Silicon Valley Street Style is a weekly feature that looks at the intersection of fashion, technology and taste.
Only in Silicon Valley can a simple design set against cotton blend say so much.
Youth, ease, confidence, arrogance, membership, laundry day … the startup shirt is a free piece of wearable, washable advertising that can reflect upon the wearer any or all of these qualities. It’s like a sandwich board you can wear to the gym.
Adaptable to all manner of tech culture, the startup shirt is the one true defining fashion statement of the San Francisco-based tech industry. It doesn’t matter if your game is hot yoga or “Call of Duty,” this versatile apparel fits any body type, while creating a strikingly similar impression on all.
There’s no empirical evidence supporting a branded t-shirt’s ability to inspire an angel investor to open his wallet. But perhaps there’s a more important question to consider.
Are startup shirts fashionable?
“Startup shirts are the opposite of fashion,” Cory Sklar, creator of the Dudes In Startup Shirts Tumblr, tells ReadWrite. “There is absolutely nothing individual about the items or the wearers. They are the epitome of ‘norminess’ in the worst sense.”
Sklar says he was inspired to curate a collection of startup shirts because as a San Franciscan, he’s constantly surrounded by the trend. Why then, in a town where techies struggle to stand out, do so many people in the industry make this sartorial choice?
“Two reasons,” Sklar says. “One, because they are too clueless to buy their own clothes even though they are making more money than 99% of the people on Earth. Two, to promote their sh***y app.”
The Dudes In Startup Shirts Tumblr showcases the best of men (and some women) wearing startup shirts, decked out with hoodies, sunglasses, and my personal favorite—underneath a blazer. Your business in the front, Dad’s business in the back.
Like the Dudes In Startup Shirts gallery, Silicon Valley startup culture is a strange mix of low-end and high-end. The low-maintenance, grassroots quality that birthed the tech scene is, more often than not these days, a facade of authenticity for the wealthy and well-connected.
In HBO’s Silicon Valley, the ubiquity of the startup shirt is showcased via a rainbow of jersey logos worn by attendees at TechCrunch Disrupt. Characters wearing startup shirts are painted in a deeply aloof, goofy way—almost as if their claims of “making the world a better place” and “local, mobile, social” are as empty and devalued as the startup shirts themselves.
Yet, one need not be entrenched in Silicon Valley’s startup culture to judge what is worn there, let alone judge it harshly. Rusty Foster, author of the popular tech newsletter Today In Tabs and Kuro5shin founder, takes issues with advertorial tees.
“What I find embarrassing about them is the neediness of farming out your resume to the words printed on your torso,” Foster tells ReadWrite. From his vantage point in Maine, Foster sees those words that hold certain value splayed across your chest as a vain attempt to convey that value to the world.
“’I want you to see what famous company I work for and/or admire!’” Foster mocks, going so far as to call such fashion choices “a kind of assault.”
“I wish we could issue remedial white t-shirts and require some basic education before people are trusted with the responsibility of putting words on their clothing,” he says.
Style blogger and Googler Elise Armitage of WTFab has a more friendly, neutral outlook to startup shirts, although she admits that the ones that she owns are only worn in private.
“My Google shirts are pretty much reserved for when I’m at the gym, sleeping, or working from home,” says Armitage, “When I see someone wearing a startup shirt I just assume that they probably live in the city and eat oysters at Dolores Park on Sundays.”
Street style photographer Ryan Chua agrees that startup shirts should be left to certain occasions, but he also argues that unity and loyalty to one’s brand is an admirable trait for any wearer.
“Startup shirts are fashionable if worn at the proper events, such as a conference or industry mixer,” says Chua, “My rule of thumb is to always dress accordingly to the occasion.”
At a tech conference or similar event, Chua says that there’s nothing more fashionable than a team wearing startup shirts signifying unity and company spirit. “But if that person wears a startup shirt way too much, people will start thinking, maybe that is his or her only shirt.”
Photos courtesy of Dudes In Startup Shirts and HBO’s Silicon Valley