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Tech Bro Uniform Meets Margaret Thatcher. Disruption Ensues.

The death knell of the Patagonia vest, at least as a symbol of utopianism co-opted by the tech and venture capital world and transformed into shorthand for a certain kind of unbridled corporate power, was much predicted last summer.

That is when the outdoor recreation company put its puffers where its principles were and said it would no longermake vests branded with its own name and the names of companies that did not share its environmental commitments.

“Woe to the bros!” cried customers and commentators alike, in both glee and horror.

The prophesies of doom turned out to be somewhat overstated. But they may soon be heard again in the land, thanks to an unexpected source: Simon Denny, a New Zealand-born artist who lives in Berlin.

Mr. Denny is the man behind a new show at the Altman Siegel gallery in San Francisco, “Security Through Obscurity,” that combines (of all things) Patagonia, Salesforce (the customer relations digital behemoth) and Margaret Thatcher. The result is a visual treatise on income inequality, global capitalism and the digital world built on shared fashion references.

Also proof positive that clothes are part of the currency of our times, no matter where you look.

After all, Patagonia and Margaret Thatcher are not two names most people would put in the same sentence. Their heydays are separated by decades; their power bases across an ocean; their philosophies of life even further apart.

Yet both Patagonia and the former British prime minister have one thing in common: They each gave the world items of dress that transcended their origins to become emblems.

In the case of Patagonia, the power vest: the fleece or puffer zip-up that is the de facto uniform of the private equity and venture capital world and the tech companies that loves it.

In the case of Mrs. Thatcher, the silk scarf, which, along with the skirt suit and pussy-bow blouse, became signifiers of the Iron Lady, the woman who put on her absolutely appropriate clothes like armor in her battle to liberate the markets and bring “tough capitalism” to Britain.

Combining both, Mr. Denny, 37, found the shape, literally, of an idea.

Mr. Denny is known for work that explores the culture of technology and its effects on society. He grew up in New Zealand and moved to Germany in 2007 to attend art school.

After graduating, as he began developing his signature, he started “following” individuals he saw as paradigm changers: reading their press, their speeches and books; checking in as their careers progressed.

Peter Thiel was one. Mr. Denny’s 2019 exhibition, “The Founder’s Paradox,” held in Auckland, New Zealand, featured Mr. Thiel (for one), the billionaire tech venture capitalist who is known for buying up swaths of land in that country, as a figure called Lord Tybalt, in art inspired by fantasy board games. Dominic Cummings, the architect of Boris Johnson’s electoral victory, is another. Ditto Mrs. Thatcher.

“She was very visible in the 1980s, shaping a new kind of politics that emphasized the individual, deregulation and global neoliberalism,” Mr. Denny said, speaking on the phone from Berlin a few days before the opening.

Though Mr. Denny has previously had exhibitions at MoMA PS1 and the Serpentine in London, and represented New Zealand at the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015, this is the first time he has used fashion in his work, and it is partly because of the former prime minister.

In early 2019, a Christie’s auction catalog crossed his desk that included a group of Mrs. Thatcher’s scarves. “There were a number of things being sold,” Mr. Denny said, “but many were quite expensive.” There were suits, jewelry, silver, decorative vases. The scarves, however, were a more accessible story.

“I thought, ‘Wow, these could be quite potent material for me,’” he said. “I knew I really wanted to work with them.”

He ended up winning 17 of them from two different lots after “quite fierce competition.” The estimate for one lot was 400 to 600 pounds, and it ultimately went for £3,250 ($4,218.82); the other was £500 to £800, and the final price was £3,000 ($3,894.30). They include a Nicole Miller scarf with a Forbes print, dollar bills and slogans like “Forbes capitalist tool” and “No guts, no story”; a leopard print that made Mr. Denny think of England’s colonial past; a Chanel design; and one from Liberty of London.

“To me, they represent an era of dress — the feminine but power business look,” Mr. Denny said. “Also the Thatcher policies, which have accelerated global inequality.”

Combine that with the offer of a show in San Francisco, home of both the tech elite and a growing divide between rich and poor that is painfully visible, and Mr. Denny’s thoughts turned to another kind of dress: the vest.

He zeroed in on one example in particular, a Salesforce branded Patagonia vest, like the kind given to Dreamforce conference attendees in 2015. (Salesforce, the company co-founded by Marc Benioff in 1999 that has revenues of over $13 billion, is one of the largest employers in San Francisco.)

Credit…Simon Denny, via Altman Siegel Gallery; Nick Ash
Credit…Simon Denny, via Altman Siegel Gallery; Nick Ash

The result is four Nano Puff power vests made from a variety of Mrs. Thatcher’s scarves with a repurposed Patagonia label taken from an actual Patagonia garment and pasted over one breast, displayed in shallow glass vitrines like collector’s memorabilia, and two Patagonia sleeping bags, which are references to the homeless in San Francisco.

Standing up, the sleeping bags resemble nothing so much as sarcophagi, likewise made from the scarves. All of the pieces are filled with repurposed down stuffing from sleeping bags sourced in resale stores around the city.

