend of gigayachts—vessels exceeding 150 meters, or 492 feet. “The largest are between 180 and 189 meters [or 590 and 620 feet],” he says. Above that, you go into a cruise ship.”
(Fashion designers, as it turns out, are surprisingly modest—relatively speaking—when it comes to sailing vessels. Giorgio Armani’s newest yacht is 213 feet, Valentino’s TM Blue One is 164 feet, Alberta Ferretti’s Prometej is 144 feet, Roberto Cavalli’s Baglietto is 134 feet and Patrizio Bertelli and Miuccia Prada’s Ulisse is 105 feet.)
Dana Thomas, author of Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, puts the spending habits of new markets, such as China and Russia, this way: “These are countries where luxuries and the good life had been suppressed for so long that now it’s sort of like Catholic school kids who go to university and go wild.”
Indeed, it seems the Russians are particularly crazy over fashion and jewelry. Hot spots like Moscow’s Vogue Café have become meeting points for rich women to show off their Birkin bags or diamonds, and to maintain social status, they continually bring new bags, jewelry and clothes for the others to envy. This, perhaps, explains the behavior of five clients of the Chanel boutique there, who place orders worth 1 million euros, or about $1.3 million, each and every year. Or the customers who contributed to the whopping 500,000 euro, or $683,500, sales tally on the opening day of Ralph Lauren’s Moscow store.
But it’s not only Russia. Customers worldwide are going crazy for high-priced fashion. “It used to be stunning to sell a watch for over $100,000,” Audemars Piguet chief executive officer François-Henry Bennahmias said in reference to the global watch market. “Today, it’s no longer surprising.” Last year, Piguet sold more than 80 $100,000 watches, while Severin Wunderman, owner of watch brand Corum, told WWD that his firm had sold 22 watches retailing for $1 million-plus in the first six months of this year. Maybe the owners use the second hand to tell how much cash they’re reeling in every minute of the day.
Watching the excesses of the rich has always been a form of sport for average Joes, and it can be both fun and jaw-dropping. Publicist Paul Wilmot tells the story of a famous Hollywood mogul who was boarding the Concorde (since discontinued) with his eight-year-old son. The son turned to his father and said, “Daddy, what are all these people doing on our plane?” Wilmot chuckles, “He’d never been on a commercial plane before. I mean, that’s pretty embarrassing.”
On a slightly smaller scale, there are those jet-setting Manhattanites, such as Jerry Seinfeld and Sarah Jessica Parker, who shave off travel time from the city to the Hamptons by eschewing the 100-mile road trip for a quick 45- minute, $6,000 helicopter ride.
“I did that once,” admits Decades owner Cameron Silver, “on someone else’s helicopter. That’s the interesting thing. I am surrounded by all this excess, but it’s not what I have. You need poor people around to keep you real when the reality becomes so different.”
And how. Even in this latest Age of Glorious Excess, thank goodness there still are things that cross the line into plain vulgarity. Like planning to tear down an orphanage in order to put up a mansion, as in the case of India’s Mukesh Ambani. He probably could have used the counsel of Silver’s “poor people” when he decided to build a 27-story palace for himself on the site of an orphanage in Mumbai. The residence will rise 570 feet into the air, have six parking levels, a pool and a helipad. The Financial Times called the $500 million home “one of the most extravagant displays of material wealth in India’s modern history.”
Then again, maybe it’s not the billionaire’s fault. People who come into money in a short period of time haven’t necessarily had the time, nor desire, to understand the subtleties of good taste. “If they’re just coming into money, they probably don’t have the grounding in what’s appropriate, what’s too much, what’s too little,” says Alice Finn, whose firm, Ballentine, Finn and Co., advises the rich on their spending and manages their funds. “So one thing I know is that a lot of people advise, ‘For X amount of time, don’t do anything.'”
On the flip side of all this outrageous consumerism are those billionaires who have shunned excessive spending, who either choose to donate a large chunk of their net worth to charity (like Bill Gates) or have perhaps turned over a new 24-karat gold leaf. German royal Gloria von Thurn und Taxis is said to have severely curbed what used to be an outrageous spending habit in the last few years—word is she took a business management course to get the family assets in order after her husband’s death. And The New York Times just reported on the affluent group of home owners on Ibiza who are forgoing million-dollar additions, instead choosing to expand their properties with actual teepees made from canvas and sticks. Even Greenwich, Conn., long the bastion of the conservative, moneyed set, has put the kibosh on massive mansions by rejecting a recent request by a landowner to build a 39,000-square-foot home—of course, it also had a 1,165-square-foot pool house.
“The true cachet lies in being mindful of how you lead your life,” says Clementine Brown at Quintessentially, a U.K.-based lifestyle concierge firm. “If somebody has wealth now, they have a sense of obligation, which comes with that. For example, the Hummer, once a rich man’s toy, is now a vulgar statement. Although, on the flip side, the luxury market still seems to flourish. There are still people who want to buy gold-plated poker dice.”
And, for that matter, $148,000 handbags: When Hermès delivered two of its $148,000 crocodile Birkin handbags with pavé diamond hardware to its Madison Avenue store, there were customers anxiously awaiting the goods with bated breath.
“The Hermès bag is my favorite over-the-top item,” laughs Deluxe author Thomas. “It’s like, really?”