Silicon Valley Has a New Style Icon

Jensen Huang, the C.E.O. of Nvidia, is transforming a black leather jacket into a symbol of the A.I. paradigm shift.
Silicon Valley Has a New Style Icon

There’s a new tech titan in town and he’s preparing to enter the pantheon. How do we know?

Well, Jensen Huang, the chief executive of Nvidia, has the company: He co-founded Nvidia in 1993, and the market cap is now about $950 billion, though at the end of May it was briefly in the $1 trillion club, putting it in a similar league to Apple, Alphabet and Amazon.

He has the product: a data processing chip that is key to A.I. development, which is to say, the life of ChatGPT and Bard, which is to say, the current paradigm shift.

And he has the look: a black leather jacket he wears every time he is in the public eye, most often with a black T-shirt and black jeans.

Mr. Huang wore a black leather jacket when he was on the cover of Time as one of its men of the year in 2021. A black leather jacket during his keynote speeches at multiple GTC developer conferences since 2018. To deliver the 2023 World ITF keynote and the 2023 Computex 2023 keynote. He even identified himself, back in a Reddit AMA in 2016, as “the guy in the leather jacket.”

Sometimes his leather jackets have collars, sometimes they look more like motorcycle jackets; sometime a lot of zips are involved, sometimes not. But the jackets are always black. He has been wearing them, a spokesman said, “for at least 20 years.” The point is that he always looks the same.

There hasn’t been a popularly identifiable face of A.I. yet. ChatGPT and Bard are anonymous brains. That’s part of what makes A.I. so eerie — its disembodied nature. Sam Altman, the chief executive of OpenAI, is ubiquitous, but looks kind of generic. Mr. Huang and his leather jacket are poised to step neatly into that gap.

The jacket is an object that has become a signifier — of a person but also the great leap forward that person represents. And that association puts Mr. Huang in the same club as Steve “black turtleneck” Jobs, Mark “gray T-shirt” Zuckerberg and Jeff “Pitbull” Bezos as a chief executive who understands that the difference between a company that is a world-changing success and a company that is a world-changing success that becomes a part of pop culture may be the image of its figurehead. One that’s just enough of a caricature to work its way into the public imagination and become the avatar of a movement.

“It makes a person instantly recognizable, sort of like a cartoon character or superhero,” said Richard Thompson Ford, the author of “Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History” and a professor at Stanford Law School. It signals “a down-to-earth rejection of fashionable artifice, while still using the power of fashion.”

Not that the people involved would put it that way exactly.

When asked why they wear the same thing day in and day out, most powerful people who are willing to address the question say it saves time, allowing them to think about whatever pressing issue is at hand, not about what they are going to wear that day.

This is what Barack Obama, who copped to wearing only gray or dark blue suits as president, aside from that one unfortunate tan suit moment, said, as did Mr. Zuckerberg. According to Mr. Huang’s spokesman, “he’s said before that he dresses in the same style of black pants and shirt because it presents one fewer set of decisions to be made each day.” (Mr. Huang himself was “taking a break from speaking to the media,” the spokesman said. )

That’s unquestionably true. Wearing the same uniform every day also communicates discipline (no flights of fashion here), focus and, Mr. Ford said, “reliability” — all qualities that are desirable in any chief executive.

But to think that’s all that this is about is to miss part of the picture. Anyone with aspirations to global domination, especially in the era of visual communication, would know enough about history to know that.

After all, wearing the same thing every day is a shortcut to crafting a Pavlovian identity in the hive mind — not just in Silicon Valley but in pretty much any arena. When you think of magazine editors, for example, who comes to mind? Anna Wintour, with her severe bob and dark glasses. When you think of the Supreme Court? Black robes (and maybe Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s lace collar).

History is littered with figures who understood the power of a consistent visual signature — so much so that they often had garment styles named after them. Nelson Mandela had the Madiba shirt; Narendra Modi, the Modi Kurta; Jawaharlal Nehru, the Nehru jacket. These associations become impossible to forget, embedded deep in our cerebral cortex, shaping assumptions and opinions. See Elizabeth Holmes and her black turtleneck, which, with its direct link to Steve Jobs, implied brilliance to the watching world, whether we were aware of it or not.

And when it comes to cultural associations, there are few garments as rich in adjectives as a black leather jacket. It is effectively a personality ready-made — as Mr. Huang is clearly aware.

According to one observer, when the Nvidia chief was walking around Computex in Taipei last month in his leather jacket, he was asked how he could stand the heat. (The temperature on the day of his keynote was between 79 and 90 degrees.)

“I’m always cool,” Mr. Huang responded.

The black leather jacket “connects 1950s Hollywood to a sense of independence, the open road, rebellion and sex appeal,” said Joseph Rosenfeld, an image consultant and stylist in Silicon Valley.

It is the uniform of Marlon Brando in “The Wild One” and James Dean in photos almost everywhere. Of the Beats and the Beatles; Elvis and David Bowie (in his Berlin period). It is the opposite of what we think of when we think of a tech nerd, which is why the fact that Mr. Huang chose it as his uniform was so smart. It stands out. It causes a reassessment.

Especially on a 60-year-old man like Mr. Huang. Imagine “if Huang were wearing a suit or even a polo shirt and khakis,” Mr. Ford said. “He would look like a boring, conventional middle manager.” Instead, he said, the leather jacket “signals that he’s a creative type and a high status person who can wear whatever he wants.”

When I asked ChatGPT, “Why does Jensen Huang wear the same black leather jacket all the time?” it responded with four options, including the suggestion that “Leather jackets, particularly black ones, are often associated with a sense of confidence, authority and professionalism.” Also motorcycles, which are about speed.

The jacket also connects to a founding myth of Silicon Valley and Mr. Jobs, the man who was the antithesis of the men in gray suits at IBM, and “almost a spiritual leader for some,” as Mr. Ford said. Someone, he said, “who represents a sort of golden age, when everything seemed possible and people still thought tech would be a force for good in the world” — a particularly salient reminder at a time when the public conversation is centered in part on the potential threat of A.I.

And the jacket strategy is adding up. According to Mr. Rosenfeld, “Clients have asked me about the leather jacket, wanting to know if they can wear the same.” (He said he told them Mr. Huang already owned the look and advised that they develop another signature.)

For those who want to know what brand Mr. Huang wears, his spokesman said he did not know. Unlike Mr. Jobs, who owned many versions of the same Issey Miyake turtleneck (or Mr. Zuckerberg, who wears Brunello Cucinelli T-shirts), Mr. Huang appears to vary his jackets. But Mr. Rosenfeld guessed that “they don’t appear to be Tom Ford level, which we know he could well afford. At least some that I’ve seen look to be Theory.”

For those who want to get the look, however, at least seven different e-tailers currently offer “Jensen Huang leather jackets” at prices from $109 (Jacketpop) to $149.99 (the Genuine Leather).

To put this in context, Superstar Jacket sells two versions of a “Jensen Huang leather jacket,” alongside a “Fast & Furious 10 Vin Diesel jacket,” a “Snoop Dogg leather jacket” and an “Indiana Jones leather jacket.”

But Mr. Huang is the only C.E.O. to have a jacket named after him.