This weekend, swarms of tech entrepreneurs, investors and bloggers are descending on Austin, Texas, to the South by Southwest Interactive Festival (SXSWi), which runs alongside the SXSW film and music festivals. It’s what Chris Paik, an investor at Thrive Capital, calls “a start-up pilgrimage”. Between its inception in 1994 and last year, attendance at SXSWi grew from 300 to 19,364, and those numbers have included almost every major web name, from Twitter co-founder Evan Williams to Mark Zuckerberg, Craig Newmark (from Craigslist) and Dennis Crowley of Foursquare. Since Wall Street has been knocked off its pedestal, the web is now the cooler career, and geeks have become chic.
Or rather, the geeks may be redefining chic. The standard Austin attendee isn’t exactly synonymous with style: think horn-rimmed black Buddy Holly glasses, T-shirts with start-up logos on them and the ubiquitous checked shirt worn open on top. The shirt is not just an afterthought; it has become an emblem, the sartorial badge of the tech movement. For proof, just consider photographs of past SXSWi speakers. According to Kathy Blackwell, executive features editor of the Austin American-Statesman newspaper, “Nine out of 10 panellists wore checked shirts last year. They are everywhere.” Plaid shirt wearers included keynote speaker Christopher Poole, founder of message board 4Chan, and Joshua Huck of Lamebook.com.
“The checked shirt is like the blazer in the tech world,” says Bianca Caampued, co-founder ofSmall Girls PR, and a regular Austin attendee. “It’s the way that guys in tech dress up, instead of just wearing T-shirts with their start-up logos on them. It’s like the way a banker will wear a three-piece suit to a big meeting.”
Joah Spearman, executive producer of SXSW’s fashion showcase Style X, says, “People come here to meet someone they might one day hire, build a business with, or even date. Wearing a button-down checked shirt puts you in a position where you can meet all those people.”
Wearing checks or tartan has always been a way to stand out. Tartan was originally used as a way for Scottish clans to identify each other and became such a symbol of Scottish identity that English authorities banned it in 1746. In the 1960s, members of the US women’s liberation movement wore checked shirts during protests; in the 1970s punks wore checks to show they were anti-establishment; and disenfranchised Gen-Xers lived in plaid during the Seattle grunge movement of the 1990s. According to Mark Maidment, creative director of Ben Sherman, a shirt maker that has been synonymous with checked shirts since the company started in 1963: “Checks have always been a mark of a tribe or youth culture.”
French designer Jean Charles de Castelbajac has always been influenced by checks: “I love the harmony of two colours matched in a checked shirt – it’s a way of expressing revolution and rebellion.”
Checks are practical too. Spearman notes that as the weather is warm in Austin, “With a checked shirt [over a T-shirt] you can roll up your sleeves or take your shirt off and leave it on the back of a chair.”
In addition, as Gordon Richardson, design director at Topman, points out: “The checked shirt is one vehicle by which guys can inject colour and pattern in their wardrobe. Invariably worn loosely untucked over a printed tee or vest, very few items match the insouciant swagger that a checked shirt conveys. Endorsed by the likes of Kurt Cobain and epitomising the 1990s grunge trend, it’s become an enduring slacker classic.”
Andreas Löwenstam, head of men’s wear design at H&M, agrees. “The checked shirt has always had an important place in men’s wear,” he says. “It complements other pieces you have in your wardrobe.” And it’s unisex: girls also wear the shirts, although styled loose and baggy.”
As Tolly Moseley, editor of AustinEavesdropper.com, who will talk about lifestyle media at the festival, says, “You don’t want to lead with your cleavage. You want to be respected for your ideas too.”