Skip to main content
opinion

Sam Bankman-Fried, the founder and chief executive of FTX, in Nassau, Bahamas, on April 26.ERIKA P. RODRIGUEZ/The New York Times News Service

Phoebe Maltz Bovy is a contributing columnist for The Globe and Mail.

It is better to have earned billions and lost them than to have never earned billions at all.

This would appear to be the life philosophy of Sam Bankman-Fried, the disgraced cryptocurrency wunderkind. One day, the 30-year-old American was using his rapidly accumulated wealth to save the world through a broad and increasingly popular concept called effective altruism. On the next, his crypto exchange FTX had collapsed, he was alleged to be a scammer and he was admitting to Vox in an interview over Twitter that he was merely faking his interest in ethics for the sake of his reputation – engaging in “this dumb game we woke westerners play where we say all the right shiboleths [sic] and so everyone likes us.” Oops.

Mr. Bankman-Fried’s downfall, while unusually dramatic, has occurred at a moment when things are not looking rosy for many of the other T-shirted boy geniuses of tech. With layoffs hitting the sector, from Meta to Amazon, the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world have lost a bit (a lot) of their sheen. Let us also not forget about Elon Musk, whose apparent ineptitude at running Twitter has become the stuff of satire.

This suggests an end to the era when tech, crypto and all the other money matters that humanities majors, including yours truly, never figured out are treated like gods of all things sensible. (Thus the allure of telling laid-off journalists to “learn to code.”)

But for a while, these tech bro slobs were venerated. Before his fall, Mr. Bankman-Fried was an ingenue who just rolled out of bed. Mr. Zuckerberg was meant to be so clever, so efficient, with his uniform of hoodies, one-upping turtleneck-wearing Steve Jobs in casualness. And their non-style style inspired countless men who wanted to be like them. These bros’ trademark fleece vests, their studious commitment to this “effortless” look (even if it comes at a high price) – it was meant to project a mind too powerful for the fripperies of Zara’s new-arrivals racks.

As the businesses themselves fumble, however, so too has the mystique surrounding their icons. Is it over, then, for tech’s Boybosses?

There was a time, let’s recall, when the headlines were about the end of “Girlbosses” – young, ambitious women entrepreneurs, the ruthless capitalists leaning in on fluffy-sounding businesses such as social clubs (Audrey Gelman’s The Wing, for example) and trendy clothing companies (Sophia Amoruso’s Nasty Gal, for example). They had presented themselves as progressive, but during the racial reckoning of 2020, their brand of free-market (white) feminism – which was also often linked to poor treatment of racialized employees – went out of fashion. (Also, no one needed tulle dresses to wear to chic events during the pandemic.)

The “Boyboss” – never an expression that caught on, curiously – is now undergoing something similar, although in this case the story gets classified as tech or business news, not culture or lifestyle. This is an oversight because it is all of these things, intertwined.

The Boyboss’s Tech Bro Slob aesthetic is meant to indicate a certain admirable value system. Politico fawned over Mr. Bankman-Fried’s “monk-like” choice to wear sneakers more than once without throwing them out. Every time a tech billionaire makes a consumption choice that isn’t the glitziest one possible, he usually gets congratulated for his “frugality.”

There is also, as with all forms of minimalism, a whiff of ethical superiority to it. While the carbon footprint of 50 identical T-shirts is no better than that of a more varied wardrobe, it’s an aesthetic that discourages following trends, or chasing after the latest thing. It feels less wasteful.

As such, a pared-down look fits well with an industry that sees itself as doing good. Unlike the Finance Bro, with his slicked-back 1980s hair and fondness for American Psycho, the Tech Bro Slob isn’t making gobs of money because he wants to have wealth at his disposal, for personal enjoyment. No, he’s in it to remake the world.

A minimalist indifference to stuff is, famously, a privilege of the rich. It isn’t minimalism if someone is living with less by necessity. But for the Tech Bro Slobs, it goes further. By (carefully) dressing like a slob, or even just by failing to embrace overt status symbols, a billionaire Boyboss can demonstrate that he answers to no one, and has nothing to prove.

To be clear, not all slovenly dressing is a power move. Sometimes it’s boringly because you work from home, have small children, or both. (If anyone asks, I’m writing this article in couture. Definitely not the grey thermal leggings I slept in.) Nor is the slob mode entirely about aesthetics: The Tech Bro Slob might don a suit (when in legal trouble, say), but he’s no uptight businessman.

On Twitter, journalist Emily Peck flagged a gendered double standard where sloppy dressing is concerned, as a comment on a photo of Mr. Bankman-Fried looking particularly crumpled: “No female founder could show up dressed like this in public and expect to get handed billions of dollars.” Indeed. For women, for racialized people and especially for racialized women, the slob look is not an option.

But it is also not an option for wealthy white men with bosses. In an October story on Finance Bro fashion, Guy Trebay of The New York Times describes the sartorial formality and conformity demanded on Wall Street. In a parenthetical aside, he quotes “one insider,” according to whom “things are different … for tech sector specialists. Showing up in a suit for a client meeting in Silicon Valley, where the novelty sock trend never went away, ‘would look downright weird.’”

The specificity of the Tech Bro Slob is an ability to project wealth and power through the physical appearance of neither. Paradoxically, business dress, no matter how high-end, is not that sort of flex. To dress for the office is to be a part of something bigger, or in corporate jargon, a team player who is aware of the rules and accountable to others.

So if, in tech, a bro can be above the fashion law, why not the actual law as well?