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The Patagonia vest endures in San Francisco tech circles, despite ridicule

Faris Ajluni (right) land Jose Nazario pose in their vests in downtown San Francisco.
Bobby Allyn/NPR
Faris Ajluni (right) land Jose Nazario pose in their vests in downtown San Francisco.

Updated March 31, 2022 at 11:36 PM ET

Long associated with Wall Street and Silicon Valley, the Patagonia vest has endured as a tribal symbol of finance and tech. But those who've dared in recent weeks to put on their vests in San Francisco have been the target of a resistance of sorts.

"Urgent: Stop wearing vests," implore flyers plastered around the city. "You live in San Francisco now. It's time to start acting like it."

It's the latest show of frustration from city residents against the tech workers that many blame for making the city one of the nation's most expensive. NPR tried but was unable to track down the creator of the flyers.

Not everyone who sports a Patagonia vest is a "tech bro," says proud Patagonia vest-wearer Sam Runkle.

"The kind of people who wear Patagonia are maybe raising rents and maybe are the kind of people that these other groups are trying to push back on," he said on a recent afternoon as he played fetch with his golden retriever, with a lacrosse stick and ball, in a grassy field overlooking the San Francisco Bay. "But there's another cohort of people who do wear Patagonia who are not at all part of that."

For instance, Runkle, who works in sales at the software startup Paylode, said of his digs in the city's trendy Marina neighborhood: "I live in a four-bedroom that's really a two-bedroom with a plywood wall, so I don't think I'm raising any rents."

And, he notes, a Patagonia vest is practical in San Francisco: the perfect wind shield for a city on the tip of a peninsula.

"It's comfy," Runkle says. It gets the job done."

Indeed, plenty of women and non-tech workers adore the vests in the Bay Area for the same reason, but Runkle admits it's most often sported by bros. In particular, bros who know something about venture capital or software engineering.

"It's true," he says.

Sam Runkle sports a blue Patagonia vest while out with his golden retriever in San Francisco's Marina neighborhood.
/ Bobby Allyn
Bobby Allyn
Sam Runkle sports a blue Patagonia vest while out with his golden retriever in San Francisco's Marina neighborhood.

The vest "hits the right sweet spot between East Coast money and West Coast casual"

The tension fueled by the vests comes as no surprise to historian Margaret O'Mara at the University of Washington and author of the book, The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America.

She said the rise of the fleece vest in tech circles coincided with the throng of new investors piling into flashy startups in the early 2000s.

"In a way, it has its roots in the marriage of Silicon Valley and Wall Street that started with the dot-com boom," she said.

As the finance and tech industries became closer over the years, venture capitalists ditched preppy sweater vests for Wall Street's favorite garment: the Patagonia vest.

"You can wear your pressed khakis and your collared shirt and you put on a fleece vest and it just hits the right sweet spot between East Coast money and West Coast casual," O'Mara said.

"VC Starter Packs" offer Patagonia vests, a Twitter feed audit and a Peter Thiel book

It became a status symbol to waltz around the Bay Area rocking a vest with the name of a venture capital firm you recently closed a deal with, or one with the embroidered logo of your new job at a Big Tech company. Elite tech conferences used to hand them out as swag. The vests carried cachet.

Sumukh Sridhara remembers walking to his tech job one day shortly after moving to San Francisco and seeing person after person wearing the same exact vest.

"It just seemed like something that didn't necessarily fit in San Francisco," he said. "In a place that's usually known for its diversity of types of people and types of things that people work on, everybody just ends up wearing the same outfit in this one industry."

So, in jest, he began selling a "VC Starter Pack." It included a gray Patagonia fleece vest, the book Zero to One by entrepreneur Peter Thiel and a personalized Twitter feed audit, among other things.

He did find some takers at $699 a pop, and he donated the proceeds to charity. Then, as part of the joke, he redirected the website he created for the VC Starter Pack to job listings at the prominent venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz.

"It seems like nowadays the way to work in VC is to just work there," he said.

Of late, Sridhara said he has seen fewer vests with the names of companies and tech conferences around town. That's in part because of Patagonia. Last year, it announced it would stop selling vests with corporate logos. (Patagonia declined to comment for this story and Andreessen Horowitz did not respond to multiple emails.)

Still, walk around the windy streets of San Francisco and you'll find plenty of people wearing the vest.

On a recent afternoon in the city's financial district, a group of colleagues at a fintech firm strolled out of their office building, some in their vests. Among them: Faris Ajluni who says he started just two weeks ago.

"In preparation, because I knew I wasn't wearing a suit, I bought three vests," he said. "I made sure not to get a Patagonia one. I didn't want to get stereotyped, so I got non-labeled vests for that reason."

He acknowledges that, yes, he might look like a tech or finance bro, but so what?

"It's part of the uniform. And it fits. I like the way vests look on me. They make your shoulders look big. I'm a guy, so big shoulders help," he said.

The fleece vest does not add flair to one's look in every city.

Sridhara, who made the VC Starter Pack website, recently launched a new kit for techies moving to Miami. Among the items: an appointment with a fashion consultant, so tech workers don't look ridiculous wearing their fleece vests while holding their piña coladas along South Beach.

"You can't tan in a fleece jacket, " the site instructs. "A local stylist will acquire palm prints, Versace jungle prints, and guayaberas for you."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bobby Allyn
Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.