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  • Solving the Millennial Work Shirt Problem

    Solving the Millennial Work Shirt Problem

    TL;DR — If you’re a millennial who is unsure what they should wear to work, you should try wearing a banded collar shirt. Below is an explanation (perhaps an over-analyzed explanation) of why.

    This Seems Like a Lot of Thought To Put Into A Shirt

    I’m not naturally someone who thinks a lot about the clothing I wear. I have clothes that I have worn since middle school and repaired multiple times, and I don’t match my socks because it is the most time consuming part of doing laundry and provides very little benefit. Outside of a particular pair of overalls and a particular jacket I love, I generally have treated most of my clothing as interchangeable. Last year something happened that changed this.

    Which is why I’m writing a 1000 word thought piece on a shirt.

    (The shirt that launched a thousand words)
    I noticed that I wore a specific shirt as often as I could and I wanted to buy more of them. It was a chambray banded collar shirt (also known as a mandarin collar or a Nehru collar) that I don’t even remember buying.

    I went to go buy more of them and the company that produced it no longer made the same shirt so I bought some comparable shirts from different brands and whether fit or fabric, they invariably sucked in some way. I went to the point of buying fabric and having my friend who’s a costume designer take it apart to make more.

    But this sparked the question: why did I want to wear that shirt all the time?

    For context, I work in fintech. I speak at conferences, I pitch investors, I work with engineers, I have casual drinks with potential partners, meetings with bankers in suits etc. I also do performance poetry, play Magic the Gathering obsessively, and like to hike and do trailwork. There is no dress code for me.

    I am not alone in this. In the co-working space I used to work out of there was a pretty jarring mish-mash of more and less “business like” clothing — gym shorts at hot-desks next to business casual, pantsuits filling up coffee next to yoga pants. I imagine a lot of the people there face the same problem. If I wore a T-Shirt and people showed up to a meeting in suits I would feel like my underdress was a problem (even if for no other reason than making them feel overdressed), and if I wore a business casual collared shirt and pants I would feel stodgy and lame when having a meeting with a crew of hoodied tech folks.

    As a general pragmatist I was attached to the idea that I didn’t care how I looked, but now that I was thinking about it — there’s a reason I didn’t spend all my time wearing grey dystopian-utilitarian jumpsuits. Part of the utility of clothing comes from the semiotics of your outfit: what is communicated by your clothing is of real, practical concern.

    Semiotics and Clothing

    Semiotics is basically the study of things that communicate meaning (literally the study of “signs”). It can be understood in terms of language, but also can apply to almost anything — for example, the construction of an image conveys a lot through symbolism and signalling.

    To give an example, why do news anchors sit at desks and wear suits? Why does the text at the bottom of the screen scroll by, creating urgency? This entire image is constructed to convey authority, trustworthiness, and immediacy. In day to day life we also use our clothing to imply group membership, signal status, etc.

    Source: Here

    These semiotic signals coalesce groups into creating uniforms like the tech bro zip up hoodie ensemble, which derives from Silicon Valley's hero worship of the "drop-out kid genius" archetype.Source: Here

    When you look for it, there are plenty examples of this: the seasonal liberal arts wealthy female yuppie uniform that changes year to year (Canada Goose and Uggs, or Burberry coats and Frieze boots, etc.), the frat-bro gym shorts and pinnie, the Brooklyn barista flannel buttoned to the top with beard and heavy rimmed glasses, what-have-you.

    Your clothing conveys a message, whether you craft that message or not. So what’s so tricky about work clothing for my generation?

    Understanding the Millennial Workwear Problem

    The problem that the chambray banded collar shirt solved for me was a semiotic problem faced by a lot of millennials. Our work lives are entirely unlike those of previous generations. It feels out of place to wear collared shirts and pants because we are semiotically attaching ourselves to a group that experienced a totally different form of career. We are not spending our lives building up 401ks in single institution corporate careers. We are the most likely generation to switch jobs, tend to take early career risk in startups that provide low salaries in exchange for the option like exposure to potential payouts from future exits and we work side hustles to augment income based on the ease of creating small scale businesses with the growth of ecommerce (Etsy, Shopify, etc.) and the availability of flexible hours through the gig economy (Uber, Lyft, etc.). We often work remote, engage in multiple projects simultaneously, and have a much higher degree of self-direction in our careers.

