Fashion and the Future of Tech

The intersection between tech and fashion can be a confusing place, and nowhere is this more true than when observing the styling choices of the world’s best-known thought leaders, CEO’s and founders in technology.

In a move that may have created 2000’s “tech-bro” fashion, Mark Zuckerberg humble-bragged that he wore only hoodies and gray tees to “clear his life to make as few decisions as possible except serving the [Facebook] community.” This statement made it clear that tech would go on to turn conservative business dress norms upside-down.

Photo of Mark Zukerberg
Most public appearances by Zuckerberg feature this gray t-shirt

It was an interesting (albeit slightly pretentious) way to claim that business wear was unfit for the modern company. Instead of calling it stuffy, uncomfortable, or an unnecessary financial burden, referring to getting dressed in the morning as a drain on valuable brainpower was powerful enough to create ripples of change.

Today, this trend continues. In March, banking giant Goldman Sachs relaxed their dress code, allowing their employees to ditch the suit and tie for something more Silicon Valley. Other companies capitalized on the unwillingness of customers to make their own styling decisions, and now we have Stitch Fix and self-branded “Silicon Valley Stylists” pushing people away from ratty sneakers and t-shirts, but arguably into a homogenous blob of oxford button downs and chinos.

It seems symbolic then, that Zuckerberg, a bastion of tech-bro style, would see his greatest controversy as a CEO come from someone who is antithetical to him in every way – especially when it comes to style.

Five days ago, the Federal Trade Commission voted to fine Facebook a sum of $5 billion for privacy violations that came to light with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which saw the private information of more than 50 million Facebook users improperly obtained. This saga came to be thanks to the actions of whistleblower Christopher Wylie, a data consultant, political researcher and Victoria, BC native.

Wylie was recently covered in an article by Paul Flynn for Fantastic Man, which delved into his experience at the centre of a media firestorm, but also the experiences leading to his involvement with Cambridge Analytica, and his current position as consultant for fast-fashion giant H&M.

What’s most interesting about Wylie is his signalling of a new generation of tech leaders. Far removed from Zuckerberg’s awkward and vanilla on-camera persona comes Wylie’s confident and sophisticated facade (“He looked like a pop star and spoke like a professor”, said Flynn). He is seldom seen without electric-dyed cropped hair and was photographed for Fantastic Man wearing Dries Van Noten and Stone Island.

Christopher Wylie for Fantastic Man

Most media appearances by Wylie are done wearing something unconventional, but what sets him apart in the fashion world are his nuanced opinions about the effects of the industry.

In an article with The Guardian last November, he spoke about a lesser-known aspect of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, how fashion-based data was used to target messaging towards users with pro-Trump and right wing tendencies. Simply put, knowing what brands a user liked or engaged with signalled strongly about their political leanings. “When you look at personality traits, music and fashion are the most informative [tools] for predicting someone’s personality”, he said. Users who followed American denim brands such as Wrangler, Hollister and Lee could be linked to low levels of openness, and were therefore “more likely to engage with pro-Trump messaging.”

Wylie blames the fashion industry for creating “cultural narratives” that allow people to be easily pigeon-holed and targeted with political messaging. This seems like a difficult place to lay blame, clearly this is more the fault of the companies that exploit data rather than those who make blue jeans that just happen to be worn by people who do shift work. However, another of his claims held more water. Politically right-wing movements often develop uniforms, whether in the case of the Italian Fascist “blackshirts” of the 1920’s or alt-right supremacists in white polos and khakis in Charlottesville. These uniforms are inexpensive, easy to identify, and emblematic of the messaging used by these groups.

None of this should be surprising for a wunderkid who dropped out of high school, studied law at the London School of Economics, and was midway through further studies on fashion forecasting when a job opportunity for the then called SCL Elections (later to be Cambridge Analytica) came calling. His current position is further removed from politics, but not from the scientific study of the fashion industry.

As a part of H&M’s Artificial Intelligence Ethics Unit, he takes on projects that answer questions about how the brand impacts their customer’s mental health, among other things. This is welcome news when talking about H&M, a company that is easy to shove off as a fast-fashion parasite.

Someone like Wylie doesn’t come around very often, and his trajectory should be watched by anyone who cares about the massive amount of power the fashion industry holds (beyond the ability to empty people’s wallets). And when compared to his counterparts in the tech world, he is above all, much less boring.

-C

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