Even the Superrich Are Scaling Back

The party's over, even for the superrich. High-net-worth individuals, who lived on a scale most of us can't imagine—private jets; megayachts; third, fourth and fifth homes; gleaming AmEx black cards with no limit—are seeing their credit-card bills come due. So they're cutting back, in their own way, by selling the boat, buying ready-to-wear instead of couture and giving up Iranian caviar for breakfast—baby steps. It might sound ridiculous, but they've got to start somewhere. Of course, they don't exactly qualify as Wal-Mart shoppers yet; the ultrawealthy are still ultrawealthy, just slightly less so.

In terms of buying power, they remain a force to be reckoned with—and for luxury conglomerates, a demographic to be even more aggressively courted. But the nouveau expenditures of recent memory seem a little gauche when your housekeeper just had her house repossessed and your pool boy is drowning in debt. A new era of less obvious luxury is about to be ushered in, the kind that walks softly and doesn't carry an oversize, logo-covered stick. Foreshadowed by the success of ahead-of-the-curve brands like Bottega Veneta, we can expect the luxury industry to attempt an overnight transformation to understatement.

For starters, consumers would be well served to cut out overtly branded handbags with outrageous price tags. "It" bags haven't been where it's at for a while now, and those who continue to carry them look more like fashion victims than trendsetters. The only markets where they continue to be status symbols are in those that are relatively insulated from the financial meltdown, like the Middle East, Russia and India. Although their markets and currencies are being battered, they still have vast reserves of newly minted wealth waiting to be spent, and a burning desire for obvious symbols to affirm their new status.

For the rest of the world, however, it's a good time to get back to basics, and with handbags it doesn't get much simpler than the classic tote. The Platonic ideal of carryalls, tote bags can range from humble to haute, but whatever the price point, they share an essential shape that marries classic form with practical function, such as schlepping stacks of bills from the bank to stuff under your mattress. L.L. Bean makes a no-nonsense canvas model for under $20, and Anya Hindmarch's collectible "I Am Not a Plastic Bag" styles are now running upwards of $100 on eBay—quite a mark-up from the less than $10 they originally cost. Those who can't bear to carry something common can opt for Hermès' Garden Party tote in canvas and grain leather that sells for approximately $1,600, giving the bearer subtle bragging rights without any tacky logo overload.

When it comes to clothing, it's less clear what to wear when the world appears headed for the poorhouse, but a safe guideline seems to be that if people can easily identify your outfit's price tag, then it's time to change. The legions of wealthy women who typically rely on fashion titles like Vogue and Harper's Bazaar for sartorial guidance should check out the masterful creations from Indian designer Sabyasachi, who shows in both Mumbai's and New York's fashion weeks and retails in a number of important boutiques around the world. Both his Indian and Western collections manage to imbue a humble rural esthetic with the kind of effortless style that the upper classes are constantly straining to achieve. He pairs a sophisticated color palette and print sense with traditional hand embroidery in earth tones and antique gold, instead of excessive eveningwear covered in diamanté and in-your-face sequins. Sabyasachi finds beauty in the everyday people who are all too often dismissed by the upper classes. His creations serve as a reminder that today's masters of the universe might soon become the little people they've grown used to ignoring, so it might be smart to start looking the part.

Given the level of anxiety in the air, it wouldn't be surprising if former big spenders have lost their appetite for Michelin-starred meals, which can run into the thousands. With a bit more effort, however, and an open mind, foodies can still eat like kings, and in the process get a little healthier by forgoing fancy restaurants for a local farmers market. Cheaper than organic grocers like Whole Foods, farmers markets cut out the middlemen while offering fresher produce. If you have a hard time swallowing the idea of preparing your own food, consider the example of Jamie Oliver, who has advocated this kind of DIY high-style approach for years—and made millions off it. The telegenic British chef has not only expanded his chain of Italian restaurants but has also taken to promoting wholesome, back-to-basics eating through a national chain of food centers that offer lessons in cooking and nutrition.

Once the simple high life becomes routine, the newly restrained rich might find that they don't miss the high-maintenance demands of their old lifestyles, the perpetual strain of keeping up with the Joneses, the strenuous effort to make sure that one's class status is apparent to all. Though they may never be ready to give up all material goods and live the Buddhist ideal, they have come to see the truth in the saying that some of the best things in life are free. For everything else, there's MasterCard, though it may no longer be platinum.