Sam Bankman-Fried and Schlubby Style

The mythical figure who is the billionaire tech genius of the Nowhere Man shirt may finally be about to meet his long-awaited end. The arrest of Sam Bankman-Fried, the founder of cryptocurrency trading platform FTX, in the Bahamas on Monday on fraud charges may signal not only the next stage of his downfall, but also a shift in image-making Global Silicon. valley

After all, no one took the idea that a life of unlimited mind was reflected in a life freed from petty concerns like clothes any further than Mr. Bankman-Fried (or SBF, as it is often called). Not for him the physical cage of a suit and tie. Instead, the t-shirt, cargo shorts and sneakers are often worn with white running socks crumpled up at the ankle.

And not just any cargo t-shirt and shorts, but what might look like the looser, stretchier, sleepier, consciously unflattering t-shirts and shorts; the most neglected head of the bed. While the look may have evolved naturally, it became a signature as it rose to prominence, a look he realized was so effective at pushing the Pavlovian buttons of the viewing public (and the community investor) like Savile Row suits and Charvet de Wall ties. Street.

“It’s as conscious as incorporating in the Bahamas, where there’s little to no regulatory oversight,” said investor, podcast host and marketing professor Scott Galloway, referring to FTX’s Caribbean headquarters instead of California. “It’s the ultimate white guy’s multi-billion dollar tech bender: I’m way above convention. I’m so special that I’m not bound by the same rules and ownership as everyone else.”

It is 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 halo of brushless hair, which became as much a symbol of the physicist’s genius as E = mc2. In Steve Jobs’ jeans and black turtleneck, and in Steve Wozniak’s kitschy T-shirts, long stringy hair and beard (which took three hours to recreate for the “Jobs” biopic). Of course, in Mark Zuckerberg’s gray Adidas flip flops, hoodies and T-shirts, which gave rise to the current tech uniform of choice.

It’s a uniform that telegraphs to the watching world someone who doesn’t have time to worry about what they’re wearing because they’re thinking such big, world-changing thoughts. Thoughts that no one else can understand because they are so out there and potentially revolutionary. It plays on our general insecurity around science and the technological world; the whole idea of ​​a language, made in code, impenetrable, that magically reduces all kinds of possibilities and puts them in the palm of your hand.

“On a macro level, it’s human to worship things,” said Mr. Galloway said. “Technology with its mysteries is easy to adore. It is the idolatry of innovators.”

Innovators who with their very being not only overcome the long established lines, but completely ignore them. How do we recognize them if we don’t even understand what they are proselytizing about? To paraphrase 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 dress theory hook, line and sinker. “When ‘tech bros’ like SBF have increased notoriety and wealth creation in weather media, the public is willing to give them a pass because the look is de rigueur.,” Mr. Rosenfeld said. This disguise has been reinforced by Hollywood, and the fact that every time “a VC makes a massive investment in a scantily clad person (almost 100 percent of the time featuring men), it’s a passive form of endorsement.”

And of self-perpetuation, 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 presented themselves like that, security probably wouldn’t let them into the building,” he noted. In many ways, the dress code is another example of the double standard in Silicon Valley (or the companies we associate with Silicon Valley, even if, like FTX, they were based elsewhere), which Sheryl Sandberg saw in the their Facebook sleeveless electric sheath days in a room of hoodies.

Or at least it was. Suddenly, however, Mr. Bankman-Fried has put the whole look in a different light. Her sloppy dress seems less a reflection of a higher calling or a decision to devote her own finances to “effective altruism” than a red flag about a sloppy approach to other people’s money. A hint that someone who doesn’t care about showering or styling might be someone who doesn’t care about auditions and mixing backgrounds.

That, in fact, in Mr. Bankman-Fried’s overwhelming embrace of the sartorial mystique—one colleague, Andy Croghan, told The New York Times, “Sam and I would intentionally not wear pants to meetings”—actually missing the point, which was that it’s the details. and what you don’t see is important. Mr. Jobs’ black collars were from the Japanese designer Issey Miyake, for example; Mr. Zuckerberg’s gray shirts are from Italian designer Brunello Cucinelli. They just seemed uneducated.

Mr. Bankman-Fried missed the fact that, as Mr. Rosenfeld said, “Some of the best-dressed people in tech prefer to keep a very low profile and don’t want to draw attention to themselves,” meaning they look more business casual than casual. (When asked who those people might be, Mr. Rosenfeld name-checked Kevin Systrom, formerly of Instagram, and Evan Spiegel of Snapchat.)

And he missed that someone who can go to jail is not someone whose appearance no one would want to imitate.

As it happens, Mr. Bankman-Fried was scheduled to testify before Congress the day after her arrest. If she’d donned a suit for the occasion (she did when she declared in December 2021, though, famously, she wore her brown laces tied with such a strange knot that became a meme unto themselves) we’ll never know. But given that when he appeared in court in the Bahamas to be arraigned, he changed things up in a navy suit and white shirt, if not a tie, he seems to understand the role that image can play in influencing judgments . Presumably, when his case reaches the New York courts, it will do the same, perhaps even with a tie, though it’s doubtful that it will make any difference at that point.

His record of schlubbiness, still visible during his mea culpa self-exoneration media tour before his arrest, is now to help paint a picture, as Mr. Galloway said, of a “man who has no respect for other people’s money, just as he had no respect for decorum.”

And if, indeed, it is used so much, it is very likely that the sartorial schtick will go out of fashion. At least for a while. In its place, perhaps, the ornaments of the man who has stepped on Mr. Bankman-Fried’s shoes as FTX’s chief executive to oversee its bankruptcy, John J. Ray III, who sat before the House Financial Services Committee on Tuesday in a striped navy suit, light blue shirt and a dusty pink tie with an understated print.

And yet, Mr. Galloway said: “The middle finger wave, the ‘I’m special, I’m unconventional, I’m above all that boring rules game'” – that ethos Mr. Was Bankman-Fried once symbolized?

“This will always be in style,” he said. Even if it has a new look.

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