The mythic figure that is the billionaire tech genius in the nowhere man tee may finally be about to meet its long overdue end. The arrest of Sam Bankman-Fried, the founder of the FTX cryptocurrency trading platform, on Monday in the Bahamas on charges of fraud, may signal not just the next stage in his downfall, but also a change in the global image-making of Silicon Valley.
After all, no one took the idea that a life of the boundless mind was reflected in a life freed from petty concerns like clothing further than Mr. Bankman-Fried (or SBF, as he is often called). Not for him the physical cage of a suit and tie. Instead, the T-shirt, cargo shorts and sneakers, often worn with white running socks scrunched down at the ankle.
And not just any T-shirt and cargo shorts, but what could seem like the baggiest, most stretched out, most slept in, most consciously unflattering T-shirts and shorts; the most unkempt bed-head. While the look may have evolved naturally, it became a signature as he rose to prominence, a look he realized was as effective at pushing the Pavlovian buttons of the watching public (and the investing community) as the Savile Row suits and Charvet ties of Wall Street.
“It’s as conscious as incorporating in the Bahamas where there is no to little regulatory oversight,” said Scott Galloway, an investor, podcasting host and professor of marketing, referring to the fact that FTX’s headquarters were in the Caribbean rather than California. “It’s the ultimate billionaire white boy tech flex: I’m so above convention. I’m so special I am not subject to the same rules and propriety as everyone else.”
It’s an image that has its roots not so much in Mr. Bankman-Fried’s youth in a family that embraced utilitarianism as in Albert Einstein’s unbrushed halo of hair, which became as much a symbol of the physicist’s genius as E = mc2. In Steve Jobs’s jeans and black turtleneck, and in Steve Wozniak’s kitschy shirts, long, stringy hair and beard (which took three hours to recreate for the “Jobs” biopic). In, of course, Mark Zuckerberg’s Adidas flip-flops, hoodies and gray T-shirts, which gave rise to the current tech uniform of choice.
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It’s a uniform that telegraphs to the watching world somebody who doesn’t have the time to worry about what they are wearing because they are thinking such big, world-changing thoughts. Thoughts that no one else can possibly understand because they are so out there and potentially revolutionary. It plays on our general insecurity around science and the tech world; the whole idea of a language, made in code, impenetrable, that magically shrinks down all sorts of possibilities and puts them in the palm of your hand.
“On a macro level, it’s human to worship things,” Mr. Galloway said. “Tech with its mysteries is easy to worship. It’s the idolatry of innovators.”
Innovators who with their very being don’t just step over long established lines, but ignore them entirely. How do we recognize them if we don’t even understand what they are proselytizing about? To paraphrase the former Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart on obscenity, we know them when we see them. Of course they are not like us. Of course they don’t dress like us.
We have, said Joseph Rosenfeld, an image consultant and stylist in Silicon Valley, swallowed the costume theory hook, like and sinker. “When ‘tech bros’ like SBF are mid-meteoric rise in notoriety and wealth-building, the public is willing to give them a pass because the look is de rigueur,” Mr. Rosenfeld said. That costume has been reinforced by Hollywood, and the sheer fact that every time “a V.C. forks over a massive investment to a schlubbily dressed person (almost 100 percent of the time male-presenting), that’s a passive form of approval.”
And a self-perpetuating one, at least if, as Mr. Galloway also said, you are white, male and young. “If a person of color or a woman or a 50-year-old showed up like that, security probably would not let them in the building,” he noted. In many ways, the dress code is yet another example of the double standard rife in Silicon Valley (or those companies we associate with Silicon Valley, even if, like FTX, they had headquarters elsewhere) — the one that saw Sheryl Sandberg in her Facebook days wearing sleeveless power sheaths in a room of hoodies.
Or at least it was. Suddenly, however, Mr. Bankman-Fried has cast the whole look in a different light. His sloppy dress seems less a reflection of a higher calling or of a decision to devote his own finances to “effective altruism,” than a red flag about a sloppy approach to other people’s money. A clue that someone who doesn’t care about showering or style is maybe someone who doesn’t care about audits and the co-mingling of funds.
That, in fact, in Mr. Bankman-Fried’s overwhelming embrace of the dress-down mystique — one colleague, Andy Croghan, told The New York Times, “Sam and I would intentionally not wear pants to meetings” — he actually missed the point, which was that it is the details and what you don’t see that matters. Mr. Jobs’s black turtlenecks were by the Japanese designer Issey Miyake, for example; Mr. Zuckerberg’s gray T-shirts come from the Italian designer Brunello Cucinelli. They only seemed unstudied.
Mr. Bankman-Fried missed the fact that, as Mr. Rosenfeld said, “some of the best dressed individuals in tech prefer a very low profile and don’t prefer to bring attention to themselves,” meaning they actually look more business casual than just casual. (When asked who those individuals might be, Mr. Rosenfeld name-checked Kevin Systrom, formerly of Instagram, and Evan Spiegel of Snapchat.)
And he missed that someone who may go to jail is not someone whose look anyone else might really want to emulate.
As it happens, Mr. Bankman-Fried was scheduled to testify before Congress the day after his arrest. Whether he would have donned a suit for the occasion (he did when he testified in December 2021, though famously he wore his brown lace-ups tied in such a bizarre knot that they became a meme unto themselves) we will never know. But given that when he appeared in Bahamian court to be indicted, he did switch things up in a navy suit and white shirt, if no tie, he seems to understand the role image can play in influencing judgments. Presumably, when his case makes it to court in New York, he will do the same, maybe even with a tie, though whether it will make any difference at that point is doubtful.
His track record of schlubbiness — still on view during his mea culpa self-exoneration media tour before his arrest — is there now to help paint a picture, as Mr. Galloway said, of a “guy who has no respect for other people’s money, just as he had no respect for decorum.”
And if it is, indeed, so used, it’s pretty likely that the sartorial schtick will go out of vogue. At least for a while. In its place, perhaps, the trappings of the man who has stepped into Mr. Bankman-Fried’s shoes as FTX chief executive to oversee its bankruptcy, John J. Ray III, who sat before the House Financial Services Committee on Tuesday in a pinstriped navy suit, light blue shirt and dusty rose tie with a discrete print.
And yet, Mr. Galloway said, “the waving of the middle finger, the ‘I’m special, I’m unconventional, I’m above all that boring rule-playing’” — that ethos Mr. Bankman-Fried once symbolized?
“That will always be in style,” he said. Even if it does get a new look.