Need more proof that the machines are taking over? This spring in San Francisco, a fleet of
remote-controlled drones replaced some of mankind’s most essential workers: runway models.
The drones, draped with empty suits, hovered ominously—and a bit ridiculously—over the catwalk at Silicon Valley Fashion Week? (the question mark is part of the name), a tongue-in-cheek, three-day event hosted by Betabrand, a company that creates clothing and accessories for the tiny sliver on the Venn diagram where geek meets chic.
Founded by tech exec and onetime comedy writer Chris Lindland, Betabrand employs Reddit-style memes, Buzzfeed-worthy virality, and Kickstarter-like crowdfunding to create novel apparel that occasionally tips into novelty territory. Just as Armani came to define the ’80s by outfitting Wall Street power brokers and Hollywood agents, Betabrand strives to be nothing less than the uniform maker for the mathletes who code our wired world.
And those coders, by and large, like to be comfortable.
Among the company’s biggest sellers are the Dress Pant Sweatpants ($108) and Dress Pant Yoga Pants for ladies ($78), which disguise the comfort of loungewear within the sharp lines of slacks designed for raking leaves. The Pinstripe Executive Hoodie ($168) is an upgrade to Mark Zuckerberg’s signature sweatshirt that’s part suit, part sight gag. Then there are the Gay Jeans ($98), cut slim and sewn with rainbow threads that literally “come out” as the denim ages. Not quite as popular but no less inventive are the Poo Emoji Button-Up Shirt ($88) and optional matching Poo Emoji Light Wing Franklin Shoes ($88).
For all its cleverness, Betabrand’s biggest disruption to fashion may be in the way it has crowdsourced the design process. At more established fashion houses, designers conceive next season’s looks in secrecy and carefully buzz-market them to tastemakers and fashion editors. The consumer has little choice other than to follow or get left behind.
“Ultimately, the decisions of what products you consume are made by a select group of aesthetic overlords,” Lindland says. “In some cases, the talent is so great that it yields products that are indeed great. Other times, it involves decisions that don’t hit.” Betabrand, on the other hand, turns that approach inside out by bringing its customers into the design process early and often.
Lindland’s skepticism about the old models is partly a function of being based in the Bay Area, where hundreds of start-ups “move fast and break things,” but also a reflection of his personality. Talking to him at Betabrand’s two-story showroom and design lab in the Mission District, you get the sense that Betabrand is a lark that grew into a business and that Lindland is a prankster who grew into a CEO.
Betabrand’s goofy humor mirrors Lindland’s own: A TV pilot he developed was about a crime fighter who happened to have worn a record-setting “bee beard” (which is just what it sounds like). It’s hard to imagine Karl Lagerfeld coming up with that.
Of course, fashion-industry types tend to look down their noses at Betabrand. They’re not exactly threatened, but there’s something vaguely unsettling about the idea of democratizing the design process. In addition to soliciting feedback from potential buyers, Betabrand invites them to become collaborators by submitting ideas to its Think Tank, a crowdsourcing vertical where customers vote with their preorders. If enough people commit to buying something, Betabrand will make it, regardless of how ludicrous it may be.
Take the Suitsy, a $378 one-piece suit, shirt, and tie onesie featured across the Web and on news shows like Good Morning America. Lindland concedes that the Suitsy is less a garment than a Halloween costume. Worse still, “It’s an unfortunate costume in a way, because the best costumes are cheap and funny. This one’s expensive and funny.” But the fact that the idea for the Suitsy came from a real estate developer makes it a perfect example of Betabrand’s approach. “That was one of those rare and wonderful experiences for me,” Lindland says.
Another product that originated with an outside collaborator is the Solitaire, a $188 women’s jumpsuit designed by comedian Margaret Cho. With pockets in front, in back, on the leg, and hidden in the chest, it’s designed to double as a wearable purse. “For me, it’s the perfect garment,” Cho said. “You can be self-contained and have your hands free.” Cho is already dreaming of a 2.0 luxe version made of leather or “a thin lambskin that would breathe.”
Who knows? If enough consumers sign on, it might be the next big thing—whether the guardians of chic approve or not.
“We’re not even having to work at this,” Lindland marvels. “This is just happening.”
Photos by Jake Stangel