Why China’s richest people are all about quiet luxury and old-money fashion
First, people respect the silken clothes. Then, they respect the man.
For generations, that’s been a popular saying in China: 先敬罗衣后敬人. It translates to a simple lesson for everyone who wants to be wealthy – or at least look the part.
What looking rich means to the Chinese has evolved over the years, but one thing is consistent: they spare no expense. Chinese shoppers will make up 40 per cent of all luxury consumers by 2030, despite recent turbulence, per Bain & Co’s research. Fashion houses from Burberry to Dior are also doubling down on their efforts to cash in.
But the face of China’s rich is changing. Gone are the flashy logos you can spot from a mile away. A world away from the US, the laws of the hit HBO series Succession apply, too. The old-money aesthetic is in, new-money fashion is gauche, and if you want to be taken seriously, play the game.
The rules are simple. No head-to-toe Gucci. No loud colours, no all-over Louis Vuitton print. The logic is, you wouldn’t wear anything that you’d see in Crazy Rich Asians or Netflix’s Bling Empire. And, per Tom Wambsgans of Succession, small, unassuming pouches only, because carrying a “ludicrously capacious” bag is out of the question.
Decoding “laoqian” style
To understand style and money in China, there are three terms you need to be familiar with: laoqianfeng, xinqianfeng and tuhao.
To start, what flavour of rich you are in China is coded into your very person, from the clothes you wear, to the way your hair and skin looks. In attempting to craft your image in the style of laoqianfeng – similar to what the West calls the old-money aesthetic – you must appear well-nourished and put-together, but natural and understated enough to look like you’ve done absolutely nothing to achieve effortless grace. And for xinqianfeng, or the new-money aesthetic, you leave it to your clothes to announce you’ve arrived at a certain level of wealth, with as much flash and glitter as possible.
The term laoqian in China also refers to a group of people whose wealth has stacked up over several generations. Think the scions of property moguls and political power players, the fuerdai who have been educated at Ivy League schools, who fly home for the summer to their lush homes in the inner rings of the Chinese capital, close to the core of Beijing’s beating heart.
Xinqian, meanwhile, often refers to the wave of new millionaires who hustled for their wealth post-Communist Revolution. Their parents might have come from the villages or eked out a middle-class living in the country’s smaller, lesser-known cities. But there’s a new generation now coming into its own and raking in the yuan in bucketloads. Some of their members are flashy tech and gaming millionaires inhabiting Shanghai and Guangzhou’s glitziest apartments. Others are shiny social media influencers making millions on the internet.
And then there are the tuhao, a term that loosely translates to “crass rich” – local moneyed men with garish clothes, revving their red sports cars as they fly by people trundling along in modest sedans.
Loud luxury is out – and here’s why
There are several reasons why loud luxury is fading out in China.
In a similar vein to the US and Europe – the “quiet luxury” aesthetic has emerged as a reaction to the economic climate. With the economy slowing and the country facing a 20 per cent youth unemployment rate, it’s not a good look for the rich to be splashing their wealth right now.
At the same time, the economic downturn is squeezing younger, aspirational shoppers who helped to create a boom in luxury sales in China over the last few years. These shoppers, who were flush with cash during the pandemic, became key buyers of luxury goods. And as many were making their first luxury purchases, they wanted to be loud about it so flashy logos reigned supreme.
But as their excess cash has depleted, the “logo hunters”, as Tema ETF luxury portfolio manager Javier Gonzalez Lastra dubs them, are increasingly taking a back seat and leaving older, wealthier customers to drive luxury spending.
And this crowd – who are no longer luxury newbies – increasingly have a preference for less flashy logos, he said.
Stealth wealthallows the rich to toe the party line in Xi Jinping’s China
Make no mistake: the surge in interest in quiet luxury doesn’t just stem from a modern, Western-inspired impulse to look like old-money Americans. It’s social capital, but it’s also a product of a particular moment in China, a confluence of political and social factors precipitated by Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s push for a “common prosperity”.
China has long had an uneasy relationship with the pursuit of luxury goods and an affluent lifestyle. The government has spent over a decade discouraging ostentatious displays of affluence. Back in 2011, the authorities started banning billboards with terms such as “luxury” and “high class” in Beijing. A year later, China banned civil servants from accepting expensive gifts or using public funds to host extravagant dinners.
That extended to the government’s oversight over social media. In 2021, China’s version of TikTok, Douyin, said it deleted thousands of accounts and videos involving excessive displays of wealth, also known in Chinese as “xuanfu”. Some of these videos involved users showing off exorbitant amounts of cash and luxury items like watches and the keys to flashy cars.
This push for a more austere approach to living even inspired some businesses to find new ways to stay on the straight and narrow and avoid incurring the wrath of the Chinese authorities. Chinese financial firms, for example, are now instructing their employees to refrain from wearing branded clothes or carrying luxury bags to the office.
Chinese social media’s got quiet luxury down to a science
People have posted tutorials and photos on the laoqian style on China’s Pinterest-like site, Xiaohongshu.
To be sure, there’s being rich and looking rich, and the latter is where it’s at on Chinese social media. People have spent hours dissecting and analysing the traits and nuances of the laoqian style on China’s Twitter-like platform Weibo, decoding the tips and tricks necessary to achieve the perfectly coiffed air of casual luxury.
It would be an understatement to say people are captivated – posts with the laoqian hashtag have been viewed a collective 1.67 million times on the platform, at the time of writing. This summer, interest in the hashtag has been surging again, spiking as influencers roll out new ideas on how best to achieve the laoqian look.
What all the influencers’ looks have in common are the muted tones they come in. The styles are simple, with an emphasis on how the garment hangs on a person, and pieces come in solid colours like cream, brown or black – not unlike the Western interpretation of the old-money aesthetic.
They’re everywhere on Weibo: seemingly well-heeled individuals uploading snaps of themselves in garments that they think best represent what the aesthetic should look like.
Some influencers have also uploaded video tutorials on the laoqian style, to guide people on how best to dress for success.
Video tutorials on the laoqian style can be found on Weibo as well.
“Their dressing style is more understated and reflects a calmer temperament. Those who come from old money pay more attention to the details of dressing,” read one Weibo post on laoqianfeng.
Another person said on Weibo that adopting laoqianfeng is a marker of exquisite taste and good standing in Chinese society. “If you lack taste or style, then you’ll never ever be considered high class,” she said.
The old-money aesthetic will hand some brands big wins in China
With the aspirational shopper strained and loud luxury taking a back seat, experts say it is the upper-tier luxury brands that stand to benefit. Think Richemont, Louis Vuitton, Dior and others of the fashion world that dabble in louder styles but also never waver from their tried-and-tested classics and are beacons of understated luxury.
The focus of ultra-high-net-worth consumers in China will be on design details, quality of material and subtlety rather than conspicuousness, Thomaï Serdari, director of the fashion and luxury MBA programme at NYU’s Stern School of Business, said. For this reason, younger brands such as The Row, Goop and Nili Lotan that follow this philosophy could also benefit, she said.
And while the average Joe on the street might not be able to identify a US$1,700 Loro Piana cashmere jumper or the brand’s US$600 cap that become one of the ultimate symbols of the quiet luxury trend this year – the elite won’t care.
“You don’t have to show the label. Everyone in their tribe knows what it is. And if you’re not in the tribe, believe me – they’re not trying to impress you,” Pedraza said.