    In exchange for this freedom (and the possibility of a greater degree of self actualization versus the corporate existence we eschew as cog-like), we trade out access to benefits and ensured financial security. Given that we strive toward different goals and face different challenges than a 1980s lawyer, the semiotic burden of an unrelatable history of professional identity makes collared shirts unfit for our professional lives. At least it does for me (which includes the “new corporate” patagonia vest, chinos, and button down). It would signal inaccurate group identity.Source: Here

    Even if you take the other extreme of Silicon Valley’s boy-genius hero worship costume — it still carries a semiotic burden of unprofessionalism to show up to meetings with banks (or, honestly, anyone) looking like you just stopped by after rolling out of your dorm room bed on the way to a class. And I think that the cult of the college drop-out will sour as people realize that one-offs of individuals uniquely early to the coding game from the early nineties through happenstance in youth does not a replicable investment model make (the ability to write code is commoditized), and the new generation of companies exported to public markets from the privately overvalued VC/Silicon valley fugazzi wilt in the light of public reporting obligations when they IPO (in two years you should probably take that early buyout offer from Google because your future IPO is not going to make what you think it will, and in 6 years when Google early buyout offers get less generous because everyone knows you can’t cut it in public markets you should still take it — I could write another article on private market valuations, and I likely one day will). Needless to say, I’m not trying to signal group identity with those guys either.Source: Here

    The Solution

    The banded collar chambray shirt threaded that needle for me. It carried different, nuanced, semiotics that didn’t push me into either category. It was professional without being reminiscent of an 80s lawyer. It was different and casual without being sloppy. I could wear it to meet banks, billionaires, coders, or friends. It was as suitable in a boardroom as a dive bar, like me, and I wore it all the time because it accurately mirrored that counter-intuitive combination in myself and my lifestyle.

    I even spoke to friends with similar careers, and many of them also had that one banded collar shirt that they wore all the time and didn’t know why. I think there is something here about a forming group identity of new professionals that value self-direction over certainty, pragmatism over prestige, and creativity over obedience.

    Maybe, if some of this resonates with you, try one out.

    Find the shirt:


    (Disclaimer: I’m entirely focused on men’s clothing in this. This is in part because it obviously relates more directly to my experience, but is also because I think the semiotic challenges women face in the workplace — especially in our generation — are significantly more complex.)

    Further Reading:

    Silicon Bro Example

    Gallup on Millennials and Job-Hopping

    Hacker Noon on Dress Codes

    Vogue Article on Women’s Workwear

    Millennials and Side Hustles

    Semiotics and News Example

  • Why Isn’t Clothing Better Than It Was 30 Years Ago?

    Why Isn’t Clothing Better Than It Was 30 Years Ago?

    The clothing industry is broken on almost every level, and broken in a way that ultimately fails the end user (as well as having significant negative externalities).

    All of this traces back to fundamental problem — a pervasive ethos of top down design — and we think an approach of user-driven development would create a better product (and a better industry).

    High Level Problems in Clothing Production

    While you may be someone who doesn’t care about what brand you’re wearing, or read Vogue, or follow the “trends,” the seasonal redefinition of high fashion houses still affects your user experience. This arbitrarily moving target affects what the stores you go to keep in stock, which has cascading effects throughout the industries’ approach to production and product development.

    Here are the core problems with the top-down design ethos:

    (1) Disincentivizes focus on making good products — there’s no reason to invest a year of R&D on the best henley if it has a pre-defined shelf life of 1 season, and no reason to iterate on it if it will be out of style next year

    (2) Incentivizes form over function or durability, creating the system that produced the fast fashion industry, which rewards cheap construction rather than valuable innovation on features

    (3) Directly causes wasteful behaviors; i.e. no one is going to buy polka dots, or vests, or [insert garment type here] this season so a distributor might as well trash all that old inventory

    How These Problems Play Out

    I’ll try to keep the below description of how these effects play out brief so I can get to the point of how we plan to fix it.

    Source: Here


    Fast Fashion is the Enemy of Quality

    Per the above, a very reasonable business approach to a market in which clothing designs can be more or less viewed as one-off (this product probably won’t last more than a season) is cheap production, low quality, and minimum investment in individual designs — going for a breadth of offerings rather than investing in the quality of a few specific products.

    Chaotic Production Sourcing Prevents Innovation

    Because it’s difficult for a factory to know that they’re still going to have orders for a specific item two years from now, the market for production is fragmented and volatile. This makes it difficult for small producers to have consistent relationships with factories. For the factory to survive it has to take the big order when it comes in from a large producer, even if that means reneging on commitments made to smaller producers.

