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The unlikely common denominator between Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, a sphere of data science and the fashion industry is a pink-haired 28-year-old Canadian vegan named Christopher Wylie.
Over the weekend, The New York Times and The Guardian both published articles revealing that U.K.-based data firm Cambridge Analytica — the company Wylie and Steve Bannon built with the help of a $15 million investment from Republican billionaire donor Robert Mercer — had unethically obtained and exploited the personal data of more than 50 million Facebook users without their consent. This data was then analyzed to identify connections between personality traits and political leanings, becoming the foundation for techniques later used by the Trump presidential campaign.
The lengthy articles detail cover-ups orchestrated by parties involved in the ordeal, but what was perhaps most intriguing was Wylie’s own backstory. Despite leaving school at age 16, Wylie had no trouble finding work. When he was 19, he taught himself to code, and at age 20 he enrolled at the London School of Economics to study law. At the time he helped launch Cambridge Analytica at age 24, he was working toward a PhD in fashion trend forecasting.
Yes, while the young data scientist was coming up with the algorithm that would help channel the harvested data into what he later described as “Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare mindfuck tool,” he was in the midst of learning how to predict fashion trends — a bit of a distant cousin to the kinds of psychological trends he then analyzed for the former Breitbart editor.
In an interview with The Guardian‘s Carole Cadwalladr, Wylie used his background as a helpful metaphor to illustrate how Bannon used the data for his own politically motivated purposes. “[Bannon] believes in the whole Andrew Breitbart doctrine that politics is downstream from culture, so to change politics, you need to change culture,” Wylie explained. “Fashion trends are a useful proxy for that. Trump is like a pair of Uggs, or Crocs, basically. So how do you get from people thinking ‘Ugh. Totally ugly’ to the moment when everyone is wearing them? That was the inflection point he was looking for.”
Whether he was aware of it or not (and given his background, we’d like to think that he was definitely aware of it), both Crocs and Uggs were having a major moment in fashion while he was carrying out his work for Cambridge Analytica. In 2016, Christopher Kane sent bedazzled Crocs down the runway. A year later, Balenciaga gave Mario Batali’s preferred footwear the official high-fashion stamp of approval, sending platform versions of the sandal/sneaker hybrid down the catwalk.
Meanwhile, Uggs has been attempting to bolster its own cool factor with various designer collaborations, including a collection by Moschino creative director Jeremy Scott, as well as a selection by Phillip Lim. Yes, both fugly footwear specimens did become cool again, and Trump won the presidential election, perhaps thanks to the help of Cambridge Analytica and Wylie’s analytics. So perhaps trend forecasting and political forecasting aren’t that different after all?
Bannon’s disheveled (to put it nicely) appearance and propensity for cargo jackets aside — believe it or not, the former White House strategist has championed fashion before. During his tenure at Breitbart, the 64-year-old brought on fashion critic John Binder, 25, who regularly assesses the first lady’s style for the conservative outlet. The coverage, predictably, is rarely critical.
Another unexpected revelation from Wylie’s characterization of Bannon — the man who preaches xenophobia — is his affinity for “the gays.” Wylie, who is openly gay, noted in the profile that Bannon “loved the gays…. He saw us as early adopters. He figured, if you can get the gays on board, everyone else will follow.”
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