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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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The Superpowers of Super-Thin Materials

In recent years, internet-connected devices have colonized a range of new frontiers — wrists, refrigerators, doorbells, cars. But to some researchers, the spread of the “internet of things” has not gone nearly far enough.

“What if we were able to embed electronics in absolutely everything,” Tomás Palacios, an electrical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said recently. “What if we did energy harvesting from solar cells inside highways, and had strain sensors embedded in tunnels and bridges to monitor the concrete? What if we could look outside and get the weather forecast in the window? Or bring electronics to my jacket to monitor my health?”

In January of 2019, Dr. Palacios and his colleagues published a paper in Nature describing an invention that would bring that future a little closer: an antenna that can absorb the ever-thickening ambient soup of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and cellular signals and efficiently turn it into usable electrical energy.

The key to the technology is a promising new material called molybdenum disulfide, or MoS₂, that can be deposited in a layer just three atoms thick. In the world of engineering, things can’t get much thinner.

And thin is useful. For instance, a layer of MoS₂ could wrap around a desk and turn it into a laptop charger, without any power cords.

As researchers like Dr. Palacios see it, two-dimensional materials will be the linchpin of the internet of everything. They will be “painted” on bridges and form the sensors to watch for strain and cracks. They will cover windows with transparent layers that become visible only when information is displayed. And if his team’s radio wave-absorber succeeds, it will power those ever-present electronics. Increasingly, the future looks flat.

“There’s been absolutely explosive interest,” said Jeff Urban, a 2-D materials researcher at the Molecular Foundry at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, in California. “There’s no other way to characterize it.”

Credit…Tony Luong for The New York Times
Credit…Tony Luong for The New York Times
Credit…Tony Luong for The New York Times
Credit…Tony Luong for The New York Times

The craze for 2-D chemistry began in 2004, when two researchers at the University of Liverpool used cellophane tape to peel one-atom-thick layers of carbon from chunks of graphite, forming graphene. Graphene is identical to graphite and diamond in composition, but the thinness gives it very different properties: It is flexible, transparent, extremely strong and an exceptional electrical and thermal conductor.

Researchers quickly set out to make all kinds of new and improved gadgets from it. Recently several companies released headphones with diaphragms — the vibrating membranes that produce sound in audio devices — made of graphene. Some paint manufacturers are adding graphene to their formulas to make longer-lasting coatings. Last October Huawei introduced the Mate 20 X, a large, powerful cellphone that uses graphene to help cool the processor. Samsung used graphene to develop a faster-charging battery, which may appear in phones in the near future.

Dr. Urban is working with 2-D materials to improve fuel cells, which have drawn interest as a clean propulsion system for green vehicles. Most fuel cells generate electricity from hydrogen, but even under high pressure hydrogen gas takes up several times more space than a comparable amount of gasoline, making it impractical to use in automobiles.

Instead, Dr. Urban is embedding hydrogen atoms in solids, which are much denser than gases. In March, he and his colleagues announced a new storage medium: tiny magnesium crystals wrapped in narrow strips called graphene nanoribbons. Hydrogen stored in this manner, they found, could provide nearly as much energy as the same volume of gasoline, while weighing much less.

Dr. Urban compared the process to baking chocolate chip cookies, where magnesium is the chocolate chip — the key part — because it holds the hydrogen. “We want a chocolate chip cookie with as many chocolate chips as possible,” he said, and graphene nanoribbon makes excellent cookie dough. The nanoribbon also helps hydrogen enter and exit the magnesium crystals quickly while boxing out oxygen, which competes with hydrogen for space in the crystals.

Dr. Urban peers into the super-thin realm at the Advanced Light Source, a domed laboratory with an expansive view of San Francisco and the neighboring bay. There, electrons are accelerated to near the speed of light, generating powerful X-rays that can be used to finely probe the atomic structure of materials.

At the A.L.S., Dr. Urban and his colleagues learned exactly how graphene wrapped around and bonded tightly to magnesium. Those bonds, they believe, are what make the composite material stable over long periods — an important trait for real-world use.