    It’s not the factory’s fault (they have to get the business when it shows up because the production opportunities are variable), it’s a systematic problem caused by the same top down design ethos that changes its mind about what end users ought to want every few months. Because of that design ethos, clothing companies are constantly solving and resolving the problem of sourcing production for the new items they’re creating that have differing requirements.Tammy working on one of our prototypes

    Beyond being hideously inefficient, that constant grind of finding new production sucks up the young hires from design schools into basically working on production teams. Much of the best new design talent in the fashion industry spends the majority of their time finding factories, sourcing, and chasing vendors to make everything quicker for cheaper rather than designing new clothes, which reinforces the entrenchment of the incumbent, ossified fashion elite (whose position in this system is causing all of these problems).

    One of our co-founders, Tammy Chow, went to Parsons (the #1 design school) and used to be a designer at a major brand. She spent about 80% of her time doing production and sourcing, and in the remaining 20% for everything else (including, you know, designing) was still expected to produce 100+ designs a season (meaning she spent about 0.2% of her time that season on a given design). If we assume 9 hour workdays, that would mean over 3 months with 9 hour days she spent roughly 1 hour on each design.

    Horrifying Amounts of WasteSource: Here

    This essay is focused on the systematic problems with product design in the clothing industry, but I would be remiss to leave out the environmental impact of all of this. 3 in 5 garments end up in a landfill or incinerator within a year. The fashion industry accounts for more carbon emissions than aviation and shipping combined. I could spend this whole article listing face-melting statistics about all of the waste produced by the fashion industry, but you can just google it yourself (it’s an interesting hole to go down).

    Moving Targets Prevent Iteration

    If you’re designing a product that’s going to be around for maybe a year, there is no reason to collect feedback on it and improve the design. You just make it (it’s cheap anyway), and if people buy it for a few months great — and if they don’t you can just throw away the inventory.

    Because your clothing isn’t maximizing for quality, you have enough room in your margins to make some winners and some losers then build up new lines on short notice for the next spring. “Might as well put the polka dot shorts design in the filing cabinet, next season is all corduroy capris. Looks like we need a factory that can provide that kind of stitching — see if that factory in Portugal can make room for us. How many yards of polka dot jersey cotton do we still have? Get rid of it we need that inventory space for corduroy…”

    No Incentive for Market Giants to Improve

    The inefficiency and volatility mentioned above reinforces the entrenchment of the existing giants in the market. Entrenched incumbents have very little incentive to innovate and every reason to maintain the status quo, which creates weird negative outcomes for, you know, people who wear clothes.

    By way of example, many of the major men’s shirting brands use the same fit model for their shirts that they used in the early 90s (a very famous fit model who had a major hand in defining the fit model industry). If you’re running production at a major company, you don’t want to be the one that switches away from the guy everyone else uses (the gold standard) and takes the risk of rocking the boat.

    But, say your target market is men in their mid-twenties: that fit model is not in his mid-twenties anymore. His arm, waist, chest etc. might still maintain their technical measurements — but I promise you the shirts don’t fit him the same as they would have thirty years ago. If you’re a guy in your mid-twenties, this might be why a lot of your collared shirts don’t fit right.

    What About Us? What About People Who Wear Clothes?

    And what does all of this do to serve the end user? If you’re interested in following the palace intrigue of fashion it can be interesting the same way some people find the hobby of following football interesting. Maybe that’s what the end user wants, or maybe the average end user of clothing is more like me: I don’t follow high fashion or football, and I just want my shirts to be better designed.

    Ok, So What can We Actually Do About It?

    We have examples of industries where design has rapidly improved. The elephant in the room here is tech. One of the big differences in tech is an ethos of bottom up design.

    • Create a basic MVP of the service you’re building and get it into the hands of users.
    • Observe user behavior and incentivize user feedback.
    • Capture that feedback.
    • Iterate on the design.
    • Repeat. Quickly.

    The first product doesn’t have to be perfect. The important thing to focus on iterating effectively, which means creating a well oiled system for improving the product based on what the end user actually wants.

    In short, that’s what our company is: a clothing company dedicated to rapid iteration, with design choices driven by user feedback.

    And we’re going to start simple, with an MVP. One shirt — a banded collar chambray shirt that we’ve already started prototyping (I will write more in the future about why we’re choosing that to begin with; it mostly has to do with my beliefs around the needs of my generation and the semiotic challenges it faces with clothing).

    Even more important than what the product is, we’re creating a machine to incentivize and capture user feedback. The MVP version of that is $10 cash back to anyone who posts a video review of the shirt. As our system for applying rapid iteration to clothing improves, we can also branch out and apply it to other clothing products.

    We want to flip the clothing industry on its head and have user driven development create better products for our users.

    Our product isn’t good enough. Together we can make it better.