Bankers in the Age of Bernie: Do They Need Camouflage?


It’s no accident that in “The Big Short,” the Adam McKay film based on Michael Lewis’s book about the financial crisis, the bad bankers — the ones who created the problem in the first place — wear slick suits and ties, and the outsider traders and hedge fund managers — the ones who recognized that everything was teetering on a precipice and tried to call foul (and even fraud) — wear jeans, shorts, T-shirts and jackets (the exception being Ryan Gosling’s character, an outlier at Deutsche Bank). The first represent the before; the second, the after.

The stereotype style has been eroded by the global financial crisis, sure, but also casual Fridays; the rise of the entrepreneurial class, especially in technology; and the growth of a shadow banking sector — the venture capitalists and hedge funds and private equity firms that have their own, less identifiable uniform, much of which can be characterized by what it is not: the banker clothing of yore.

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Christian Bale as a hedge fund manager in “The Big Short.”

Credit
Jaap Buitendijk/Paramount Pictures

It is the difference between the clothing featured in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” the 2013 film tale of overblown early 1990s excess, all contrast spread-collar shirts, pinstriped suits and paisley ties, and that in the Showtime series “Billions” (Andrew Ross Sorkin of The New York Times is one of the creators), which takes place in the current day and features a corrupt, competitive and charismatic hedge fund chieftain with a gigantic mansion and a wardrobe that consists almost entirely of gray T-shirts, jeans and hoodies.

“He is aggressively not a suit guy,” said Eric Daman, the show’s costume designer, who is now prepping for the second season. The hoodies may be cashmere, the jeans Rag & Bone, the sneakers limited edition, but to the untutored eye, the character may look like nothing so much as a rogue Facebook employee (and he would not look out of place at a Sanders rally).

Which is not an accident. As the tech world has risen in the “global pecking order,” in the words of John Studzinski, a partner at the asset management firm Blackstone, its determinedly dress-down uniform has infiltrated the world of those who would finance it. The theory being, at least for some, if you can’t beat ’em, dress like ’em.

For others, “it’s less ‘show me the money’ than subtle,” Mr. Studzinski said. “People are going out of their way to be more understated; materialism is less valued than ownership. At a recent Friday lunch, I was looking around and it was all Brunello Cucinelli and Loro Piana. I don’t even know if those brands make suits.”

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William Ackman, the founder of Pershing Square Capital Management, is known for his tailored suits.

Credit
Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Then there is the fleece, now ubiquitous (but not Old Navy fleece, Sun Valley/Herb Allen fleece), which tends to be associated with the private equity world. Indeed, one founder of his namesake private equity firm is famous for wearing a fleece vest every day to work, and referred to it in an interview as his “signifier.” It is, he said, the new cashmere, a (slightly) more mature relative of the hoodie. It also, he pointed out, had useful associations with work and a no-frills approach to the world, values likewise associated with the Shinola watches, Red Wing boots and bracelets that are now often seen throughout the financial world. Ditto the facial hair.

There are exceptions, of course. The hedge fund manager William Ackman, occasionally known as the “George Clooney of banking,” is famous for his perfectly tailored suits. (Coincidentally, Mr. Clooney has also made a movie about the financial crisis, “Money Monster,” which is to debut in Cannes next month.) Almost everyone I spoke to agreed that financial services guys still look like what you think of when you think of bankers. See, for example, Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, and Lloyd Blankfein, chairman and chief executive of Goldman, or see their employees — though even they tend to disaggregate their suits when in the office and keep their ties hung on the back of their door.

“But that in-your-face power suit image?” Mr. Studzinski said. “That image is long gone.” This election year, however, its ghost lingers on.

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