Credit…Anastasiia Sapon for The New York Times
Credit…Anastasiia Sapon for The New York Times
Credit…Anastasiia Sapon for The New York Times
Credit…Anastasiia Sapon for The New York Times

Elsewhere, researchers are taking super-thin layers of materials and stacking them into three-dimensional blocks that have properties distinct from both 2-D and conventional 3-D materials.

Kwabena Bediako, a chemist at the University of California, Berkeley, published a study last year in Nature that described how he and his colleagues had embedded lithium ions between many layers of two-dimensional materials, including graphene.

“We start out with a piece of bread, slap on some mayo, bring it down on cheese, bring it down on some ham,” he said. “You can do that as many times as you want and create a sandwich.”

By varying the different layers in the three-dimensional stack, the researchers were able to fine-tune how the materials stored lithium, which could lead to the development of new, high-capacity batteries for electronic devices.

Xining Zang, a postdoctoral candidate in materials science at M.I.T., recently discovered a surprisingly easy way to build stacks of 2-D materials using gelatin, the ingredient that gives Jell-O and marshmallows their structure. She and several colleagues combined gelatin, metal ions and water. The gelatin assembled itself into layers (as it does when it forms Jell-O), thereby arranging the metal ions into layers, too. Some of the carbon in the gelatin then reacted with the metal to produce two-dimensional sheets of metal carbides; these worked as catalysts to help split water into oxygen and hydrogen, a process that could be employed to generate electricity in fuel cells.

“I hesitate to say the technique was crude, because it was really elegant when you think about it,” said Nate Hohman, a staff scientist formerly at the Molecular Foundry and an author on the paper. “It’s right at this interface between high-tech and low-tech.”

One place where two-dimensional materials are blossoming is in Singapore, in the lab of Liu Zheng, at Nanyang Technological University. Singapore is known as the Garden City, and the tiny country has zealously filled its land with greenery — including at the university, which has placed gardens in spare nooks all around its modern buildings.

Dr. Zheng sees his research as a different kind of cultivation. “I’m a gardener,” he said. “There is a 2-D garden, with all kinds of flowers. They’re all beautiful.”

Last year Dr. Zheng and his colleagues drastically expanded this garden by creating dozens of new 2-D materials from a class of compounds called transition metal chalcogenides, or T.M.C.s. The key discovery was in using ordinary table salt to lower the temperatures at which the metals are typically melted; this allowed the metals to be vaporized and deposited in thin films.

Credit…Amos Zeeberg
Credit…Amos Zeeberg
Credit…Amos Zeeberg
Credit…Amos Zeeberg

“One day a student told me, ‘I can make all of the T.M.C.s with salt,’” Dr. Zheng said. “I was really surprised. This was my dream for many years.”

One set of shelves in Dr. Zheng’s busy lab is stacked with clear, airtight containers; these hold silicon wafers, on which the 2-D materials are deposited. The films often form a visible triangle or hexagon, according to the geometric structures of the crystals in each material.

After the films are deposited, Dr. Zheng’s team moves to a nearby lab to study the resulting structures in detail. The room is dominated by a transmission electron microscope that stands a dozen feet tall and weighs a ton and a half — a giant device for viewing individual atoms.

Many T.M.C.s, including the MoS₂ used by Dr. Palacios to absorb radio waves, show potential for various industrial uses. The two-dimensional platinum selenide made in the Singapore lab could make for cheaper fuel cells, which typically use the precious metal platinum to separate a hydrogen atom’s proton from its electron. Switching to two-dimensional platinum selenide could reduce the amount of platinum used by 99 percent, Dr. Zheng said. Nanyang Technological University is in talks with manufacturers about commercializing the technology. The future isn’t yet two-dimensional, but it’s getting closer.

“I see really great commercial potential of this material,” Dr. Zheng said. “We can make a huge impact in the market.”

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Credit…Anastasiia Sapon for The New York Times
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Where Are the Tech Zillionaires? San Francisco Faces the I.P.O. Fizzle

SAN FRANCISCO — Seven months ago, the Four Seasons in San Francisco sent out a news release announcing the glad tidings that would come soon: New residences for the new money.

