UK: DRESSING THE PART - Fashion used to stop at the boardroom door, but not any more. The power of image in ...

UK: DRESSING THE PART - Fashion used to stop at the boardroom door, but not any more. The power of image in ... - DRESSING THE PART - Fashion used to stop at the boardroom door, but not any more. The power of image in modern business is more important th

by
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

DRESSING THE PART - Fashion used to stop at the boardroom door, but not any more. The power of image in modern business is more important than ever - so Management Today assembled a panel of experts to pick out the best-dressed men and women in British business. Alice Rawsthorn, one of the judges, looks them over.

Only a handful of industrialists can claim to have instilled terror on both sides of the Atlantic, but the late Gordon White, Lord Hanson's chief consigliere at Hanson Trust, was undoubtedly one of them. When I arrived at Hanson Trust's mews house in Knightsbridge to interview him for the Financial Times 10 years ago, Sir Gordon (later Lord) White was at the height of his power. I'd expected him to be charming (which he was), and I'd expected a steeliness to lie beneath the charm (which it did). What I hadn't expected was for him to care quite so much about his appearance.

As the interview drew to a close, an FT photographer arrived to take Sir Gordon's portrait. Although he already looked impeccable in an exquisite Savile Row suit and beautifully laundered shirt, Sir Gordon leapt to his feet and announced that he was nipping into a nearby cabinet de toilette to groom himself for the picture.

I couldn't help wondering whether any other businessman would have the confidence to be so uninhibited about displaying their vanity (Lord Hanson, perhaps?) and I was quite sure that a businesswoman would have checked her hair and make-up before the interview, rather than risk being seen wasting time on something so frivolous.

Yet Gordon White knew that looking his best was a formidable weapon in Hanson's corporate armoury. Striding confidently from the cabinet de toilette to pose for the photographer, he appeared urbane, dapper, years younger than his age, and much more menacing to Hanson Trust's hapless prey.

Looking good is more important than ever to ambitious businessmen and businesswomen, even if perceptions of what is suitable and stylish to wear for work have changed dramatically in the age of dress-down Fridays, when even the Chancellor of the Exchequer skips black tie for formal dinners. Management Today convened a panel of judges interested in both business and style - Alexandra Shulman, editor of Vogue; Peter York, MT columnist and managing director of management consultancy SRU; Denise Kingsmill, deputy chairman of the Competition Commission; Rupert Howell, chairman of advertising agency, HHCL and Partners; design consultant Stephen Bayley; Alice Rawsthorn, design critic of the Financial Times; and Management Today editor Rufus Olins - to choose the Best-Dressed Businessmen and Businesswomen in Britain. The objective was to select three male and three female winners, and to pick an overall winner in both categories.

Choosing Britain's Best-Dressed Businessman turned out to be surprisingly simple. The winner, by unanimous vote, was Maurice Saatchi, now Lord Saatchi, whose flamboyant specs and jaunty bow ties became a tabloid cliche for advertising executives in the 1980s, but who has adopted a subtler, more refined style for the 1990s. 'The last time I saw Maurice, I took a close look at what he was wearing,' recalled Alexandra Shulman. 'Everything was immaculate: a beautifully tailored suit, really great shirt and fabulous tie.'

'Maurice has distinctive style that enables him to move from one world to another - from an advertising agency, to the House of Lords, into the City, or out to the theatre,' said Rufus Olins. 'Also, his style is expensive, but not necessarily very expensive to copy.'

The other two winners favour a less formal look than Lord Saatchi. James Dyson, the inventor-turned-entrepreneur has a colourful, casual wardrobe filled with Voyage combat pants and silk Mao jackets, rather than tailored suits. 'I really do like the way he looks,' remarked Denise Kingsmill.

'Everything he wears is very soft, colourful and comfortable without being inappropriate. I think it's the way more business people will be willing to dress in future - the days of the conventional suit are numbered.'

