You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

How Tech Is Remaking Fashion in Its Image

The ethos of Silicon Valley—scalability, homogeneity, and a subtle exclusivity—has crept into the clothes people wear.

Courtesy of Allbirds

In the 2000s, the former Hollywood agent Scott Sternberg’s Los Angeles clothing brand Band of Outsiders was the peak of hipster fashion. It sold quirky oxford shirts, skinny chinos, and skinnier ties by capitalizing on an image of exclusivity—it was for Kirsten Dunst, probably not you. The brand flamed out around 2015, passing into the hands of its Belgian investors. Last month, Sternberg launched a new, very different project called Entireworld. It’s an e-commerce company, avoiding the overhead costs that helped sink Band of Outsiders, and, as its name suggests, it’s supposed to be for everyone. Entireworld markets an androgynous-leaning set of bright pastel t-shirts, striped socks, and $95 monochromatic button-downs on a website that resembles an early Apple ad, down to the stiff serif logo.

Entireworld aspires to a vague utopianism, as if it could clothe the planet in a woker version of American Apparel. Sternberg told GQ that his inspirations included the Case Study Houses, a series of modular glass-and-steel homes in California by mid-century figures like architect Richard Neutra and the Eameses, as well as Brasilia, the white, curvilinear capital of Brazil that was the vision of Oscar Niemeyer. Sternberg’s leap from exclusivity to universality makes more sense when compared to the clothing brands that have emerged out of San Francisco and Silicon Valley over the past few years, funded by technology venture capital. Companies like the omnipresent sneaker-maker Allbirds and the minimalist wardrobe-provider Everlane have created a template, both aesthetic and economic, that is now leaking back into highbrow fashion.

These companies aren’t out to nail trends, as the fast fashion manufacturers of past decades did, but rather to sell an all-encompassing clothing system through which consumers are meant to live. In tech terms, the brands are platforms and the products must be scalable, aimed at as wide and profitable an audience as possible, whether those products are fabric sneakers or ethically manufactured underwear. It’s clothing as software, embracing an ethos of one-for-all uniformity.

In the past year both Allbirds and Everlane have opened new storefront locations in downtown Manhattan, moving into brick-and-mortar for the sake of public visibility as well as accessibility—despite the convenience of shopping online, people still like to try stuff on before spending money. I visited them both to see if what was for everyone was actually for me.

The gray felt, gray rubber sole, and ropy gray laces of the classic Allbirds sneaker have already become synonymous with start-up entrepreneurs; The New York Times pinpointed them last year as a way to “fit in” in Silicon Valley. Launched in 2016, the sneakers are unisex, washable, and wearable without socks, an advantage for the efficiency-minded (or washer-less). Fittingly, the New York Allbirds outlet is set up like an Apple store’s Genius Bar, with a long, curved, blonde-wood counter extending down most of the space across from wall-mounted displays of shoes. The wall is studded with succulents and covered in a cartoon cityscape.

In front of the bar are rotating stools where customers speak to a sneaker-barista, requesting specific models from a menu. The effect is democratizing and nonhierarchical: I sat on an equal level with my fellow customers as we slid our feet into the glove-like shoes, reinforcing the sense that we were all supposed to be buying the same things. The sneakers come in different styles, but only the way Skittles come in different flavors. The variation is minimal, with a few desaturated colors; a choice between wool and sustainable tree fiber; and laces or slip-on. Between these options we must all identify the limited range of our individuality. Much like the iPhone in the years before the watches and the luxury X model, the sneakers, priced at $95, are both upscale and homogenous, an extension of the modernist ideal of universal design.

A few blocks away on the same Soho street, Everlane looks even more like an Apple store, with a white-painted facade, floor-to-ceiling glass storefront, and an immaculately ordered interior in which everything seems to be visible at once. The aesthetic is again androgynous; a men’s section is marked on one wall but isn’t much of a departure from the rest of the store, with offerings in various shades of neutral. Everlane was launched with a single t-shirt in 2011 in San Francisco on the principles of ethical manufacturing and radical transparency, as its tags now boast. Each item of clothing—jeans, t-shirt, skirt—identifies the factory where it was made, like a recycled-water clean denim producer in southern Vietnam. It also makes manufacturing costs clear, showing a lower mark-up than traditional brands. Most items are below $100, more than Uniqlo but less than luxury.

The store is a frictionless multimedia experience, like shopping online but in real life. The walls resemble the empty background of a website. Every rack looks like an Instagram snapshot. No cash is accepted. On hanging headphones customers can listen to ambient sound made from recordings in the brand’s factories. At Everlane’s previous Manhattan retail outpost, a hidden upper-floor loft, most items couldn’t even be purchased on-site, only ordered on a computer. Here, there’s an iPad displaying the full selection of simple, well-constructed jeans, flats, striped shirts, and, the latest addition, underwear. The store was a riot of white, blue, khaki, pink, and black, since the customers were wearing the same strict palette as the employees, like a herd of normcore zebras. Then again, I was wearing it, too.

This serene space broadcasts the idea that Everlane’s capsule clothes are suitable for all people, evoking an infinite range of humanity clad in dun linen and recycled denim. Yet the only sizes of pants on display in the men’s section were 30 and 32. For women, the brand doesn’t go above a size 14. The discrepancy between image and actual product casts doubt on the ideals of technologized clothing companies. Fashion has always been built on exclusivity, but these businesses have gained valuations in the hundreds of millions of dollars claiming the opposite while failing to completely execute it.

Allbirds’s glorified slippers are most useful if all you do is pad around an office all day, and even then you should still avoid inclement weather. They’ll support your feet for a few hours at a standing desk but not a service job. The informal style of Entireworld would be great for an L.A. creative director but not if your job has an actual dress code. The innate exclusivity is wrapped in a veneer of non-exclusivity. Functionalism is affected but not enacted. It echoes how digital platforms like Facebook, Uber, and Airbnb are meant to be democratic—anyone with an internet connection can use them—but in practice they work in very different ways for different users, benefitting some and excluding or exploiting others.

The modernist architects that Scott Sternberg cites dreamt of designing perfect modular houses for all of humanity. The end result of that movement today is a fetishized niche of elite culture and a dwindling set of museumified public buildings. Case Study homes sell on the private market for millions of dollars. Tech-wear may not be as expensive just yet, but it certainly isn’t for everyone.