While scanning the healthcare news yesterday I was struck, perhaps a bit startled even, by a video clip of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, clad in a dark suit and tie and accompanied by an entourage of aides.
Earlier, Monday (April 16, 2018), he had posted testimony apologizing for Facebook’s role in false news, data privacy leaks and foreign interference in elections. He then held several meetings with leaders of the Senate Commerce and Judiciary Committees.
Immediately thereafter, I saw a clip of newly minted White House chief economic adviser Lawrence Kudlow–the former CNBC host—criticizing Zuckerberg over the social media giant’s role in providing data to Cambridge Analytica and thereby influencing the 2016 presidential campaign.
Kudlow offered some advice. “Is he going to wear a suit and tie?” he sneered. “Is he going to act like an adult, as a major corporate leader? Or give me this phony bologna…hoodie and dungarees?”
Dungarees? OK, so what does this have to do with healthcare news?
Back on April 1, I saw a headline on Google that said: “Trump Taps Elizabeth Holmes to Lead FDA.” I rubbed my eyes to re-read the headline and certainly see something less absurd (although lately, no one can predict what’s coming next from the White House).
However, the piece went on to say, “Ms. Holmes is the founder, Chairman, and CEO of Theranos, a privately held consumer healthcare technology company promising comprehensive lab tests from samples as small as a few drops of blood at unprecedented low prices. Theranos came under scrutiny in 2016 amidst allegations of false claims about its revolutionary blood tests.”
Continuing onward in an apparently serious journalistic manner, the piece quoted Trump in a Tweet statement saying that “Holmes’ unprecedented accomplishment in the healthcare sector” and her “commitment to transparent, consumer and health [sic]” made her exactly the kind of outsider to “shake things up” at the FDA.
With a growing queasiness that I was reading an actual press release, I kept skimming, “A source close to Ms. Holmes said that she wants a ‘faster, cheaper and more accurate’ approach to doing business at the FDA. Another source said that she will bring to the agency the slogan, ‘More with Less,’ a nod to both her company’s technology and the Administration’s promise of providing better government at lower cost.”
Aghast, I read the wrap up: “President Trump cited Holmes’ widespread support within the healthcare sector. ‘Elizabeth is a beautiful, talented, self-made woman who started with nothing but an idea and built a multi-billion-dollar company,’ he said. ‘Who doesn’t love that kind of story?’”
Well, the author of the piece, SynBioBeta, had me for those several seconds before I realized it was April 1. Another fools-day gottcha.
Returning to reality, though, the long, slow slide into ignominy of Theranos, the Silicon Valley pharmaceutical that was once the epitome of biotech breakthroughs, and its founder, Stanford dropout Elizabeth Holmes, had just come to a humiliating conclusion two weeks earlier with the announcement of the SEC’s charge of widespread fraud, and an agreement to settle.
Now, back to the connection of Mr. Zuckerberg with Ms. Holmes.
Vanessa Friedman of The New York Times wrote a brilliant piece last month about the fashion choices of Elizabeth Holmes and the deliberate use of her apparel to get as far as she did, fleecing some very smart investors out of hundreds of millions of dollars for her Theranos scam.
Ms. Friedman says, “Unsurprisingly, there have been the usual post-mortems and recriminations; the tsking over our desire to impart special powers to the young disrupters of the digital age; and our obsessions with the brilliant-dropout narrative and overinflated valuations built on unproven products.”
For Friedman, though, “This tale has a different message; one that has to do with the risks and rewards of creating an instantly identifiable image. And I wonder: Will black turtlenecks ever be looked at in quite the same way again?”
Friedman continues: “Her sartorial story is, after all, the underside of the Steve Jobs sartorial story. They both used practically the same garment as a ‘signifier.’ This was almost never considered a coincidence. But what at first looked like a smart strategy by Ms. Holmes, visually connecting her to a globally recognized game changer, has now backfired in ways that are relevant to us all.”
Early on, Friedman judges, Ms. Holmes seemed to absorb the example of Mr. Jobs in terms of reality distortion and her own mythmaking:
“If he was the original black mock-turtleneck wearer, she burst onto the public scene in his be-turtled image (though he paired his with Levi’s and New Balance sneakers, and she wore hers with black pants and black blazers or black puffer vests). She saw the advantage of consistency in style, of adopting what had become the techie’s equivalent of the heroic uniform, at least as read by the outside world.”
Friedman wraps up her prescient piece, saying, “[Holmes] understood that through the visual of relentless sameness, she could immediately grant herself a signature that set her apart, that acted as shorthand for her own presence and that hinted at the Silicon Valley values of the mind: the belief, beloved by figures like Mr. Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, that wearing the same kind of clothes every day frees the intellect from having to make pesky dressing decisions and thus opens up more cerebral space for making the kind of choices that really matter.”
For a while, riding the crest of her growing public awe and adoration, Friedman says “If one were going to make a caricature of Ms. Holmes–once the youngest female billionaire–she’d be wearing a black turtleneck, and everyone would know who it was, regardless that they had no clue what her company actually did.”
And then there’s Mr. Zuckerberg, showing up on Capitol Hill in a suit, tie and white shirt. Jonathan Evans at Esquire took exception to Mr. Kudlow’s use of the word “dungarees,” refusing to believe that Kudlow is so drastically out of touch with the 2018 world that he doesn’t know the word “jeans.”
Evans concludes, “OK, fine: Zuckerberg’s carefully curated ‘casual’ look is [BS], a feint to distract from the fact that he’s a billionaire with the kind of power it’s difficult for us mortals to wrap our heads around. No one believes that he’s just some “aw shucks” kid who doesn’t know what’s up. That’s just dumb.”
Dumb? Or being played.
Those who live by the black turtleneck, hoodie and jeans, die by same. It’s enough to make the understated, yet ultra-sophisticated, frock from Tanya Tailor and the Italian-stylish, but casual, suit from Martin Greenfield, look like…well, just think Michelle and Barack. No fashion gimmicks and reality distortion necessary.