Silicon Valley Fashion Week: Not Chic or Geek

Photo: Joshua Cobos

On Wednesday evening, a significant line was forming in front of the Chapel, a music venue in the Mission — the latest SF neighborhood to turn tech-boy playground. Ravers mingled with Burners, decked out in versions of their playa costumes, and clean-cut corporate types in the standard hoodie-and-khaki uniform. One man opted for a full-length fur coat and Elton John sunglasses, while one woman took the night’s “Fashion Week” sentiment to heart and broke out an evening skirt and heels. A guy in a cardboard robot costume posed for photos and danced, as half a dozen onlookers Periscoped his performance. The microcosm outside the doors turned out to be a fairly good snapshot of the first annual Silicon Valley Fashion Week?

Yes, the question mark is intentional. Betabrand, the people responsible for this spectacle, had anticipated the sort of criticism that would erupt when a company that specializes in internet-in-joke apparel, like Suit Onesies and poop-emoji-print dresses, decides to pair the words Silicon Valley with Fashion Week. When a press release went out about it, a week or so before the event, it was met with a healthy dose of Twitter snark and skeptical headlines on both coasts. “Does Silicon Valley Need Its Own Fashion Week?” “Isn’t this an oxymoron?” And, of course, endless recycling of the standard Valley fashion joke: “What’s it going to be? A hoodie fashion show?” GQ’s John Jannuzzi expressed his dismissal of the event: “Seriously, tech bros. Stay in your lane, we’ll stay in ours. Silicon Valley Fashion Week? Please, don’t ask.”

CEO Chris Lindland is the first to admit he was totally out of his league when it came time to produce a fashion show in six weeks. “The question mark allowed us to have a fallback in case nobody showed up,” he told the Cut. He needn’t have worried — his boozy, three-night variety-show-cum-start-up-party sold out — and in the days preceding the event, and Fashionista published pieces about it. The New Yorker, BuzzFeed, Yahoo Style, and yes, even GQ sent reporters to cover the show alongside the usual tech outlets — a fact that baffled Betabrand and Bay Area journalists. One San Francisco reporter asked us, “Um, why are you here? Is this supposed to be serious?”

Of course, there was a certain wink and nod to this event, but “the Valley” prides itself on reimagining everything from laundry to grocery shopping to medicine, so why not expect it to revolutionize one of the oldest clichés in Fashion: the runway show. Could it maybe, to use a term from its own playbook, disrupt a fashion week? “I hate the word disrupt,” Lindland admitted on the first night of shows. “But, I mean hip-hop was once considered disruptive and look how it’s shaped fashion. I think Burner and maker culture could do the same thing. I look at something like that LED vest,” he said, gesturing to one of the models. “If I could make that for $300, wouldn’t you buy that?”

Over three nights, the event followed the same agenda. A dry machine would spew forth a foggy carpet to signal the beginning of the presentation. The emcee, Mustafa, took the stage in a gold or silver disco suit from Betabrand and introduced an opening act — aerial cyclists the first night, pop ‘n’ lock dancers the second, and an opera singer on the third. Then the “catwalk show” would begin with a parade of LED vests, fiber-optic dresses, corsets and harnesses that looked like alien exoskeletons, and 3-D-printed hats modeled by break-dancers, engineers (who ripped off their shirts), as well as a handful of “drone models” who closed out each night by flying garments down the runway. Most of it was unwearable save for some of the commuter fashion — a bike-friendly skirt with shorts sewn in seemed smart until it became clear that it was just a skort by a different name.

All of which is to say: SVFW had every cliché one would expect from a tech world’s satire of a fashion week, and none of the Kanye. It also lacked any real understanding about what it’s satirizing. If this were all supposed to be a joke, sure, we played into it, but the punch line was akin to Zoolander-era fashion humor. The imagined relationship between Tech and Fashion is that the Fashion establishment reduces Bay Area “style” to gray hoodies and walking shoes while company-tee-clad Valley-ites see fashion as frivolous and easy. SVFW played into that — get a runway, use drones, toss in a burlesque show, and call it “Fashion Week.”

But isn’t it time to admit that this dynamic is getting old? Fashion, at its best, trades on predicting the future. It disrupts itself all the time. It forces us to ask questions and challenge normative behavior. It reflects how society is evolving and helps drive it. One only needs to look at Hood by Air’s post-everything POV or Iris Van Herpen’s futuristic couture. Fashion and tech are more friendly than ever — Marissa Mayer was on the cover of Vogue; Karl Lagerfeld has sported an Apple Watch. Even Balenciaga couldn’t resist the siren song of Silicon Valley money, and opened a store there last year. Fashion-oriented start-ups and personal-shopping apps continue to target tech workers who want to dress better. Silicon Valley cares about fashion, and the fashion world wants more of the innovation that the tech world could offer, if it weren’t so busy making jokes.

On the third night, Lindland was feeling pretty good about Silicon Valley Fashion Week. “Some moments were really beautiful, right?” he asked rhetorically. “I’ve only been to about five fashion shows, but I swear some moments, it really looked like we were putting on a real fashion show.” So in five years, will it be New York, London, Milan, Paris, Silicon Valley? “Maybe,” he responded. “I mean, I did already trademark the name.”

Additional reporting by Molly Pierce.

Silicon Valley Fashion Week: Not Chic or Geek