If the guiding principle for building great startups is "solve an important problem," then the difficulty tech workers have locating (and laundering!) garments to wear in public would appear to be the sartorial equivalent of Fermat's last theorem.
The latest attempt to properly clothe helpless coders comes from The BlackV Club, a newly launched subscription service that sends men black v-neck t-shirts. Just black v-necks. The bar is so low that's all you need to distinguish yourself. Edward Lando told me that he and his cofounder Yagil Burowski "are both engineers and we're trying to solve a real problem."
Is it real, though? The level of obsession tech workers apply to their jobs is a point of pride. If the pattern of a successful cofounder is a heads-down dude who hasn't taken vacation since the first slide of his pitch deck and is too busy crushing it to care about what he wears, then men are incentivized to copy the uniform. Startup tee, hoodie, and jeans. Cargo shorts, plaid shirt, sneakers. (Exceptions are made for Burning Man costumes or if the President of the United States comes to speak at your sprawling tech campus.)
You hear this in the way that multi-millionaires and billionaires sneer at "suits." People who would love to make bank off a blockbuster IPO have an aversion to the straight-and-narrow corporate steez. It's just as rigid and hierarchical as Wall Street's dress code, except the top of the pyramid is "Can't be bothered." Shlubcore is one way to follow in the webbed footsteps of your idols. They call it "fuck you money" for a reason.
Women are held to a different set of standards, of course, but allocating resources to what you wear is still something to sneer at. As one female founder told me, "People judge you if you make effort, then ask if you are in sales or PR."
This is not to say that male employees at tech companies don't dress like overgrown children, or that they could dress themselves better if the status symbols evolved. The industry has not transitioned into power very gracefully and neither has its wardrobe. But you're too much of a genius to dress yourself is a pretty flattering pitch—not unlike last summer's introversion superiority complex.
The convenience economy has offered up a few services to help: there's Bombfell, which sends men clothes picked out for a stylist, "so you can spend your time doing awesome guy stuff." Trunk Club, another men's personal shopper service, was just acquired by Nordstrom's yesterday. Both of those more established startups are backed by Silicon Valley insiders, but only BlackV Club (and The Awl's satirical startup Shirterate) explicitly call out tech slobs.
The BlackV Club founders met at UPenn, where Burowski is still a student. Lando, who is now based in San Francisco, says he's familiar with the Silicon Valley aesthetic through hackathons and summer jobs at tech companies. He told Valleywag the key was eliminating choice. Emphasis mine:
I think that a lot of people working in tech value their time a lot. So even though they have a bunch of options—a bunch of websites and supposedly they don't have to make that trip to the store—they can save time. If you go on any of those sites and you have a hundred options offered at you, it's overwhelming and you don't really know which one to pick. It's a very high cognitive load. If you're feeding yourself or clothing yourself, we think it's the same thing for all these basic daily things. When I go to a restaurant, I'm really assured when there are only five things on the menu because I don't have to explore it for five minutes and worry that I'm giving up a better option. So it's the same thing. You want to focus on what you want to do—working at a cool startup or at a cool company.
Framing freedom of choice as a burden is also baked into the marketing scheme for Soylent, the drink that promises "you'll never have to worry about food again."
Unlike Ensure® Shakes or artisanal liquid diets, it's marketed as a solution for people who operate on too high a plane. A #Soylentpioneer has a mind like a Hyperloop—speeding so fast to the future that it will freeze in the face of a grocery aisle. To drink Soylent is to ascended from the mortal drudgery of dining (and all the fattening free food at your startup office). Business Insider praised it as "a productivity cheat code." If only SlimFast had thought of that!
Limiting the number of options is also a discipline technique parents use on their children, so it's in keeping with the overall infantalization market for subscription services that act like your mom. As Burowski put it:
I won't die if I wear something not very awesome or eat the same thing everyday. Nothing would happen to me. We're tech people too. So we say we don't mind, but we should mind. It's an awful thing to go to a clothes store and somebody is like try this, try that. It's horrible, I just want to run away. Often, I just go buy something I don't even want and run away.
Hmm, I dunno about that. Both cofounders seem to be doing alright judging by this picture of them with fashionisto Jack Dorsey. I mean check out the pea coat and shades in Burowski's Twitter avatar. We should all be so effortless and classic!
Lando credited their appearance, and the inspiration for the startup, to a female friend:
Yagil and I don't have particularly exquisite fashion taste, I would say. But we have a good friend of ours and once in awhile we go shopping with her and she just tells us: 'Choose this, Choose that.'
When I spoke to them earlier this week, they hadn't told their female friend about the startup or offered her a job.
Both cofounders say BlackV Club is not in danger of giving off the wrong I-actually-looked-up-from-my-computer impression:
EL: You're right, in Silicon Valley sometimes down dressing is a symbol of power. But you know that's sort of the idea behind the black v-neck. I've been to a bar or a club just wearing a t-shirt—a black v-neck—it takes one second to slip on. Other people spend hundreds of dollars on blazers and shirts and this and that and you actually come across as sort of more badass—
EL: Because it looks good, but it's effortless and you didn't have to give a shit, you slipped your shirt on and you went because you had better things to do.
Their club already has some members. The day after launching on Product Hunt, Burowski told me 1,500 people joined "from a bunch of top tech companies, including some high profile individuals." It made some enemies, as well: "We also made it to the front page of Hacker News, but the post got flagged down by a few people who didn't like the critique on their wardrobe," he added.
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[Images via Getty and Business Insider]