Peter York agreed: 'If Maurice Saatchi is best-dressed Mr Conventional Businessman, then James Dyson is best-dressed Mr Unconventional. He offers hope.'

Unlike James Dyson, Vittorio Radice, the Italian-born chief executive of Selfridges, does wear suits, but he prefers sportily styled ones by Prada or Helmut Lang to the traditional variety. Denise Kingsmill admired Radice's attention to detail, noting that he 'always wears really beautiful shoes'.

Choosing Britain's Best-Dressed Businesswoman proved to be much more complicated. Despite the success of high-profile women such as Marjorie Scardino at Pearson and Gail Rebuck at Random House there are not only fewer female executives to choose from, but those that have attained powerful positions tend to be younger - and therefore less visible - than their male counterparts. Possibly because they have struggled for acceptance in a male-dominated environment, businesswomen also seem wary of conforming to old-fashioned feminine stereotypes by dressing conspicuously, or being seen to expend energy on fussing over how they look.

'It's sad that there are so few businesswomen to choose from, and that so few of them have their own approach to dressing,' said Alexandra Shulman.

'There seems to be an innate prejudice in business against women who draw attention to their appearance.'

Denise Kingsmill concurred: 'We still have this ridiculous attitude in Britain that anyone taking an interest in their appearance shouldn't be taken seriously. In France or Italy, there'd be many more candidates for Best-Dressed Businesswoman because women in senior positions there are actively encouraged to dress well.'

Whereas there was a clear consensus among the judges as to what constituted a well-dressed businessman, they found it far harder to agree on how women should dress for work, specifically on whether they could dress sexily, but still expect to be taken seriously. Rupert Howell thought not: 'It's a terrible mistake for women in business to try to look sexy. They should look comfortable, elegant and intelligent.'

Alexandra Shulman disagreed with him. 'Why shouldn't women in senior positions look elegant, well-groomed and sexy?' she argued. 'There's absolutely no reason why not.'

As the panel could not agree on an overall winner for Best-Dressed Businesswoman, it decided to select three joint winners: all of whom are exceptionally stylish, but in very different ways. One is Helen Robinson, the former Conde Nast and Debenhams executive who now runs her own management consultancy.

Stephen Bayley described her as: 'immaculate and beautifully presented, but clearly very comfortable in her own style.'

Equally dapper, if more conservative in style, is Sue Farr, the BBC's director of public service marketing. 'She always looks fabulous: well-groomed and very businesslike,' commented Rupert Howell. While the third Best-Dressed Businesswoman, Dorothy Berwin, an entertainment lawyer-turned-film producer, describes her business look as 'urban survivalist' and mixes pieces from Comme des Garcons, Yohji Yamamoto and Gap Kids, with her favourite Gucci business suit.

'Dorothy Berwin has managed to change her look from a smart but rather conventional corporate lawyer, to something far less conventional but much more interesting,' concluded Peter York. 'Sue Farr is a very well-dressed business person, and Helen Robinson is an example to us all.'

MAURICE SAATCHI, ADVERTISING MOGUL, CHAIRMAN OF M&C SAATCHI

Anyone who handed out fivers to passers-by for posing as 'employees' to persuade prospective clients that it was a burgeoning business must be acutely aware of the importance of image creation. Such ploys helped Maurice Saatchi, now Lord Saatchi, 53, and his brother Charles, to turn Saatchi & Saatchi into the world's largest advertising agency during the 1980s, and to build a brand-new agency, M&C Saatchi, from scratch in the late 1990s.

Who do you consider to be well dressed?

Henry VIII.

What image do you aim to project in business?

A light under a bushel.

What are your favourite labels?

Chateau Leoville-Barton, Tiptree jam.

What is your favourite outfit to wear for: An important business meeting?

A dark suit, white shirt and grey tie.

First night at the theatre?

As above.

Saturday shopping?

I don't shop on Saturdays.

What has been your worst sartorial mistake?

Wearing white shorts instead of trousers for school cricket. You never recover.

