Sparsely attended film festivals. Sober runway shows. Austere white parties. Plenty of people in the spotlight seem to have gotten the message about the economy. So you'd think that, if only to follow fashion, the last of the big spenders—guys who wouldn't hesitate to whip out a black Amex for another Patek Philippe, a case of 1995 Château Margaux, or a last-minute trip to Fiji—would maybe, perhaps, possibly, consider scaling back.
You'd be wrong. North America may have lost nearly 23 percent of its millionaires last year, but that doesn't mean those in the top tax brackets are cutting costs or corners, or even trying to stay solvent. Through the economic doldrums, a sizable contingent of the high-earning set is defiantly dropping cash—whether to emphasize that they are among the truly wealthy, to reward themselves at the end of their long climb up the class ladder, or to give the middle finger to the system that spawned their high-roller ways.
While it may bear the hallmarks of obliviousness, theirs is a decidedly conscious form of consumption. "It fulfills a need," says Paul (all names have been changed), 43, an academic who specializes in antiquities and whose household income, thanks largely to his partner's law practice, is around $2 million a year. "The least self-reflective answer is you do it because you can. There's a perilous, exciting feeling to having zigged when other people zagged."
Paul and his partner divide their time between Hong Kong, Manhattan, and the Hamptons, and get a thrill out of what some might see as fiscally irresponsible splurges—what Paul calls, only half in jest, his "evil, evil ways." Merely traveling between their three households is a huge expense. "We don't do hotel stays below $1,000 a night," he says. "We only fly business class to Asia and back." Then there are the actual vacations and posh long weekends—like the $10,000 snow-shoeing jaunt to Twin Farms in Vermont.
What's more, they've been renovating their Hamptons home for two years. The cost: $1 million and counting. "We began with the concept of adapting existing spaces, and somehow along the way we've built a contemporary addition with glass walls," Paul says. "In every case where we could have scaled back, we upgraded instead."
Americans have a complicated relationship with stubbornly profligate types like Paul. Having clung to our Horatio Alger mythology as if it were an overdrawn Visa Signature card, we want to believe that someone can go from rags to riches, and from riches to more riches—and one of the ways to give the appearance of financial ascent is to spend aspirationally. Having achieved Richie Rich status, guys like Paul and his partner hold fast to their all-American success stories—afraid that stepping down the socioeconomic ladder means not only forgoing Loro Piana sweaters but also disappointing those a rung or two below who hold them up as models of prosperity.