Isn't That Rich? The Times Discovers End of Gilded Age

Luxury-Advertiser-Coddling Newspaper Strikes an Increasingly Skeptical Tone About ... Luxury (Finally)

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On the day the news broke last month about the first newsroom layoffs at The New York Times, the paper's Home section devoted half a page to luxury bathtubs -- the kind made from "materials like stainless steel ... leather and carved wood, each one handmade and slightly different." Among the price points:
  • $23,000 for the Papillon tub in Carrara marble
  • $18,920 for the resin Lavasca
  • $55,000 for the THG Art Deco with, yes, an Hermès leather exterior
(I half-expected a sidebar about how to keep your new tub clean with, say, Artisanal Soft Scrub, infused with truffle oil and the distilled tears of members of the Peruvian Yora tribe.) If you're the type of person who is unable to contemplate spending that kind of scratch on a frickin' bathtub -- the cheapest one in the entire bunch was $12,950 -- well, the Times doesn't have time for you.
Rub-a-dub: Just $23,000 for this tub, according to The New York Times.
Rub-a-dub: Just $23,000 for this tub, according to The New York Times.

Or wait. Does it? Though the paper's national play is based on reaching educated, affluent households across the country -- the luxury-loving country-club set -- lately it's been connecting more and more with a decidedly rough-hewn, ungilded consumer reality inspired by our tanking economy. For instance, a recent Dress Codes column by David Colman titled "Penny Pinching Looks Great," celebrating cheap fashion. And that sprawling front-page Dining-section piece by Vanity Fair humorist Henry Alford, in more or less serious mode, titled "How to Survive in New York on 99¢," about his attempt to cobble together edible meals with ingredients bought from dollar stores. And "Is This the World's Cheapest Dress?" a front-page Style-section glorification of the outfits available at under-$10 clothing chain Steve & Barry's.

Or, best of all, the increasingly flagrant luxury-mocking tone of frequent Critical Shopper writers Mike Albo and Cintra Wilson. Albo, on a recent visit to a new John Varvatos boutique, ended up confessing, "At the time my bank balance was so low I couldn't even spring for a $69 white, short-sleeved henley from Mr. Varvatos' collaborative line with Converse, the cheapest thing I could find in the store."

Wilson especially loves cutting luxe shops and shoppers down to size. In a recent review of Brooklyn boutique Zoë, she belittled its customers: "rich young moms married to hedge-fund guys" who "travel in packs of two and three, pushing five-digit-sticker-price strollers full of two-foot martinets named Sophie and Henry." And in perhaps my all-time-favorite Wilson takedown, she not only gagged at the sight of a $14,995 jeweled crucifix at department store Fortunoff ("the most tawdry, enormous-Chiclet-size aquamarine-and-brown-diamond-encrusted cross since the reign of Pope Liberace I"), she practically ran screaming out the door when she spotted its $55,000 cousin ("Enough brown diamonds for a terrazzo casino floor. I didn't want to know this cross. I'm sorry I met it. I never want to see it again").

For a nonrich schlub like me, the rise of this sort of tone in the Times is borderline thrilling -- not only because Wilson, in particular, is often literally laugh-out-loud funny but because the paper's luxury mania during the recent Gilded Age went way, way over the top. Like America's hedge-fund set, the Times basically totally lost its mind when it came to hyperconspicuous consumption.

Don't get me wrong: I love the impossibly posh consumer porn of the paper's various T magazines, as masterminded by Editor Stefano Tonchi (surely former Timesman Adam Moss' best hire before he decamped for New York magazine). The thing is, Tonchi's sensibility is more about celebrating true genius -- artfully chronicling the output of the most brilliant design minds of our time (in fashion, architecture, etc.) -- which is, of course, of interest even to readers who can afford little of it.

But outside the magazines' carefully curated fantasy world and off its glossy stock, the Times' unblinking weekday coverage of insanely expensive goods and services -- not far from its relentless news-section coverage of even middle-class Americans losing their homes to the subprime meltdown -- just makes me want to drown myself (in my sub-$1,000 American Standard tub). It's all felt really unskeptical -- and therefore unjournalistic. At its worst, it's blatantly been more of a service to advertisers than to readers. Because, c'mon, the proportion of the Times' wealthiest readership that is willing to spend $55,000 on a bathtub must be rather tiny -- and those readers surely are generally looking elsewhere (e.g., Architectural Digest) for mansion-remodeling cues. (According to the paper's own demographic data, only 17% of weekday readers have annual household incomes topping $200,000.) And Jim Hightower, America's self-appointed No. 1 Populist, was quick to point out the ridiculousness of making a statement with your bath.

The big question is whether the Times can continue to ramp up a consumer-reality-check sensibility that acknowledges the absurdity, the obscenity, of an Hermès leather bathtub. And if so, will luxury marketers get scared off -- or will they simply have to grin and bear it (as Fortunoff, which continues to advertise in the Times, has)?

Of course, it's worth noting that the Times, recent tonal adjustments aside, remains inordinately obsessed with the lifestyles of the megawealthy. Witness the recent front-page piece "In Spending by the Very Rich, No Such Thing as a Slowdown."

Hopefully at least some of those V. Rich don't mind paying $40 a month to the Times to find that out.
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