The story behind Steve Jobs's black turtleneck

Steve Jobs's outfit – black mock turtleneck and jeans – was iconic, even though it hadn't changed since the 1990s. Now we know how the Steve Jobs look came to be.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP/File
In this 2004 file photo, Apple CEO Steve Jobs displays the iPod mini at the Macworld Conference and Expo in San Francisco – and his signature black mock turtleneck. The story of how the late Mr. Jobs came to pick that particular style is part of a new official biography about him, due out in two weeks. Excerpts of the book were released this week.

In the early days, it was a necktie and vest. Later (during the 1984 unveiling of the iconic Macintosh computer, for example) it was a bow tie and button-down shirt. But without a doubt, Steve Jobs’s most iconic look has been his black mock turtleneck, Levi’s 501 jeans, and New Balance sneakers. He sported that outfit for more than a decade, since shortly after he returned to Apple in 1998 as interim chief executive officer, until his final “Stevenote” address in June 2011, where he unveiled iOS 5 and iCloud.

So where’d his look come from?

According to Walter Isaacson, Jobs's official biographer, it all started when Jobs visited Japan in the early '80s. Isaacson's book, simply titled "Steve Jobs," won't hit shelves until Oct. 24, but Gawker has released an excerpt ahead of time that details how Jobs's iconic look came to be.

On his visit to Japan, Jobs met Akio Morita, the chairman of Sony. At the time, everyone in Sony’s factories wore uniforms, and Morita told Jobs the practice had begun “after the war, [when] no one had any clothes, and companies like Sony had to give their workers something to wear each day.” Then, over the years, the uniforms became a way for workers to bond with the company and to express the company’s style.

Isaacson explains what happened next: "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 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.'"

Okay, so Apple-wide nylon vests might not have been a great idea. But Jobs apparently got stuck on the concept of having a uniform for himself. According to Isaacson, he wanted both the convenience of not having to pick out a new outfit each day, and the “ability to convey a signature style.” Jobs had become friends with Miyake, and the designer had a black turtleneck that had caught the Apple CEO’s eye. He asked Miyake to make him some of them, and the designer sent him “like a hundred.” Isaacson reports that Jobs kept them stacked in the closet, and just like that, the iconic look began.

Admittedly, Jobs’s choice of outfits made him something of an iconoclast among Silicon Valley folks. (In 2010, Fast Company even gently poked fun at him by creating a “Steve Jobs fashion timeline” graphic that showcased his identical outfits from 1998 through the present.) But then again, it was also odd that Jobs himself took the stage to demo new products, rather than handing the responsibility to one of the company’s vice presidents. The outfit was just one more thing that set the tech titan apart. (See video below.)

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