Look the Business

31 March 2009 Vanessa de Lisle

The language of business is not restricted to the talk of the board room, but also through the stylistic cues of what you wear. Fashion consultant Vanessa de Lisle gives CEO a lesson on the grammar and vocabulary of professional style

Whatever your personal view of corporate diktats on employee dress codes, the fact is that your choice of clothing communicates volumes about you to everyone in your business life. Spending some time, and yes, some money, in your wardrobe is not just an investment in your self, but in your company too. No wonder organisations such as Freshfields and Ernst & Young offer image courses to their staff. Clothes matter.

We belong to style tribes, and those at the top of their game benefit from understanding the particular language of style. Current tastes favour chic, sharp looks and outlaws anything bohemian or overblown. Fashion has leapt on the achingly stylish Mad Men TV series, with its absolute supremacy of the well-cut suit with thin lapels and slender ties.

While there are people who seem to have an innate sense of style, there are at least as many who achieve it through careful attention and professional help. Building a reliable and consistent personal brand takes thought, but once learnt, it is with you for life. There are rules that we can all follow, but the real trick is knowing and adapting them to a sense of who you are.

The massive difference, for example, between Michelle Obama’s fashion sense and Laura Bush is one of personality and confidence. Michelle Obama loves clothes and knows how to dress appropriately and with individuality, while Laura Bush, in her addiction to Chanel, looks clichéd. One of the most inspiring fashion role models for professional women is Rachida Dati, who until recently was France’s Justice Minister. For men, I’d aim for somewhere between Mad Men’s Don Draper and fashion photographer Mario Testino.

Men only

"Building a reliable and consistent personal brand takes thought, but once learnt, it is with you for life."

You need tailored suits for every day of the week. They must fit properly and be well-made, but that doesn't mean a trip to Savile Row. Prada, Brioni, Armani, Paul Smith, Kilgour and Dunhill all make excellent off-the-peg suits that fit beautifully. In London and New York, shoes can be any colour, as long as they're black, while in Milan or Paris we see more brown shoes worn with suits, but there is life beyond Oxfords. Gucci, Prada and Berlutti offer stylish alternatives that can subtly introduce a contemporary edge to an otherwise conservative look.

The tie has always offered a flash of expression and narrow ties are very hot right now. For warmer weather, I recommend flat-bottomed silk knitted ties from Paul Smith, Kilgour and Etro. Tie-less suits are also in (see Barack Obama) but do not mistake this look for casual. It’s not. For it to work, you need a dark suit, a wonderful white or blue shirt, dark socks, polished shoes, and no accessories. This look is cool and business-like. Great for late sessions with clients.

It is not necessary to take out a mortgage for a good watch, and a cool briefcase is a must. Ditch that tatty old thing with worn edges and invest in something new. Everyone will notice.

The female of the species

For women, tailoring is the mainstay of your professional wardrobe and no, a high street suit will not do. Donna Karan, Diane von Furstenburg, Dolce and Gabbana and Calvin Klein offer a good selection of pant suits and suits with pencil skirts or, if you prefer, slightly longer skirts. High-quality fabrics with a small degree of stretch will survive the rigours of plane travel or even the daily commute.

The boyfriend jacket is very on trend right now with its long length and deep plunging neckline and single button – Marc Jacobs does a version with tiny shoulder pads – and Stella McCartney and Gucci have good takes on the look this season. Go to Roland Mouret for a dress and coat and, of course, Diane von Furstenburg for her signature dresses, which are perfect for meeting at the bar after a conference.

While some of the most amazing shoes undoubtedly involve high heels, practicality rules and most women swear by kitten heels with rounded or sharp pointed fronts.

The flat or almost flat-heeled riding boot is a great look with the pencil or longer skirt. You must have decent handbags and they should be statement pieces with a label, not ridiculous, but fashionable.

Black, navy, clay and stone are colours that work best for the office but so too does red, especially worn with grey. If you can stretch to it, invest in a statement piece by someone a bit edgy such as Alexander McQueen or Antonio Benardi.

A word about denim

Stick to dark indigo and black jeans and avoid orange stitching. Some stretch for women’s jeans is forgiving. For women, Earnest Sewn are hot. For men, try Paul Smith, Diesel, Citizens of Humanity. Failing that, Armani always does great jeans.