July 19, 2013 6:36 pm

Sun Valley: the ultimate dress-down showcase

The conference features a form of reverse power play: who can appear to care the least?

It’s been almost a week but I am still processing the succession of outfits that appeared on the great and good at the recent Sun Valley conference. The annual gathering of media and tech executives offers possibly the most concentrated examples of how moguls dress when they dress down.

IAC’s Barry Diller©Bloomberg

IAC’s Barry Diller

You know that saying about “dress for the job you want”? Well, for anyone who wants to look like a power player not just in the office but out of it (or while pretending to be out of it but still thinking about it), Sun Valley provides a primer in what to wear. Which is what? According to Forbes’s style file, “attendees wear luxurious, casual, low-profile attire, but still aim to look stylish”. Serial participant Diane von Furstenberg, who also has a small pop-up shop during the conference, says: “Everyone makes a point of being as humble and as laid-back as possible. We get some T-shirts and sweatshirts and most guests wear them.”

“Point”, of course, is the operative word here. In the same way that women are said to be dressing for men, moguls here are dressing for moguls – as well as those on the outside looking in (yes, dear readers, that would be most of us). They aren’t dressing for their families, the way they do on vacations or on private yachts where no one else can see them. It’s a bit of a peacock situation but instead of displaying their fanciest colours, they are displaying how far they can go in the opposite direction.

Presumably, this was part of host Herb Allen’s point in keeping the dress code “relaxed”: to send a covert suggestion, not just to participants but to those who watch the participants, about just how cool masters of the universe can be when they are with their peer group. In both cases, what they wear has a purpose, and that purpose is related to communication. Which means it’s worth observing.

Not that it’s easy – the no-press rule, geared towards making guests relax and start a dialogue, means there are fewer pictures available from the inner sanctums for the rest of us to parse. However, the outer sanctums are fair game for the power paparazzi. And what has come back contains a few clear lessons.

There was none of that silly David Cameron-dictated “I’m wearing-a-suit-without-a-tie-ain’t-I-relaxed?” dress code of the recent G8 meeting in Northern Ireland, which underscores the truth that if you’re going to dress down, you have to fully commit. Otherwise you risk seeming like a faker, and given that part of the purpose of the Sun Valley gathering is to facilitate high-level dealmaking, disingenuity is the last message you want to send.

Rather, under their conference-branded uniform of red fleece vest or navy fleece jacket, often it seemed as though the power players were trying to outdo each other in the non-fancy dress sweepstakes – at least those who normally dress up (those like Mark Zuckerberg, who as a rule wears T-shirts and jeans, or Tim Cook, who tends to polos and chinos, are an exception). It’s a form of reverse power play: who can appear to care the least?

And even more than that: who can seem the most unguarded – suits being armour, and Sun Valley being an opportunity to present yourself as completely unprotected, the most potentially open to an approach. Who is the least insecure about displaying imperfection? After all, as Nikki Finke wrote in New York Magazine, “nowhere else are so many knobby knees exposed in one place at the same time.”

. . .

That said, there were still various levels of reveal happening in Sun Valley – and interestingly they had nothing to do with generations or professions as one might assume (OK, as I might assume). On the most conservative end, for example, were those who donned blazers either with button-down shirts or polos; see Lachlan Murdoch, Sony chief executive Kazuo Hirai and former chairman Howard Stringer, News Corp’s Joel Klein and Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter to name a few.

Slightly more relaxed was the button-down shirt, no-blazer crowd, which also broke down to those who wore dress shirts (Rupert Murdoch, Twitter chairman Jack Dorsey) versus those who wore more obviously off-duty plaid (film producer Brian Grazer, Facebook’s Dan Rose), as well as one extreme outlier: Liberty Media’s John Malone, who showed up in a Hawaiian shirt. But given that the fate of cable was one of the hot topics of the gathering, choosing to stick out may well have been a strategic move.

Then there was the plain polo shirt brigade – Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang, AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong – and finally the shapeless T-shirt, over shorts or trousers: see IAC’s Barry Diller (pictured), Hollywood agent Mike Ovitz, Zynga’s Mark Pincus, and Twitter’s Dick Costolo. In the pyramid scheme of sartorial relaxation, that equals the summit – which was, by the way, almost entirely male, with women such as Hewlett-Packard’s Meg Whitman sticking to the blazer-and-polo look, and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg opting for bright tops and thin gauge sweaters – understandable, given that certain newspapers would embrace the opportunity to publicise a long-range snap of them looking schlubby in a way that they never would with someone such as Ovitz. Women in business, even in a “safe” environment such as Sun Valley, can only let go so much.

Which underscores the reality that none of this would be notable were it not for the fact that it is such a departure from how most of the people in question normally look. It’s the statement of no statement. And it is loud.

vanessa.friedman@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/friedman

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