Builders were hoisting glass and steel into a 43-story tower where residents would have their own on-staff wine concierge, plus Blue de Savoie French marble, German milled Poggenpohl cabinetry and Dornbracht fixtures. The building’s $49 million penthouse would be the most expensive in San Francisco.

“Just in time for the coming wave of I.P.O. millionaires in San Francisco,” the Four Seasons said, promising “an elevated sales experience” to cater to “this new class of buyers.”

But then the wave of tech initial public offerings — the one that was supposed to mint San Francisco’s new ultra rich — fizzled. The stock of Uber, the ride-hailing giant, has dropped nearly 30 percent since the company went public in May. Lyft shares are down nearly 40 percent. Pinterest and Slack have declined, too.

San Francisco has been left as a slightly more normal town of tech workers who got rich-ish, maybe making a few hundred thousand dollars. But that doesn’t go far in a city where the median cost of a single family home is about $1.6 million.

“Everyone that came back post-I.P.O. seemed to be the same person. I didn’t see any Louis Vuitton MacBook case covers or champagne in their Yeti thermos,” said J.T. Forbus, a tax manager at Bogdan & Frasco in San Francisco.

Private wealth managers are now meeting with a chastened clientele. Developers are having to cut home prices — unheard-of a year ago. Party planners are signing nondisclosure agreements to stage secret parties where hosts can privately enjoy their wealth. Union organizers are finding an opportunity.

Everyone had gotten too excited, and who could blame them? The money was once so close: A start-up that coordinated dog walkers raised $300 million. The valuations of the already giant ride-hailing behemoths had nearly doubled again. WeWork, a commercial real estate management start-up that owned very little of its own real estate, was valued at $47 billion.

Towers rose across San Francisco to house the money. The marble was polished. The bathroom floors were warm. The private pools were being filled.

“The world has changed in a year,” said Herman Chan, a real estate broker with Sotheby’s International. “We expected an upward trajectory at least, and it really kind of deflated. These companies aren’t dying but the cultural zeitgeist, that momentum of I.P.O.s, is gone. You don’t even hear anyone talking about it anymore.”

The developers who had fought the odds of regulation and zoning to build their glass residences in the sky had timed their units to the I.P.O.s. But on a recent visit with the Four Seasons sales team, they acknowledged that techie wealth was not what they were seeing. Interest was mostly coming from overseas buyers, young heirs to foreign fortunes and older executives looking for city pieds-à-terre, they said.

Also in time for the wave that was not a wave are more luxury towers: The Avery, The Harrison, 181 Fremont, The Mira.

“The definition of luxury is scarcity, and there’s so many now,” Mr. Chan said. “Nowadays, my buyers are getting a contingency period and inspectors. Things you would never ask for before. There’s not 10 offers on a house anymore.”

Case in point: A full-floor apartment in San Francisco’s poshest neighborhood of Pacific Heights was listed at $21.6 million and advertised that “a sommelier-worthy wine cellar awaits 1,500 of your most prized bottles.” But more than a year later and after a $5 million price cut, it is still on the market.

Prices for the top 5 percent of San Francisco area real estate listings — the cream of the crop — rose 7 percent between 2017 and 2018. This year, they have fallen more than 1 percent, according to data prepared for The New York Times by the real estate listing service Zillow.

The malaise has spread south into Silicon Valley. A $10.8 million home listing in the town of Portola Valley, Calif., was slashed to $5.7 million. The median sale price for a nearby home in San Jose, Calif., has dropped 10 percent in a year to just under $1 million, according to data from Zillow.

Before the tech I.P.O.s, Deniz Kahramaner, then a real estate data analyst with the property brokerage Compass, had rallied packed rooms of real estate agents and investors about the bonanza that lay ahead. He had charts and estimates of thousands of new millionaires raising the average price of single family homes in San Francisco above $5 million.

Now, he is more muted. “The I.P.O. cash-out hasn’t played out as I mentioned in my original presentation,” he said.

Mr. Kahramaner added, hopefully, that it was still early. “People need more time,” he said.

Instead of yachts, tech workers are funding more mundane ventures like college savings plans.

