One part right-wing malevolence, one part pink hair.
Over the weekend, a man named Christopher Wylie came forward to explain his involvement in the election-year harvesting of more than 50 million Facebook profiles for political advertising. In interviews with the New York Times and London's Observer, Wylie explained that he’d worked with a firm called Cambridge Analytica to create psychological profiles of American voters—and used Facebook data to do it. Wylie’s is a stunning disclosure, one that we’ll be unwinding for months to come. And yet I find myself dwelling on something other than the gray-area capture of granular personal data funded by a hard-right cabal of creeps. Instead of worrying about Facebook’s seeming inaction, or the security of my own data, I can’t stop thinking about what Christopher Wylie looks like.
Wylie sat for a portrait for each interview. In one, for the Times, he wears a black military-style overshirt, with photographic patches that call to mind Raf Simons’ image-heavy designs; a very 2018 neon-yellow graphic tee; two bracelets; three pendants; a beard; a nose ring; and a shock of pinkish-orange hair, shaggy up top and shorn closely on the sides. In the second photo, the one on the cover of the Observer, he dresses similarly, but with slight tweaks: he swaps in a camouflage jacket with the Weeknd’s XO branding, adds on a pair of large-framed glasses, and wears a t-shirt emblazoned with a cigarette-smoking baby.
Looking at both photos together makes it clear that this is a considered personal style: this is Wylie's coming-out party, and this is the image he wanted to present. In them, Wylie looks like any number of things, some of which he actually is, or has been: a Canadian vegan, a punkish data scientist (he got his start on Obama's presidential campaigns), an amateur philosopher. He also looks like a hacker.
The idea of “hacker style” is slippery. Because we never actually see hackers hacking—because you won’t run into one at the water cooler—we can’t really be said to know what a hacker actually looks like. So we are largely reliant, as in the case of spies and crime-scene investigators, on the portrayals given by films and television shows. You know the references: The Matrix, Mr. Robot, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—just about every filmed portrayal of a hacker that isn’t Chris Hemsworth’s upside-down-pushup-doing beefcake in Michael Mann’s Blackhat. The hacker is scuzzy, unconcerned with formal dress. She lives on the fringe of society—or, more accurately, on the Internet, where nobody knows what you’re wearing.
There’s something uncanny in Wylie’s adherence to this previously joke-worthy style. Here he is, the source—one of the sources—of the clusterfuck that is Trump-era America, and he looks exactly like the movies told us he would. You want a hacker? Here, take one with pink hair—that’s how you know he’s edgy. I'll admit: that the guy who helped a right-wing psyops organization create what he calls a“full-service propaganda machine” looks...exactly like he’s supposed to is somehow disappointing.
Diddy Has Always Been a Style God
But there are small signifiers in Wylie’s two portraits that suggest something else—something weirder and more interesting—is afoot. The pair of overlarge, gray-or-just-white-and-old sneakers, for instance: bang on trend, and a little cooler than you’d expect from a data scientist. The pop-star merch. The graphic tees, and the jewelry. And—yes—the hair. That pink hair! Can pink hair signal countercultural resistance when Kim and Kanye have it, too?
Interestingly, Wylie’s background suggests an interest in self-presentation. Carole Cadwalladr’s story in the Observer notes that Wylie linked up with Steven Bannon “while studying for a PhD in fashion trend forecasting.” And Wylie himself reverts to the language of fashion while explaining the work he did with Cambridge Analytica. “[Bannon] believes in the whole Andrew Breitbart doctrine that politics is downstream from culture, so to change politics you need to change culture,” he explains. “And fashion trends are a useful proxy for that. Trump is like a pair of Uggs, or Crocs, basically.”
That mention of Crocs felt like a tell. Recall, as I did, that Crocs are back in some measure thanks to Vetements and Balenciaga designer Demna Gvasalia, who showed a pair at the latter brand’s Spring/Summer 2018 show. Gvasalia’s work is all about upending luxury, and finding “fashion” in silhouettes and textures pulled from the most boring strands of everyday life. And while Wylie looks like a Hollywood hacker, he also looks like he could walk in a Vetements show: aware that identity is contingent, and informed by our uniforms.
Which brings us full circle. The former Obama campaign data scientist rips Facebook info for Steve Bannon; the lives-in-a-basement hacker costume is now indistinguishable from high fashion. The nose is pierced, the news is fake, and the fashion is ugly. Crocs are cool, and democracy is dead.
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