stop the presses

Why is the Financial Times Trying to Hide the Wealth Porn?

A beloved read of the one percent wants to be less flashy. Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer

We know, we know: We live in the era of “eat the rich.” Conspicuous consumption is supposed to turn our collectively enlightened stomachs.

But who does the Financial Times think it is fooling by rebranding How to Spend It? That’s the tasty glossy magazine that comes tucked inside the weekend edition of the pink-paged British broadsheet. It is the most trusted Baedeker of bankers, oligarchs, and what Evelyn Waugh called “the sound old snobbery of pound sterling and strawberry leaves.” After Muammar Qaddafi’s Tripoli compound was stormed by Libyan rebels, one journalist reported finding a “well-thumbed” copy of How to Spend It on the dictator’s coffee table. Last weekend’s issue featured an actual statue of Bacchus once owned by Hubert de Givenchy and currently priced at over €1 million. In terms of opulence, How to Spend It makes the New York TimesT Magazine and The Wall Street Journal’s WSJ. — and even Luxx, which is put out by the Times of London — seem if not populist then at least relatively approachable. How to Spend It once claimed that one in five of its readers has, or would consider using, a private jet. Maybe consider is the key word here. Part of the fun of the magazine is to imagine yourself having to weigh the pros and cons of private jettery. (And I know exactly where in my apartment I would put that Bacchus.)

So it was perplexing when its editor, Jo Ellison, decided this week to do away with the magazine’s title in an attempt to insert a modicum of modesty into this hard-core wealth porn. “From this weekend, we will publish as HTSI magazine,” she wrote in her editor’s letter. “We will offer new interpretations of the ‘s.’” One such interpretation? “How to save it.” That sounds … responsible. But not very fun. Ellison ticked off a bunch of un-fun things — the war in Ukraine, the pandemic, the housing crisis — as suddenly intruding on her greedy glossy and necessitating the change, concluding, “We just want HTSI to reflect the deeper sensitivities and priorities of a changing world.”

Admittedly “the title gets up many people’s noses,” as Lucia van der Post, one of How to Spend It’s former editors told me of the old name. But the rebrand does seem like hollow virtue signaling. I emailed Ellison to ask why the house organ of the golden calf suddenly lost its sybaritic nerve. “I don’t really know what you mean by virtue signalling in this context,” Ellison wrote back from the Faroe Islands. “There are many luxury brands and labels who will have been profoundly affected by the war in Ukraine. Likewise the pandemic. While we would never change our coverage to focus on any news subject exclusively, I think it would be naive to pretend that world events aren’t happening. I don’t think any magazine can exist in the modern era without acknowledging, reflecting and responding intelligently to the times we live in — even if that simply means reflecting on how consumer tastes have changed. Which they have, as I said, we have broadened our content considerably to become more news reactive and it has only become stronger and more widely read as a result. I know what our role is — and it is mostly to be diverting and aspirational. But a magazine still has to be relevant, no?”

By which I guess she means that Croesus is now into meditation and wants a vegan option. The acclaimed English novelist and FT contributor Henry Porter told me he views the new name as merely “camouflage for consumer porn.” “My sense is that people don’t want to be seen reading How to Spend It at a time when a very large part of the British Public face a winter relying on food banks — there are 1,172 in England alone — or choosing between eating and heating, as the grim new slogan goes,” he said via email. “So, it’s more to do with the sensitivities of the super/very rich rather than virtue signalling. I mean they aren’t going to drop the Bulgari and Versace ads, are they?”

Andrew Neil, Britain’s feared broadcaster and a proprietor of The Spectator, calls Ellison’s maneuver “nonsense” and told me, “The FT has been awash with posh lefties embarrassed by the wealth of their readers for quite some time now.” He’s got a point. In 2020, the FT issued “a new brand campaign,” even wrapping the physical newspaper in a special message touting, “Capitalism. Time for a reset.” (That will distract the next Baader-Meinhof Gang from going on the attack for sure.) Other London media folk tell me How to Spend It’s bling-bling bowdlerization reminds them of the recent identity crisis Tatler suffered. That magazine attempted to de-posh but had to reverse course after realizing its readers really do just want to read about the absurdities of ladies-in-waiting. Chris Rovzar, the editorial director of Bloomberg’s luxury franchise Bloomberg Pursuits, tweeted, “‘How To Spend It’ is one of the all-time great media names. Everyone’s always jealous of it because it says exactly what it is, in a cheeky way. This is so silly and tiresome.”