Your most expensive purchase?

Ted Bates Inc.

VITTORIO RADICE, RETAILER, CHIEF EXECUTIVE OF SELFRIDGES

For his very first job in British retailing back in 1979, Vittorio Radice was paid the princely sum of £40 a week to haul furniture around Harrods. He then headed home to his native Italy to work as a buyer for a US company before returning to Britain in 1990, first as buying director, then managing director of Habitat and, since 1996 as chief executive of Selfridges. Having made his name by modernising Habitat, Radice, now 42, was asked to do the same for Selfridges.

Who do you consider to be well dressed?

Anyone who wears things naturally.

What image do you aim to project in business?

Simple, uncluttered, relaxed, at ease.

What are your favourite labels?

Helmut Lang.

What is your favourite outfit to wear for: An important business meeting?

Very dark blue suit.

First night at the theatre?

Very dark blue suit.

Saturday shopping?

Blue chinos, blue cotton long-sleeved polo shirt.

What has been your worst sartorial mistake?

Bespoke blue cashmere blazer.

Your most expensive purchase?

Bespoke blue cashmere blazer.

JAMES DYSON, INVENTOR/ENTREPRENEUR, CHAIRMAN OF DYSON APPLIANCES

Even though a succession of banks and venture capitalists refused to back his plan to put his design for the Dual Cyclone vacuum cleaner into production, James Dyson has become one of Europe's most successful entrepreneurs. Having revolutionised the vacuum cleaner, Dyson, 52, now hopes to do the same for other household products.

Who do you consider to be well dressed?

Anyone who doesn't wear a suit or tie, but instead finds a more original way of reflecting their personality.

What image do you aim to project in business?

An image of not being in business. Having a vocation to do something, or to create something different is stimulating and inspirational. Thinking of it as a business somehow removes its life and sparkle.

What are your favourite labels?

Voyage, Kenzo, Paul Smith and Issey Miyake.

What is your favourite outfit to wear for: An important business meeting?

A Dyson T-shirt or jersey, and Voyage fatigue trousers.

First night at the theatre?

Maybe a soft jacket - cashmere or silk - with a shirt (no tie) and Voyage trousers.

Saturday shopping?

The same as at home or work.

What has been your worst sartorial mistake?

To wear a suit when Prince Charles came to open the factory. I did it to make him feel comfortable - but it was out of character.

Your most expensive purchase?

A knee-length, gold-coloured jacket from Voyage. I wore it for my 50th birthday party and then twice since.

DOROTHY BERWIN, FILM PRODUCER, MANAGING DIRECTOR OF INFILM PRODUCTIONS

After a few years with an entertainment law firm, Dorothy Berwin, 39, joined Zenith Productions where she was involved with the financing and distribution of Amateur and Simple Men, two films by Hal Hartley, the cult US director. Since setting up InFilm productions with partner, Ceci Dempsey, in 1996, Berwin has produced Bedrooms and Hallways and The Wisdom of Crocodiles.

Who do you consider to be well dressed?

Janice Blackburn (art curator), Jane Barclay (Capitol Films), and Jay Hunt (television producer).

What image do you aim to project in business?

Urban survivalist.

What are your favourite labels?

Gucci, Comme des Garcons, Yohji Yamamoto, Gap Kids, Dosa and Prada for shoes.

What is your favourite outfit to wear for: An important business meeting?

Gucci suit.

First night at the theatre?

Yohji Yamamoto: a dress and plimsolls - because I'm always late!

Saturday shopping?

Gap Kids top with a Dosa skirt and Prada shoes

What has been your worst sartorial mistake?

Getting my bellybutton pierced.

Your most expensive purchase?

A satin Yohji Yamamoto trouser suit.

SUE FARR, DIRECTOR OF PUBLIC SERVICE MARKETING, BBC

Sue Farr began her career as a Northern Foods graduate trainee, but was soon courted by the advertising industry. She worked for BSB:Dorland and WRCS in the 1980s before moving into television as director of corporate communications for Thames TV. Farr, 43, joined the BBC in 1993 to work on the launch of Radio 5 Live. She has recently been appointed director of public service marketing.