“This year brought a lot of people back to reality,” said Ryan S. Cole, a private wealth adviser at Citrine Capital, a wealth management firm in San Francisco. “We’ve had a lot of people fund 529 plans for their kids. Pretty boring stuff.”

Some private wealth managers said they were actually somewhat relieved.

“At the end of the day, it’s funny money until it’s realized,” said Jonathan DeYoe, another private wealth adviser. “I’ve got Uber and Lyft clients that are disappointed. It’s a different house now. It’s a different school situation for the kids. But they’re still by and large in good places. No one’s impoverished.”

And so workers who thought they would upgrade from Allbirds to Berluti shoes are remaining, after all, in the Allbirds.

As some rank-and-file tech workers realize they might not get rich from company stock, the allure of working long hours without comparable real money pay is also wearing thin, said labor organizers. They have found traction this year in an industry long resistant to unions.

“The incentives to take the licks that you do are in the hope of some sort of big payoff down the road,” said Paul Thurston, who focuses on unionizing San Francisco tech workers and is the organizing director at the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers.

Now, “the engineers and the app designer and the developers are going to be treated a lot more like the employees that they are rather than like partners, which is what they’re told pre-I. P. O.,” he said.

Jonathan Wright, the organizing director of Engineers and Scientists of California, said he was in talks to unionize the workers of several big tech companies.

“There’s a promise: you work 100 hours a week, you sleep under your desk, and then you’ll be rewarded with the wealth of Bezos,” Mr. Wright said. “That mythology has been fading for years. The day of the unicorn is over.”

Where there is new wealth, it’s coming from the older tech companies like Apple and Alphabet, whose stocks this year have soared. And some fortunes are still being made from the I.P.O.s. While Uber’s shares have fallen, the company’s co-founder, Travis Kalanick, has sold off more than $2 billion in stock, according to securities filings.

“Especially with things like Uber, almost all the I.P.O. wealth was going to a couple of people,” said Kalena Masching, a Redfin agent in San Jose. “They are not looking to buy a standard house here.”

Another bright spot: female-led companies, with more becoming unicorns in 2019 than any other year, according to Aileen Lee, the venture capitalist who coined the phrase “unicorn” to refer to a private company valued at $1 billion or more.

And post-I.P.O. parties are happening. They are just secret — and phone-free.

“We’re signing a lot more nondisclosures,” said Jay Siegan, who curates party entertainment for corporate tech clients. “A year ago, people would set up social media stations at the party, signs with the hashtag for Instagram. Now we have clients asking guests to check their phones at the door or using those Yondr bags.

These are pouches used to lock phones en masse at concerts and events where someone might be tempted to record.

However, in public, the tech world is all about reflection and self-critiquing after the year that was.

The I.P.O. disappointment has gotten so extreme that two Silicon Valley techies are setting out to do what few have done before: Make fun of themselves.

David Cowan, a venture capitalist with Bessemer Venture Partners, which invested in Lyft, and Michael Fertik, the founder of Reputation.com, are launching an online talk show called “The Bubble Report.” It will feature interviews with other tech executives. The point, they hope, is to poke fun at Silicon Valley from within Silicon Valley.

Mr. Cowan, either in character or just being very honest, decried the falling stock prices of newly public tech companies as victims of cruel Wall Street analysts.

“It should be against the law for unscrupulous analysts to assess stocks based on cash flow and profit, to impugn a company based on eight lines of a financial report,” he joked. “Imagine how much more value we’d have in the stock market if we got rid of that arcane thinking.”

Mr. Fertik said his inspiration to mock his industry came in part from realizing how far from reality it had all gotten.

“I want people to understand that Silicon Valley is a deeply religious place that thinks of itself as agnostic,” he said. “It has some of the strengths and many of the frailties of organized religion.”

For now, most people are waking up to find they are still on Earth. This is good news for those in San Francisco who mostly viewed the tech exuberance as bad news: housing rights activists, first-time home buyers, and renters.

“We are excited by any resetting of Bay Area rents that bring them down from their artificially inflated high,” said Fred Sherburn-Zimmer, the executive director of Housing Rights Committee, which fights against evictions. “Eventually all bubbles burst.”