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War on Plaid: Workplace Fashion Is a Moving Target in San Francisco 

Tuesday, Nov 11 2014

Plaid isn't just trendy in San Francisco; it's uniform. Lest you have any doubt, consider a photo that made the rounds on social media site Reddit last week, depicting an office suite in which every single worker wore some variation of what's now dubbed the "lumbersexual" look. Guys in identical blue and red flannel shirts pecked at their laptops and obliviously checked their phones while a stealthy paparazzo lurked in the background. It seemed a little too perfect, but user "rahaverfield," who posted the photo, claimed the scene wasn't staged. Matching outfits are, he wrote, a recurring problem at his office.

And plaid isn't the only fashion that's become ubiquitous in the workplace. Take another trend — the company logo T-shirt — which has its own cult of adoration in the blogosphere. The Tumblr offers a massive photo collage of tech workers in cotton and crew-necked startup regalia. One particularly telling image shows two guys at a trade show. Both sport apparel from UpCounsel, a referral network for lawyers. Both dangle beer bottles. Both wear plastic wristbands. But only one has an arm tattoo of a tree trunk with roots growing from both ends — also the logo of East Bay clothing company Oaklandish.

It turns out the term "corporate casual" has been granted a lot of latitude in San Francisco. While their New York counterparts sport oxblood tones and cord knits, white collar workers here dress for a perpetual Friday. (Asked what constitutes proper business attire in San Francisco and elsewhere, New York fashion entrepreneur Vik Venkatraman replied, "It's a moving target.") Market Street teems with hooded sweatshirts and Paul Bunyan beards, as is sartorial SOP for certain corners of the culture these days. Plumage that is particular to the Bay Area includes tees, jackets, and messenger bags bearing the baby-talk names of any number of tech companies, interspersed with the occasional branded nod to Batman or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Perhaps it's the superabundance of youthful CEOs, or the historic refutation of East Coast formality, or the penchant for referring to company headquarters as "campuses." Whatever the case, Bay Area workers refuse to be cultivated. Tech bloggers roundly snubbed the "Startup Guy" summer line from Banana Republic, which featured models in suede shoes and fitted chinos. But many of them eagerly welcomed the "Executive Hoodie" by local designer BetaBrand, a pin-striped, hooded sweatshirt meant for the CEO who rides to work on an electric skateboards. In advertisements, he's usually featured in an Eames chair, sometimes dangling a cigar.

Nicole Chiu-Wang, director of the San Francisco-based personal stylist network Share Some Style, says she struggles against these sentiments every day. Logo T-shirts have become a status symbol in the tech world, she says, which makes her clients reluctant to part with them. She's tried suggesting alternatives: Make the T-shirts into a quilt, for instance. Or turn them into a wall-hanging. Or at least tuck them into a pencil skirt. When faced with a hoodie, she'll often suggest replacing it with cotton cashmere.

Flannels pose a more vexing problem. "You can throw a sweater on it," Chiu-Wang suggests. "Or layer it with a cardigan." When all else fails, it too can become a quilt. After all, Chiu-Wang says, there are ways to showcase a garment without having to wear it. Her goal is to lift Silicon Valley out of its Casual Weekday.

And if that means relegating plaid to bedtime, so be it.


About The Author

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan was a staff writer at SF Weekly from 2013 to 2015. In previous lives she was a music editor, IP hack, and tutor of Cal athletes.


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