How a defendant dresses, while seemingly superficial, can play a crucial role in how they’re perceived, and it’s why so much time goes into crafting outfits that fit into a defense team’s strategy.
Examples abound of defendants who have adjusted their looks to send a certain message to a jury, including fake heiress Anna Sorokin, who changed out of her prison-issued brown uniform for a Miu Miu-designed black gown, and Elizabeth Holmes, who traded in her signature black turtlenecks for a light gray pantsuit and blue button-down shirt.
With Sam Bankman-Fried’s trial starting Tuesday, the disgraced T-shirt-donning crypto entrepreneur is already in the process of changing his usual look to (literally) suit the occasion.
Last week, the FTX founder was granted permission from the court to wear “business attire clothing,” including three suits (consisting of slacks and jackets), four dress shirts, three ties, one belt, four pairs of socks, two pairs of shoes, and “appropriate undergarments,” according to a court filing.
In pre-trial appearances SBF ditched his usual outfit and donned a suit and tie, although he seemed visibly uncomfortable in formal attire and has been quick to untuck his shirt after leaving court.
While he may be uncomfortable, criminal defense attorney Patrick Stangl said SBF should dress in a way that shows respect for the court and the judicial process.
“From the moment that the jury sees you, they in their mind are making judgments about you. Now, of course, they can only make judgments based on the evidence, but, you know, we are all human beings,” Stangl told Fortune.
Still, there may be some advantage to maintaining some of Bankman-Fried’s disheveled look, especially if his defense centers on him being ignorant of any crimes committed, Stangl added. Instead of being overly rigid, he should try to strike a balance between being respectful and authentic.
“While I want my clients to dress respectfully,” Stangl said, “I don’t want them to dress like something that they’re not, either.”
Before Bankman-Fried was ever accused of any impropriety—he maintains that he’s innocent—the FTX founder followed the fashion playbook of the early-2000s tech entrepreneur, namely, minimalist T-shirt-heavy looks. While for a time he was known as the “white knight of crypto” more often than not he dressed like a serf, in an FTX-branded gray shirt, baggy cargo shorts, bunched up white socks, and a pair of simple sneakers.
Meta, formerly Facebook, founder Zuckerberg was a trailblazer in popularizing the new tech worker uniform. In the days leading up to Facebook’s initial public offering in 2012, the then-27-year-old founder made waves for showing up to an investor meeting in a hoodie—a move that at least one Wall Street analyst, Wedbush’s Michael Pachter, said signaled his “immaturity,” according to a CNN article from the time.
Bankman-Fried got a similar reaction from Wall Street and the media when his public profile started rising after founding FTX in 2019. But for SBF, the message was simple: “I’m so busy changing the world, I don’t have the time or energy to care about how I look.” Although he was criticized by some, others were quick to point to his outward appearance as a sign of his genius and dedication.
By the time he was arrested in December, Bankman-Fried’s signature look had taken on a whole different connotation. Instead of portraying him as an aloof savant, some said the 31-year-old’s sense of style showed the recklessness with which he approached his company and finances—as apparently evidenced by the Justice Department’s charge that FTX was commingling customer funds with sister trading firm Alameda Research.
Ultimately, his lack of fashion sense may come from ignorance or just plain apathy, according to details revealed in a newly published excerpt from Michael Lewis’ upcoming book on FTX, Going Infinite: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon.
Bankman-Fried seemingly struggled with the idea of what a formal outfit consisted of, according to Lewis. In July 2022, he forgot dress shoes and a belt to match the wrinkled, blue “D.C. suit” he planned to wear at a first-time meeting with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. And, although having little to do with his looks, SBF may have committed an even bigger faux pas when he angered fashion icon Anna Wintour by blowing off the Met Gala.
As SBF’s trial grew nearer, ex-convict Martin Shkreli said in a post on X that Bankman-Fried had already made at least one subtle touch up to his look: he cut his hair.