Elizabeth Holmes' turtlenecks: Steve Jobs-inspired look became 'symbol of hubris'

The Theranos founder's trademark look 'fooled everyone into assuming she was more brilliant than she was; a symbol of hubris rather than success'


                            Elizabeth Holmes' turtlenecks: Steve Jobs-inspired look became 'symbol of hubris'
Elizabeth Holmes wearing a black turtleneck (Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch, Andrew Burton/Getty Images, Kimberly White/Getty Images for Fortune)

Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes is back in the news after her trial into 12 fraud charges began on Wednesday, September 8. The former Silicon Valley star was accused of lying and cheating by the prosecutors over her role at the now-defunct blood-testing firm which was once worth $9 billion. 

Holmes, who founded Theranos in 2003 at the age of 19, was dubbed the world's youngest self-made female billionaire and the "next Steve Jobs" due to her technology. However, in 2015, it emerged that her blood-testing devices did not work and that Theranos was doing most of its testing on commercially available machines made by other manufacturers.

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She is accused of deceiving investors and patients after claiming that Theranos could detect common illnesses with just a finger prick. Holmes denies all the charges against her but could face up to 20 years in prison if found guilty. Her lawyers maintain that she was simply a naive businesswoman whose firm failed. "Failure is not a crime. Trying your hardest and coming up short is not a crime," Lance Wade, a lawyer for the defense, said in his opening statement on Wednesday.

Her 'uniform' was intentional



 

Back in 2019, Holmes was the subject of two documentaries, the podcast 'The Dropout', and a Jennifer Lawrence movie. People became obsessed with Holmes' hair, her voice, and even her wardrobe, or the lack of it. Holmes' signature look had something to do with Steve Jobs - she favored black turtlenecks, which she claims to have worn exclusively since childhood. Many fashion watchers wondered if she was actually trying to send a message by her carefully calculated corporate fashion.

Back in 2014, someone who briefly worked with her recounted her uniform for Fortune: “During my four days at Theranos, Holmes dressed identically every day: black jacket; black mock turtleneck; black slacks with a wide, pale pinstripe; and black low-heel shoes," Refinery29 reported. Holmes told Glamour in 2015 that the turtleneck which almost became her "uniform" was completely intentional on her part.

“My mom had me in black turtlenecks when I was, like, eight," Holmes said. "I probably have 150 of these. [It's] my uniform. It makes it easy, because every day you put on the same thing and don't have to think about it—one less thing in your life. All my focus is on the work. I take it so seriously; I'm sure that translates into how I dress.”

However, in an interview on ABC’s podcast 'The Dropout', a former Theranos employee contradicted Holmes’ claim to be a lifelong fan of black turtlenecks. Theranos chief design architect Ana Arriola claimed Holmes didn’t start wearing them until she’d already founded Theranos.

“She would wear these frumpy Christmas sweaters, things you would only see during the holiday season,” said Arriola. “She was very curious about Steve’s attire, and I explained to her that he was inspired by Sony’s heritage of having Issey Miyake create a lot of the [Sony] line manager apparel. I think she went off and tracked down who Issey Miyake was, and the rest is couture history.”

Obsessed with Steve Jobs

Apple CEO Steve Jobs delivers a kenote address October 16, 2003 in San Francisco. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Holmes' turtlenecks seemed to have been directly inspired by Apple founder's commitment to perfectionism. Holmes' obsession with Jobs even led her to hang a framed screenshot of his Apple Internet bio, “printed out on Aug. 24, 2011, the day he stepped down as CEO because of pancreatic cancer,” the one-time coworker told Fortune. She was reportedly so obsessed with owning the exact Issey Miyake black turtleneck Jobs wore in his iconic keynote presentations that she tracked down the collection and stocked up on the pieces which cost $270 a pop in 2017. 

Her sleek black turtlenecks, black blazers, and black trousers in addition to oversized suit jackets, and puffer vests, all became a part of the image she wanted to portray -- effortless seriousness -- that landed her on the covers of magazines and starring roles at events like the Forbes Most Powerful Women summit and let her embody the importance of the very life-saving technology, that albeit ended up being a fraud, she made her name on. 

But fashion experts have also labeled the black turtleneck a "false front" for Holmes, especially in the light of the accusations against her. Vanessa Friedman wrote in the New York Times: “In the same way that Gordon Gekko’s suspenders and Michael Milken’s toupee became symbols of their greed, Ms Holmes’s black turtleneck is starting to seem less a brilliant frame than a false front; a carefully calculated costume that fooled everyone into assuming she was more brilliant than she was; a symbol of hubris rather than success."

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