Who do you consider to be well dressed?

Kristin Scott Thomas, the late Grace Kelly and her daughter, Princess Caroline, Peter York, Prince Charles, the late Richard Dunn (Thames TV), Elisabeth Murdoch (BSkyB) and my mother-in-law.

What image do you aim to project in business?

Professional, individual, assured and engaging.

What are your favourite labels?

Actually, it's not the labels that matter, it's getting the right advice.

I rely heavily on Susie Faux and her superb team at Wardrobe for almost all my business clothes.

What is your favourite outfit to wear for: An important business meeting?

A well-cut suit, possibly with a scarf.

First night at the theatre?

A simple but glamorous shift dress.

Saturday shopping?

Jeans and a casual jacket.

What has been your worst sartorial mistake?

My husband!

Your most expensive purchase?

My Hermes Kelly bag. Long coveted, and finally bought as a 40th birthday treat.

HELEN ROBINSON, CONSULTANT, MANAGING DIRECTOR OF THE HELEN ROBINSON ORGANISATION

After leaving Vogue in 1975 for Debenhams, Robinson returned in 1984 as group marketing director of Conde Nast. In the 1990s, Robinson moved into luxury goods at the Asprey Group. She has also been a director of BAA, the LEB and London Regional Transport.

Who do you consider to be well dressed?

John Asprey, Nicholas Coleridge (Conde Nast), Howard Milton (Smith & Milton), Gail Rebuck (Random House), Marjorie Scardino (Pearson).

What image do you aim to project in business?

Pared-down and businesslike, fairly easy verging on casual with a creative twist.

What are your favourite labels?

Donna Karan, Giorgio Armani, Emporio Armani, Nicole Farhi, Joseph and Ralph Lauren.

What is your favourite outfit to wear for: An important business meeting?

Dark suit (pants or skirt) with white T-shirt (silk or cotton) or shell top.

First night at the theatre?

A Nicole Farhi black chiffon slip dress cut just above the ankle.

Saturday shopping?

Armani jeans with a T-shirt, or white linen shirt or cashmere sweater.

A tweed Cerruti jacket, Ralph Lauren blazer, or tan suede jacket - all old! For supermarket etc, sweats.

What has been your worst sartorial mistake?

A Gucci top (flowery, crumpled hippy) this summer - wishful thinking.

Your most expensive purchase?

An Anoushka Hempel crushed velvet long suit for my daughter's wedding.

WAKE UP: THE IMAGE IS YOU

The British businesswoman just does not seem to take clothes seriously. She appears to think that if she does, she will be accused of being feminine, frivolous and flighty, and so not worthy of a place at the boardroom table. Her French counterpart has a completely different attitude. The understated elegance that French women seem to be born with is regarded as a prerequisite of success at the top, while in Rome and Milan, businesswomen know that the right clothes can provide the necessary armour plating to protect them from the prejudices of the Italian male. Here, however, there is something faintly embarrassing about caring too much about how you look.

It is interesting that, although British fashion designers are renowned for their creativity and flair (we export the best into the French fashion industry), few are producing the sort of professional, elegant garments British businesswomen so desperately need. A quick flick through the fashion magazines reveals wild flights of fancy: see-through and sexy ensembles, photographed in weird locations, and worn by strange-looking 16 year olds.

Women are having a significant influence on business in the UK. Most of the FTSE-100 companies have at least one woman on the board, and there is a generation of young British businesswomen building their careers with the expectation that they will get to the top. They need to learn how to use clothes as part of their individual marketing strategy - the packaging that says who and what they are, and reinforces their personal brand and authority.

Denise Kingsmill, judge and deputy chairman of the Competition Commission.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Subscribe

Get your essential reading delivered. Subscribe to Management Today