On the Runway: Are Bankers and Venture Capitalists Really Getting Fleeced by Patagonia?

The great fleece freak-out of 2019 — the days of crazed excitement around the idea that Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company, was sticking it to Wall Street and Silicon Valley by refusing to make any more of the branded fleece vests that had become a banker signifier — began, as many confused news cycles do, with a tweet.

Binna Kim, an executive with a financial public relations firm, announced: “News — @Patagonia just told us they are no longer doing branded vests for financial services companies.” Instead, it appeared the brand would work only with B corporations (companies certified for environmental and social standards and performance) and companies that were members of the organization One Percent For the Planet — though most readers ignored that part and concluded, as one response went, “This news is the black swan event that will cause the next crisis.”

There were rumors it was an April Fool’s joke, but Ms. Kim shot that down. Before you could say “mergers and acquisitions,” gleeful reports were making their way around the web, Patagonia cast in the role of the tssk-ing parent issuing judgments on the morally corrupt money-grubbers and privacy-ignorers.

The general feeling being: O.K., so bankers weren’t prosecuted way back when. And they seem to be wiggling out of consequences now (so does the tech crowd, even if they are in the hot seat). But at least they are being prosecuted in the court of fashion!

Could it really be true? As it turns out, not entirely.

According to Corley Kenna, senior director of global communications at Patagonia: “Several customers and some members of the press have asked us whether we’ve changed our policy regarding group sales — and whether we’re leaving ‘bros out in the cold.’ Bros, their sisters, mothers and fathers need not go cold. We continue to sell to, and welcome the business of, the B-to-B companies and nonprofits who have been short- or long-term loyal customers — including those who order co-branded vests or other items that feature the group’s logo as well as ours.”

So the change will affect only new customers — and, going forward, the program will (in Patagonia’s mind at least) have more to do with supporting companies that share the brand’s value system than discriminating against companies that don’t.

That does not, however, mean the whole kerfuffle isn’t significant. It’s just that what the change really reveals isn’t actually some nefarious scheme on Patagonia’s part, but rather how challenged the image of the fintech world and its members remains in the public mind. They’re still the villains of our particular cultural story, and whenever they seem to be experiencing some kind of comeuppance, even one as minor as a change in their go-to garment, it is greeted with joy.

Here’s how the saga happened, and what’s actually going on.

As is clear to anyone who watches “Billions” or “Silicon Valley,” is fascinated by the “summer camp for billionaires” known as Allen & Co.’s Sun Valley conference, or knows anyone who works for a private equity firm, hedge fund or venture capital firm, company-branded fleece vests have been the baseball hats of the twenty-teens for the fintech sector.

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Damian Lewis on the set of “Billions.” Its depiction of the financial sector frequently includes fleece-wearing executives.CreditAntonio Santos for The New York Times

As Casual Friday crept into the workweek, and the shadow banking world attempted to distinguish itself from the old establishment banking world, the basic garment of climber culture became the new jacket: cooler, tougher, a visual statement of being able to get it done. The style got at least one Instagram handle — @midtownuniform — and a page featuring pictures of banker bros in fleece vests.

Executives gave them to employees, to clients and handed them out on pretty much any occasion. And though many companies, including The North Face, make fleece vests, the Patagonia fleeces quickly became, as Jeffrey Leeds, co-founder of Leeds Equity Partners (and a longtime fleece-wearer), said, “the Tiffany blue box” of the culture: an immediately recognizable visual sign of elite status. Part of this can be attributed to the co-branding — the Patagonia name on one side and a company name on the other.

Patagonia became so linked to the financial sector uniform that one website poked fun at the whole thing by offering a “VC starter kit” for $499. “Nothing says SF VC casual like a Patagonia Better Sweater Vest paired with gray Allbirds runners. You’ll fit right into Demo Day,” the promo read. (Proceeds go to a nonprofit.)

However, late last year Patagonia decided to change its mission statement from the relatively lengthy “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis” to the more urgent and direct “We’re in business to save our home planet.”

And at the 2018 Allen conference, Randall Stephenson, chief executive officer of AT&T, wore a fleece vest as he talked with Sundar Pichai, chief executive of Google.CreditDrew Angerer/Getty Images

As part of that change, each brand sector started to look at policies to see if they aligned with the new mission statement. Patagonia’s Corporate Sales Program, or B-to-B section, which the company said is a relatively small but growing part of the business, began to think it might be making a mistake by insisting on co-branded products. (The co-branding idea was an effort to stymie resales). That policy put the company in the position of having its name paired with that of firms with different philosophical approach to business opened Patagonia to charges of hypocrisy. The group decided it would make more sense for the program to support brands aligned with its mission.

Patagonia has a history of being careful about which sectors it worked with: It has long avoided partnering with oil and gas and metals and mining, for example. The decision to be choosier about its fleece partners is, in many ways, entirely in line with most of the company’s recent corporate actions, from campaigning against the Trump administration’s efforts to reduce the acreage of protected lands to giving its $10 million tax rebate last year to nonprofits.

In any case, the brand was in the midst of thinking through the implications of what all this meant, fleece-wise (what if a mining company joined One Percent For The Planet, for example?), when the news leaked, and Patagonia lost control of the message. The company had not, it appeared, anticipated the latent desire to engage in fintech mockery that the deliberations would awaken.

Yet pointedly, as all this was going on, Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia’s founder, was giving a speech at the One Percent For the Planet summit in Portland, Ore. — the brand has donated more than $100 million to the organization thus far — and saying, “Life’s a lot easier if you break the rules instead of trying to conform to them. If you invent your own game, you can always be a winner.”

All of which raises what may be the most important symbolic question to come out of all of this controversy: Could this be the death knell of the fintech love affair with the fleece vest? Might it be time to move on, and have them go the way of branded pens, coffee cups and baseball hats? All good trends after all, must come to an end. Perhaps, in this case, we have reached it.

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