Stealth Wealth: A Spotter's Guide

Stealth wealth
‘Intrecciato’: the closely woven leather signals a Bottega Veneta. Timur Emek/Getty

Flicking through the latest crop of glossy magazines, something looks different. In the luxury ads in the opening pages, there is, as always, a fine selection of handbags. Usually, these bags are in your face, jumping out of the page with their loud colours and ostentatious designs. But just now, they seem to be a whole lot quieter.

The big brands' flagship bags are positively muted. There's Dior's ladylike "Be Dior" bag, Chanel's "11.12" shoulder bag, Celine's large tote, all in plain black. And then there's Mansur Gavriel, which doesn't advertise and which you won't have heard of unless you're an avid follower of fashion. But the three-year-old New York firm's first concise range of plain but luxurious bags sold out in weeks and they have been almost impossible to get hold of ever since.

Most popular is Mansur Gavriel's bucket bag. It's a plain shape with an adjustable handle, its one identifying quirk the contrasting matte patent lining. You can't buy them until the next consignment arrives in May; the last sold out in a matter of hours.

What can have brought on this zealous new modesty? Handbags say a good deal about the women who tote them, and it looks as if this year's message is: the less said, the better. Stealth wealth means luxury but with discretion. It's a way of carrying on spending enormous amounts of money on fashion and accessories without advertising the fact – the stylish choice after years of economic downturn. It's the bespoke suit, it's the handmade shirt and shoes, and it's pure class.

"After the recession, it was not cool to be seen walking down the street with a bag shouting 'Luxury!'," says Fflur Roberts, head of luxury goods at Euromonitor International. When the luxury market began to democratise over a decade ago, the tendency was for new wealth to show off. Hence the waves of "It bags" – gaudy, showy expensive delights clunking with distinctive chains, buckles and logos – but ostentation has since become passé. Now the expense is sublimated as "quality".

"Apart from the few brands that are still trying to catch the attention of the last rich Russian clients with opulent golden details and rhinestones, the concept of luxury bag has changed a lot," says Alessandro Masetti, an architect and fashion commentator based in Florence. "If you look at the latest bags you can see that the bigger the bags, the less decoration they have; these are not minaudières for the red carpets. They must be versatile, functional and practical."

Ah yes, practicality. You might think that anyone spending up to £5,000 on a handbag was beyond such considerations. Or, you might wonder, if the bag is designed not to attract attention, why not instead choose one of the hundreds of high-street imitations at a fraction of the price? But that is missing the point of stealth wealth, which is that others in the know will see it, and recognise it.

"For the luxury buyer, if you can't see the label, that's even better," says Roberts. "Those in the know will know what the bag is, and everyone else doesn't matter."

So how do you spot them? It is, of course, intentionally difficult for the uninitiated. Stealth-wealth bags appear positively plain yet have that luxe knack of just looking expensive. They have a sculptural simplicity and a nice balance to their proportions.Most are capacious totes or bucket bags.

Look for brand quirks; the closely-woven "intrecciato" leather strips that signal a Bottega Veneta; the elongated triangles of soft leather that, stitched together into a roomy, collapsible tote, make up Loewe's new Puzzle bag. And sometimes they can't quite resist a little decoration. Dior's Be Dior comes with a metal charm of dangling letters that spell the brand name, and the clean lines of McQueen's dove-grey Padlock Tote are broken by a little skull-shaped padlock. You could always remove these – that would be the stealthiest of all.