The exhibition also includes collages made from 3-D printing Salesforce patents (the kind that Wired magazine suggested could be potential foreign tax havens). Prices range from $7,500 to $60,000.

None of the individuals or brands involved were contacted before the show; this is not a collaboration, like the Louis Vuitton handbags done by Yayoi Kusama or Haruki Murakami, but a commentary. And its implications are hard to avoid.

“The Patagonia vest is something people here will relate to right away,” said Claudia Altman-Siegel, the owner of the gallery. “I don’t know if they will like it or find it too close to home. But I really hope Marc Benioff will come.” (According to Mr. Denny, Mr. Thiel did come to see his show in New Zealand.)

Mr. Denny is not by any means the first artist to use the visual representations of luxury and fashion as a material way to confront cultural dissonance. Tom Sachs did it in the late 1990s when he used luxury brand signifiers to explore consumerism and branding. (Remember the Tiffany Glock, Chanel Guillotine or Hermès Value Meal?)

Wang Guangyi, a Chinese artist, did it with his “Great Criticism” series of paintings, which superimposed brand logos on Mao-era Communist propaganda posters.

“More and more artists like to use fashion as a way to help deliver a message because it’s an accessible point of entry for so many people,” said Stefano Tonchi, the former editor of W and now the creative director of L’Officiel Group. “It’s a way of talking not to a niche, but to a larger audience.”

None of this has escaped fashion itself, which as a rule has attempted to embrace artists who use its products as material, thus defanging the critical potential of the work. “I don’t think he’s the kind of artist who, if Dior called and said, ‘Let’s do a bag!’ he would want to say yes,” Mr. Tonchi said of Mr. Denny.

Though Mr. Denny has many artist friends in Berlin who are close to Demna Gvasalia, the designer for Balenciaga, and though Mr. Denny himself has been featured in L’Uomo Vogue and the magazine of the Canadian retailer Ssense, he has no plans to parlay his current dalliance with clothing into a sideline.

He seemed taken aback by the suggestion that he collaborate with a brand — though he does hope the show has an effect on how we dress.

“I think it would be hard not to think about the Patagonia vests differently,” he said. “I hope it puts all the super-contradictions of how we live into a frame that is impossible to ignore.”

Or, perhaps, wear — except in the wilderness, as the company originally intended.

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How to Make Friends Online the Old-Fashioned Way (Buying Clothes Together)

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Credit…Riah Beth Photography

Emily Useche, who is 27 and lives in Arkansas, had just put her baby down for a nap one afternoon when she decided to post some family photos on Facebook. But she didn’t simply upload them for friends and family to see.

She also posted the photos to a private Facebook group for a whole other community: A fan club for Pyne & Smith Clothiers. Ms. Useche was wearing one of that brand’s dresses in the photos — a style she had posted about once before when she saw it being sold secondhand — and was ready to show it off. Minutes after she posted, other members replied with compliments for her, and praise for the sunflower check dress she was wearing.

The group, Pyne & Smith Clothiers BST and Chat, is one of a number of so-called buy-sell-trade communities. Part social club and part marketplace, the groups have sprung up on Instagram and Facebook and have, for some users, become a daily place to socialize and shop.

While many serve enthusiasts of mass market brands, others are powered by dedicated followers of idiosyncratic indie brands, the sort rarely featured in glossy magazines and often escape the notice of major retailers. But they have devoted followers, many of whom are attracted by the idea of slow, ethical fashion.

Facebook and Instagram communities can be a very real alternative to traditional retailers, providing shoppers with not only products, but also friends.

“A lot of us are millennials who are trying really hard to take steps toward sustainability,” said Lacey Camille Schroeder, 32 and a jewelry designer who lives in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She created the PSC buy-sell-trade Facebook group. “People buying these dresses tend to be like-minded when it comes to fashion. A lot of them are in the ‘crunchy’ category.”

That line was founded by Joanna McCartney. She stumbled into making clothes in 2014 when she couldn’t find a linen dress she liked during the hot Los Angeles summer.

Made of flax linen and produced in California, the dresses look like the kind you could wear to a dinner party and to collect eggs from your free-range chickens the next day. Their prices range from $146 to $186, though by the time the dresses make it to this group, they’re usually sold for about $120 each.

Ms. Schroeder set up the group, which has 2,888 members, two years ago when a follower of the Pyne & Smith Clothiers Instagram said she was looking to sell a gently used Pyne & Smith dress that was taking up space in her closet.

Ms. Schroeder got on the phone with Ms. McCartney and hammered out the group guidelines.

Civility and a promise to be kind when posting critical feedback are among the few requirements for membership, and Ms. Schroeder said she rarely has to moderate conversations.

In some cases, a single dress may be sold and passed between three or four members, who connect with each other and facilitate their own sales along the way.

