When a T-Shirt Tells the Tale

When you picture a CEO, what image comes to mind? A man in a suit, right? Perhaps set off by a beautifully pressed, crisp, white shirt and see-your-face-in-them shiny shoes. Right?

Wrong. These days, CEOs no more have to wear a suit and tie than senators have to behave themselves in Congress.

It's not a new phenomenon. Steve Jobs, for instance, wouldn't dream of gracing the MacWorld stage in a suit and tie. Instead, he has forged a distinctive image for himself through his consistent choice of a black polo-neck and jeans. At the same time, he has successfully marketed his company, Apple (AAPL) as being alternative, savvy, and hip—a vibrant upstart to Microsoft's (MSFT) slightly stuffier image.

But now, informal attire is less of a statement and more a reflection of the times—with the business principles du jour of transparency, creativity, and personal choice. As more Gen-X and Gen-Y CEOs take the stage of their own making, they are building businesses in their image. You're just as likely to spot Google (GOOG) co-founder Sergey Brin wearing a short-sleeved shirt and jeans as in formal get-up. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg clearly seems more comfortable in flip-flops and hoodie than in suit and tie. Former eBay (EBAY) CEO Pierre Omidyar recently began tweeting images of the T-shirt he was wearing that day. "Threadless T-shirts should have tiny-URLs on them, so we can tweet the shirts we're wearing. 'Why', you ask? 'Why not,' I say." he wrote, a reference to the popular T-shirt design site, where users vote on which shirts should be manufactured.

Suit YourselfOf course, the laid-back, laissez-faire, wear-your-heart-on-your-shirtfront attitude may not have permeated every aspect of global business just yet. There's still a market for the exquisitely made Savile Row suit. And many corporate leaders, including women such as new Xerox (XRX) CEO Ursula Burns, regularly opt for a suit, almost as a shorthand way to demonstrate to the world at large that the business is run by a safe pair of hands.

Nonetheless, we decided to have some end-of-summer fun, launching a competition calling for BusinessWeek readers to design a T-shirt fit for a CEO of their choice.

The submissions flooded in. Not all of them were printable (if business leaders and politicians imagine all the economic mayhem of the past year has been forgiven and forgotten, they better think again), but the best provided sharp comments on a company's status and standing within the world at large.

Perhaps not surprisingly, some favorite CEOs emerged, with Steve Jobs providing the most popular model for a shirt graphic. But other bosses also provided fodder for inspiration, including Bank of America's (BAC) Ken Lewis, Google's Eric Schmidt, and even Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff.

As a vehicle for showing allegiance, sponsorship, support, or even dismay or disdain, the T-shirt remains a powerful medium of expression. Granted, I'm biased (I wrote three books on such designs). But what started out as a bit of fun became something more meaningful—a commentary on the state of today's business landscape. My sincere thanks to all those who sent in ideas (and apologies that we couldn't feature them all.) See the slide show of images here.

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