Steve Jobs's black turtlenecks helped make him the world's most recognizable CEO. But the Apple co-founder wouldn't have worn them if his employees had accepted the nylon jacket he proposed as a corporate uniform instead. Before he died, Jobs himself explained his sartorial signature to biographer Walter Isaacson, in an interview published for the first time below.
Today, Jobs' fashion choices look downright visionary. Acclaimed designer Ralph Rucci has called 501 jeans and black turtlenecks like Jobs's two of the three most "wholly original" pieces of clothing in modern fashion. Sales of Jobs style turtlenecks spiked in the days following his death last week.
But before he was a cultural icon parodied on Saturday Night Live, imitated in TV commercials, and celebrated in a national theatrical production, Jobs was regarded as a corporate oddball, even within his own company. According to Isaacson's book Steve Jobs, due out in two weeks, Apple employees jeered their boss's scheme for a corporate outfit. So he had to settle for a personal uniform, modeled on shirts he saw noted designer Issey Miyake wearing.
This story has been glanced before but never fully told. Isaacson sent us this excerpt after reading our August post "Steve Jobs, Fashion Icon?" At the time, the closing quote did not have the haunting edge it does now. Writes Isaacson:
On a trip to Japan in the early 1980s, Jobs asked Sony's chairman Akio Morita why everyone in the company's factories wore uniforms. He told Jobs that after the war, no one had any clothes, and companies like Sony had to give their workers something to wear each day. Over the years, the uniforms developed their own signatures styles, especially at companies such as Sony, and it became a way of bonding workers to the company. "I decided that I wanted that type of bonding for Apple," Jobs recalled.
Sony, with its appreciation for style, had gotten the famous designer Issey Miyake to create its uniform. It was a jacket made of rip-stop nylon with sleeves that could unzip to make it a vest. So Jobs called Issey Miyake and asked him to design a vest for Apple, Jobs recalled, "I came back with some samples and told everyone it would great if we would all wear these vests. Oh man, did I get booed off the stage. Everybody hated the idea."
In the process, however, he became friends with Miyake and would visit him regularly. He also came to like the idea of having a uniform for himself, both because of its daily convenience (the rationale he claimed) and its ability to convey a signature style. "So I asked Issey to make me some of his black turtlenecks that I liked, and he made me like a hundred of them." Jobs noticed my surprise when he told this story, so he showed them stacked up in the closet. "That's what I wear," he said. "I have enough to last for the rest of my life."
[Photo of Miyake in 1998, left, via AP. Photo of Jobs in 2005 via Getty Images]