Last year found Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook creator and 26-year-old billionaire, topping a lot of short lists. Time chose him as 2010's Person of the Year.
He headed the Vanity Fair 100 list of most influential people. Then Esquire pinned him to its 2010 list of the most unfortunately dressed men. Ouch.
Anyone familiar with Zuckerberg's typical attire — the baggy jeans, T-shirts or hooded sweatshirts and casual shoes — knows he's hardly a paragon of posh. But lately it seems as if Zuckerberg's famously anti-fashion styling is spawning imitators, or at least has come to symbolise success for a new generation of would-be billionaires.
“It seems that if you dress up too much, you run the risk of not being taken seriously,” said Erica Zidel, a Seattle-based Web entrepreneur who attended Harvard around the same time as Zuckerberg. “There is an unspoken rule in entrepreneurial culture that your look should be laid back.”
It's a reality that some have been loathe to embrace. In September, Rebecca Dana argued in The Daily Beast that the director David Fincher had “given us a new sartorial standard for success in the internet age” with his film about Mr Zuckerberg, The Social Network, just as films like Wall Street did in the 1980s. But the article provoked swift rebuttal around the fashion blogs, which scoffed at the notion that Silicon Valley's enfant terrible could (or should) be a fashion icon.
Still, Zuckerberg isn't the first large-scale symbol of creative-class casualness (see Bill Gates) and won't be the last. Deserving or not, his style has implications that are taken seriously by observers.
Mark-Evan Blackman, a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, said start-up slackerdom was part of “a shared vocabulary” of stylistic affectations among young entrepreneurs, the kind of silent language one finds in other subcultures like the music and art scenes.
But the trend bespeaks to a more fundamental American attitude, he said. “It goes back to a mind-set that I think we've had in this country for a long time, and that is, 'I don't have to work very hard to prove it if I actually have it, if I actually own it.' ”
Perhaps it was only a matter of time before someone embraced some of the irony — and, like any good entrepreneur, decided to sell it. To that end, Nathan Tone, a blogger based in the US, created Mark by Mark Zuckerberg, an online store (and esoteric joke) that takes its name from the Marc by Marc Jacobs fashion line, selling branded items like T-shirts, hoodies and tote bags.
Until recently, Mr. Tone said, informality was simply a benefit of working at start-ups. “Now it's like one of the mandatory steps along the way,” he said. “Like you can't get VC funding if people aren't wearing sweat pants,” referring to venture capital.
Which would merely be funny if it weren't also proving true on occasion. Ms Zidel said she recently attended a competition to win start-up investment for her site, SittingAround.com. “My four competitors all showed up in suits,” she said. “I wore jeans and wound up winning. Not only did the audience look past my outfit, I actually think it helped convey the confidence I had in my company.”
New York Times