“Hey, we’re no hairshirts,” Ellison assured me by email. “When it comes to the best possible way to spend it, we’re still the holy grail.” So then why change the name? “I just don’t feel especially enthusiastic about going out in to the world with a title (conceived in the yuppie era nineties) that feels a little gauche, and, I think, somewhat dated at this moment following a global health pandemic and one of the most profound cost of living crises in decades.”

It first became a magazine in 1992 (the same year the New York Times launched the “Style” section, seeking fashion adverts), but the title dates to a page in the newspaper itself in 1967, then written by journalist Sheila Black. All week long, the FT would tell London’s financiers how to make their money; come weekends, Black argued, there should be a page to tell them how to spend it. Black’s successor was van der Post, who joined the paper in 1973 and became an authority on luxury in London. (Her father was a spiritual adviser to Prince Charles and godfather to Prince William.) “It was originally a page. Sometimes, in slightly flusher times, it would be two pages,” said van der Post when I rang her up in London. “Gradually, the paper grew from being the parish newspaper of the city of London to a much-admired international newspaper, so the pages grew and the sophistication of the coverage grew.” She eventually spun the “Spend It” pages into its own magazine, partly to satisfy advertisers who wanted their ads to appear on glossy print. (The Times didn’t launch T until 2004; WSJ. came along in 2008.)

Van der Post recalled uproars about the title during previous economic downturns. (The Thatcher years were no picnic.) Once, a distinguished publisher sent her a letter calling the publication’s name a vulgar insult to the times in which they lived. Van der Post published the letter and promised a case of Champagne to anyone who could come up with something better. No one could, and she became “inundated with hundreds of letters of support from readers, who almost at once declared the title honest and refreshing.”

In 1998, she handed the magazine to Gillian de Bono, who would edit it for the next 20 years, transforming it into something far more opulent, until Ellison took over in 2019. De Bono told me she wouldn’t have changed the title “for the reason that, since the 1970s, this question has come up, and every time the decision was made — the title was iconic, the magazine was iconic, and it was sort of a sacred title, a sacred sub-brand of the FT.” The question certainly came up after the financial crash of 2008. Lionel Barber edited the FT from 2005 to 2020, and in his recent memoir, The Powerful and the Damned (it’s a bit like Tina Brown’s Vanity Fair Diaries but for the go-go globalist aughts), he wrote about how he had to “summon” de Bono to his office, telling her, “I don’t give a damn what you call it. Just no more Bonus Issue!”

HTSI sounds like something you’d better hope an anti-biotic can clear up. What does de Bono make of it? “I find it quite a cold title, just initials,” she said, adding that it could be confusing to new readers. She said her magazine learned how to adapt without changing its name, adding subjects such as environmentalism and philanthropy to its remit as the years went on. Of course it also put super-cars on the cover and a jet plane it called “a supercar for the skies.” (Parallel parking must be a cinch!)

Not everybody can afford to play with these toys. But somebody can, and changing the name of this magazine is not going to change the inequality or waste of this world one little bit. And really, what’s the harm of How to Spend It if all its readers are in on the joke?

Take a magazine like Town & Country, which is at its most successful when it just accepts that its readers want to know about stuff like Sunny von Bülow’s daughter’s caftan line. Flipping through its sleek new summer issue, in which a $70,000 Todd Reed necklace with emeralds and white diamonds is recommended, one gets the feeling it won’t be doing away with its annual jewelry awards or changing any names soon. And why should it?

“We are not embarrassed that we cover beautiful things; that is our job,” said Stellene Volandes, the editor of Town & Country. A luxury title ought to cover the world of its readers, but as Volandes points out, “We engage wealth as a journalistic subject. Tom Wolfe called it ‘plutography.’ At the T&C offices, we call it our ‘crazy money’ stories. So as much as we have our eyes wide open to where our readers should go on vacation and what they might buy at Cartier, we also have our eyes wide open to the absurdities of wealth and also the responsibilities of wealth. I think that has guided us through difficult times and what remain to be difficult times. The original editor’s letter from 1846 has the mission of the magazine, and the two men who founded it said that their mission was to ‘instruct, refine and amuse,’” said Volandes. “And we take the amuse part really seriously.”

Why is the Financial Times Trying to Hide the Wealth Porn?