Flyers around San Francisco are urging tech workers to give up the quintessential Silicon Valley uniform: the fleece vest. It's just the latest flashpoint in the city's class battle.



Office workers coming back in cities like New York and San Francisco also mean the return of something else - the Patagonia fleece vest. The garment has long been associated with Wall Street and Silicon Valley. NPR's Bobby Allyn examines how the fashion choice has come to represent the excess of the industries.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: I find Sam Runkle (ph) in flip-flops playing fetch with his golden retriever with a lacrosse stick and ball in a grassy field overlooking the San Francisco Bay.

How's it going?

SAM RUNKLE: Good. How are you doing?

ALLYN: I approach him because he's wearing a Patagonia vest, something that's become a symbol of being a techie.

You wouldn't consider yourself a tech bro, though, right?

RUNKLE: I definitely work in tech.

ALLYN: And you're definitely a guy.

RUNKLE: And I'm definitely a guy. So if you want to label me as a tech bro, by all means. I'm not sure I identify personally.

ALLYN: But whether you like it or not, the Patagonia vest has become a part of the tech bro uniform. Yes, plenty of women and non-tech workers wear them, too, of course. But Runkle admits it's most often sported by bros and, often, bros who know something about venture capital or software engineering. But look. Runkle says it's also the perfect windshield for a city on the tip of a peninsula.

RUNKLE: It's comfy, gets the job done.

ALLYN: Not far away in the trendy Marina District, a resistance of sorts is brewing. Anti-tech fliers have started to appear saying, quote, "urgent - stop wearing vests." The tension comes as no surprise to historian Margaret O'Meara at the University of Washington. She says the popularity of the fleece vest in tech circles coincided with a flood of new investors piling into flashy startups.

MARGARET O'MEARA: In a way, it has its roots in the marriage of Silicon Valley and Wall Street that started with the dot-com boom.

ALLYN: As Wall Street and Silicon Valley became closer over the years, venture capitalists ditched the sweater vests for Wall Street's favorite garment, the Patagonia vest.

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

ALLYN: Elite tech conferences started handing them out as swag. 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 the embroidered logo of your new job at a big tech company. Sumukh Sridhara remembers moving to San Francisco and walking to his tech job and seeing person after person wearing the same vest.

SUMUKH SRIDHARA: It just seemed like something that didn't necessarily fit in San Francisco.

ALLYN: So he began selling a so-called VC starter pack. It included a book by entrepreneur Peter Thiel and a gray Patagonia fleece vest.

SRIDHARA: In a place that's usually known for its diversity of types of people and types of things that people work on, everyone just ends up wearing the same outfit in this one industry.

ALLYN: He says he's seen fewer vests with the names of companies and tech conferences of late, in part because of Patagonia. Last year, it said it would stop selling vests with corporate logos. Still, the vest uniform isn't going anywhere. On a recent afternoon in downtown San Francisco, a bunch of fintech workers are strolling about, some in their vests, like Jose Nazario.

JOSE NAZARIO: So I started two weeks ago in preparation because I knew I wasn't wearing a suit. I bought three vests, and I made sure not to get a Patagonia one because I didn't want to get stereotyped. So I got non-labeled vests for that reason.

ALLYN: Yeah, OK. He might look like a tech or finance bro, but look. He says it's kind of complimentary, too. His colleagues got a kick out of this.

NAZARIO: It's part of the uniform, and it fits. I like the way vests look on me. They fit. They make my shoulders look big. I'm a guy. Big shoulders help.

ALLYN: But it's not so chic in every city. Sridhara, who made the VC starter kit, recently launched a new one for techies moving to Miami - among the items, a fashion consultant appointment so tech workers don't look ridiculous wearing the fleece vests with a pina colada in hand along South Beach. Bobby Allyn, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.