Groups range from small pop-up Instagram hashtags like #JamieandTheJonesForSale, with fewer than 100 posts, to accounts like Noihsaf Bazaar, which was started on Instagram in 2013 and now has more than 30,000 followers.

Noihsaf was founded when Kate Lindello, 36, a stylist, fashion blogger and stay-at-home mother, wanted to sell a pair of Rachel Comey flats that didn’t fit.

Today Noihsaf, which focuses on emerging and independent designers, operates multiple Instagram accounts, including one for vintage and one for beauty products, and posts 1,200 to 1,500 items weekly on its main resale account.

Ms. Lindello employs three freelancers to help her sort through the hundreds of daily submissions and choose items to post. Unlike volunteer-run accounts, Noihsaf charges a $3.80-per-sale fee.

“Tech is a blessing and a curse,” Ms. Lindello said. “We’re behind our phones so much, but you also have the chance to make this human connection.” In 2017, after posting a pair of her own denim jeans on the account, she was surprised to see that the buyer lived only two miles down the road.

“I could have mailed those jeans to Allison in Duluth, but I wanted to know who this person was,” she said. “I emailed her, and she said she’d just drop by my house. She ended up being a New Yorker who had just moved here, and we’re buddies now. She’s my kid’s dentist.”

Around that same time, Nicolle Rountree, an African-American logistics manager who lives in New Orleans and wears plus-size clothing, was fed up with feeling unwelcome in stores and buying new pants every month when fast fashion ones fell apart.

Through online research, Ms. Rountree discovered Elizabeth Suzann, a label that offers classic staples in natural fabrics in sizes XXS through 4XL — and then discovered that used Elizabeth Suzann clothing was being sold on Instagram accounts like Sell/Trade Elizabeth Suzann and Sell/Trade Slow Fashion.

One day, a fellow Instagram shopper tagged her in a post for a used pair of black Clyde pants in size 16 that she had spotted. Ms. Rountree bid by commenting on the post and bought them from the seller for $125 (normally $245), becoming the third owner of the pants and a committed Elizabeth Suzann customer.

This year, Ms. Rountree became a volunteer moderator of the Sell/Trade Slow Fashion Instagram account (more than 18,000 followers), which hosts and curates sale posts for slow fashion items, hosts trade forums and prompts weekly discussions about ethical fashion. Through the group, she has met more and more women who care about slow fashion.

It’s an online community that became even more real in October, when Ms. Rountree met two other moderators of the group and road-tripped to the Elizabeth Suzann sample sale in Nashville.

“I got out of the car, and there’s this line of women, many of whom I knew, mostly by their Instagram handles, and they ran up to me and hugged me. It blew me away,” she said. “We were all there waiting and shopping in terrible 90-degree Southern summer heat, all stripped down to just bras and underwear. And people are handing you stuff to try on, and you’re handing them stuff to try on, and you don’t even know them. They’re strangers who aren’t strangers.

“I’m a black woman who lives in the South,” Ms. Rountree said. “I have never felt that safe around that many people before.”

Sali Kelley, 50 and an American child care provider and E.S.L. teacher in Italy, has also seen her life changed by online buy-sell-trade communities. Between 2015 and 2016, Ms. Kelley’s best friend left the country, leaving her adrift and depressed, and she and her family moved from Milan to Varese, a smaller city in northern Italy.

Feeling alone and isolated, Ms. Kelley found herself having more interactions online. Eventually, most of them centered around a newly discovered passion: slow fashion, and one brand in particular, Ace & Jig, a female-run American company that uses vivid Indian textiles to create whimsical, colorful clothing.

Though Ms. Kelley was initially turned off by Ace & Jig’s retail prices (new pieces are $200 to $300), she began searching Instagram, where she discovered hundreds of women selling under hashtags like #aceandjigforsale (more than 16,000 posts) and #aceandjigcommunity (more than 5,000). Noihsaf also has a channel dedicated to Ace & Jig.

Before long, Ms. Kelley had started an Instagram account dedicated to celebrating the label, as well as a private message group for plus-size members to trade their Ace & Jig items. She even began organizing an April 2020 meeting for fans in Paris and London, and says it’s not unusual for her to spend hours each week chatting with other Ace & Jig fans and commenting on community posts.

She is also managing the cross-country journey of an Ace & Jig shirt that is being mailed from fan to fan every couple of weeks.

“The rules are basically there’s no rules,” Ms. Kelley said. “You wear it once and post a picture of it and pass it on.” Termed the “traveling Baja,” after the shirt style and “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” the shirt is size XS but seems to fit most of the women who want to participate, Ms. Kelley said.

Currently making its way through Tennessee after traveling from Italy through 13 other states, the shirt is a way for people in the community to connect that Ms. Kelley said she dreamed up one night when she couldn’t sleep.

“Most of us are women with the same core values who care about women’s issues,” Ms. Kelley said of the 500 or so online friends in her network. “We talk about kids, life, jobs. We’re constantly messaging each other and commenting on each others posts. If I haven’t seen someone post for a while, I’ll check and ask, ‘Hey, are you O.K.?’”