Disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes has done many, many things wrong. But she did have one good idea: hiring Ana Arriola. As the company’s chief design architect, Arriola worked on the look of the “Edison” machine, which ran medical tests using a small amount of blood taken from a poke in a patient’s finger. Her unofficial role, however, was stylist for her boss, who was unfortunately partial to “baggy Christmas sweaters.” And if you wanted to scam the world into believing you were a brilliant and original mind, you would be wise to do what Arriola says.
Arriola herself has legitimately unique and cool personal style. Her signature eyeglasses are Mask Y3 Green frames from Kuboraum, an unconventional Berlin-based eyewear company. She accessorizes with scarves from Nuno and bags from Vailance and Issey Miyake’s Bao Bao line. Her clothes are minimalist and mostly bespoke, with cuts designed by an Asian boutique called Divkanet. She adores Japanese avant-garde brand Y-3, the brainchild of tailor Yohji Yamamoto.
When Arriola met Holmes in 2007, she says, Holmes was “completely L7,” or square. Holmes was “infatuated” with Steve Jobs’ uniform of black turtlenecks and Levi’s, and asked Arriola for advice on achieving a similar aesthetic. Holmes felt a sartorial message of sameness would suggest she spent more time spent thinking about her company, and not her outfit of the day.
“I’m like, ‘Hey, this is who designed [his turtlenecks], this is the aesthetic, and we can go after it,'” Arriola says. “And, sure enough, she did.” Holmes swapped out her frumpy sweaters for an all-black ensemble of black turtlenecks and slacks. “But it wasn’t her own personal style,” Arriola tells ELLE.com. “She copied other people… She was 120 percent fake.”
Arriola’s avant-garde, minimalist personal style can be traced back to her formative years as a design intern in the small city of Kanazawa, Japan and is often reflected in her design work. In 1998 she landed a job at Adobe, learning how to build brand new products for new market needs. That gig led her to Apple in 2005, where she was a part of the original team to develop the iPhone. During the summer of 2007, Arriola met with Holmes at Coupa, a hip cafe in Palo Alto, for the first time. She was “completely slayed” by the entrepreneur’s charisma.
Like Arriola’s then-boss Steve Jobs, Holmes had “an amazing ability to really sell you on the passion, and the understanding,” Arriola says. “At that first meeting with her I said, ‘Hey look, this is a really big endeavor. I’m going to be having to leave a ton of stock and I want to make sure my partner also bought into this.” (She lost out on fifteen thousand Apple shares, to be exact.) Arriola arranged for Holmes to meet with her now ex-partner again in Palo Alto to put any hesitations to rest.
In September 2007, Arriola officially joined Theranos to help design and brand the Edison. While she developed the machine’s aesthetic (famed Swiss industrial designer Yves Béhar also consulted on its design), Arriola also assisted Holmes with her personal style. “She had this kind of spunky, frumpy Christmas sweater attire… It’s literally like… Stuff you see that has pixel art really poorly done. ” Arriola says. “I was like, ‘I’m happy to give you some style advice, because I love couture. Go for this, look at these, leave these designers.’ “
“[Elizabeth] was enamored with the style and iconic silhouette of Steve Jobs in Issey’s black turtlenecks,” Arriola says. According to Steve Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson, Jobs was a big proponent of the personal uniform. He believed it eliminated the need to decide on an outfit every day, thereby freeing up time for more important decisions. He asked Miyake, known for his ultra-modern style, to create his look. Miyake famously gave Jobs a hundred black turtlenecks, which he paired with Levi’s and New Balance kicks.
“However, in our era [of Theranos] I don’t think she had the means to invest or stomach the cost [of a Miyake-made turtleneck],” Arriola says. Still, Holmes loved the idea so much that she snapped up “about 150” turtlenecks of her own, according to a 2015 Glamour interview. (Holmes also said in the interview that she’d been wearing black turtlenecks since she was a kid. Arriola disputes that claim.) Arriola believes Holmes purchased her turtlenecks somewhere in Palo Alto.
Arriola describes herself as the “first generation of three generations” of Theranos employees. She left after a year, when it became apparent Holmes couldn’t deliver the life-changing technology she’d touted at their Palo Alto meetings. “People’s lives were at stake,” Arriola says. “We left because it was our understanding that [Elizabeth] was jeopardizing human life.”
Arriola received a slew of threatening emails from the Theranos legal team, but never heard directly from her former boss. Ex-employees gathered every quarter at a restaurant in Palo Alto as a sort of “self-therapy,” Arriola says. “We would compare notes, even before they went public with all the nefarious stuff.”
Three years ago, she was contacted by Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou—who reported the article that broke the Theranos scam and authored the book Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup—for an interview. The call drudged up painful memories from her time Theranos, but she felt validated.
Until that point, most of Arriola’s Silicon Valley connections remained skeptical when she told them Holmes was a scam artist—not even her best friends believed her. Lisa Q Fetterman, founder of sous vide cooking company Nomiku, describes Arriola as a “super bestie” that she’s known for years. “I’m embarrassed [now] to say I didn’t believe her,” Fetterman says. “I was like, ‘What are you talking about? Elizabeth has been on every magazine cover. She’s a big deal’… You just didn’t talk bad about Elizabeth. Especially in the female [tech] founders community, we gave her the benefit of the doubt, because it takes so much for one of us to rise up. Everyone was obsessed with her.”
Holmes and former Theranos president Sunny Balwani Balwani have since pleaded not guilty to charges of wire fraud. If convicted, could face up to 20 years in prison.
After Theranos, Arriola founded two start-ups and landed a gig at Microsoft as a general manager and partner. Even with therapy, it took years for her to understand and work through what had happened at the company. The release of Carreyrou’s book in May 2018 brought some closure, but she anxiously awaits the still undated release of the recently announced Theranos movie starring Jennifer Lawrence.
“If they include me in the movie, I want another trans woman and person of color to play myself!” Arriola says. She recommends the casting director consider Indya Moore of Pose to play her.
“I will say, all the publicity, it’s kind been nice, [like] closure,” she says. “It’s like we finally can put this to rest, because this is happening in the public and without an absolute doubt, everyone understands what we went through now… We can finally close the book on this portion of our lives that we’ve been kept perpetually therapy around, well hopefully.