Dress for Success

1 September 2006




What should the modern chief executive wear, and is power-dressing still the order of the day? We send our own fashion victim Mark Stuart to investigate.


Colleagues and customers make lasting judgements about you within five seconds of meeting you. So for any professional, it's vital that what you wear communicates your personality immediately. For the CEO, it's even more important to get it right – because people can infer how professional you are, your business philosophy, even your political viewpoint, from a single glance at your attire.

A sharp suit implies a sharp mind. The reason's the same as the reason why we have business clothes at all – for the subconscious effect it has on the observer. This is a professional who means business. It's no different from the uniforms worn by chefs, doctors and airline pilots: they're all to reassure the customer, patient or traveller that this person excels at their job.

The modern CEO needs to command respect, but doesn't want to appear out of touch. The trouble is, so many attempts to cross the divide end up falling between two stools.

Sober, grey, double-breasted suits suggest dullness. Navy blue, which once used to command a respectful, IBM-style authority, now just looks like something from the 1970s. A breezy, smart casual look is essential if you don't want to look stuck in a time warp: but it's so easy to get it wrong.

Smart casual doesn't mean wearing a blazer instead of a suit jacket. Anything with silver buttons should be donated to the local amateur dramatics group immediately, and never, ever wear denim! A modern look with a classic twist is what's required.

CHEVRONS, CHECKS AND STRIPES

It's not necessary for the CEO to be up-to-the-minute fashionable, but it's vital to avoid what your colleagues will notice as out-of-touch.

Fashion may be trivial, but the boss of a leading company is supposed to be 'leading edge' and 'forward looking'. Your clothes reflect that, and colleagues – especially those in their twenties and thirties – will regard an executive in tired clothes as a tired, out-of-touch boss.

So how can the modern CEO avoid looking old-fashioned and stuffy, but still maintain some authority and distance when it's needed? The answer is not to be too smart, but not too casual either.

"A sharp suit implies a sharp mind."

For women, ruffled shirts add the right touch of 1980s dash. Chevrons are the new stripes and the best colours at the moment are muted but not quite autumnal – dark lime green, claret red and royal blue. Black and white still work too – as long as they're in crisp, sharp lines or deliberately relaxed fabrics like linen.

Both women and men should avoid double-breasted suits. And only wear brown if you can pull of the 'geek chic' retro look.

THE DEATH OF TIES

George Bush and Tony Blair have, as it were, untied the knot. Look at any politician on the modern world stage and, if they know what they're doing, they've left the ties at home. The stranglehold of neckwear is loosening – ignore hip websites that claim ties are on their way back. In today's business world they hang around our necks like millstones, and the CEO who is brave enough to go open-collared is making a big statement.

Having abandoned the tie, the key male look is a crisp, light suit and shirt from a tailor such as Gieves & Hawkes or Thomas Mahon. Avoid chunky cufflinks, because they're now the preserve of spiky-haired estate agents and spotty salesmen. And if you must wear a tie, make sure you don't give it a chunky knot, for the same reason.

Stripy shirts are now looking very 2005 – as are those colourful, stripy scarves that were ubiquitous last winter. Checked suits are ok, as long as they're very thin, wide check. There is a 1930s, art deco look to wide check that fits very well in the pared-down, new machine age.

"The modern CEO needs to command respect, but doesn't want to appear out of touch."

In the 21st century, androgyny – of a mild, understated kind – is a must. Pink pinstripes on a suit for a man, or a bootcut trouser suit for a woman.

RETURN OF THE 1980s

In the high street, the 1980s are back with a vengeance. Shiny fabrics, hot pinks and glossy red lipstick are reappearing everywhere. But it would be a mistake to think this will transfer into the boardroom – it won't. Pip Lee, a TV and film make-up designer, believes that 80s-style power dressing is no longer needed.

"Twenty years ago, there were fewer women in the boardroom and they needed to emulate men to get there. That's where the masculine, built-up shoulders and hairstyles came from. But today, women have proved themselves as equal and there's no need to copy men. Powerful female executives want to dress to feel feminine."

These words are borne out by the fact that in the UK, there are now more female millionaires that male ones. So forget the Dynasty-style shoulder pads and pastel Miami Vice suits. The sharp CEO of today knows that less is more.

TONY LUTWYCHE: MAN ABOUT TOWN

Equally at home catering to the red-carpet set or to city high-flyers, UK-based bespoke tailor Tony Lutwyche has fashioned himself something of a niche market since setting up his business six years ago.

His cutting-edge suits and shirts are tailored individually to the personal needs of each of his customers and an 85% client re-order rate for his suits is testament to the high regard he is held in.

Lutwyche provides a highly personal service, often scootering across town from his West London workshop to visit clients throughout the capital, and his client base is growing increasingly further afield internationally.

"The stranglehold of neckwear is loosening."

"Understanding the psyche of the individual is paramount before designing a suit for them," he says. "You have to listen to what people really want from their suit. A good leader will make their own decisions but will always listen to others first."

"A CEO has to exude calmness, authority and power – so it's essential that the initial onus is on comfort for the customer."

"A busy executive will want to carry their blackberry, mobile and wallet around with them so its important to tailor in the 'mobile office' when measuring up your client."