From the new pantsuit to classic black and white looks, here’s tips on how to look smart and polished for work.
When Phoebe Philo reemerged at Céline a few years ago, she had made a breathtaking aesthetic 180. She had pared away the sweetness and frills of her Chloé days for concise and clean clothes that meant business. Women, particularly those multitasking Amazons who need smart clothes for a smart job, cheered. Here was a work wardrobe that did the work for you.
So it came as no surprise that, in her recent prefall collection, Philo showed a pantsuit that would seem to turn an office-bound notion on its head. Its chalk stripes said Wall Street, but its slouchy-chic cut said cool customer. All of a sudden, wearing a fully matched suit to the office feels exactly right.
In the wake of all the economic turmoil, there’s been a sea change in fashion. Where three years ago, women wanted to look pretty and sparkly, now they want to look smart and polished. Suits are back, hemlines are longer, button-down shirts are de rigueur. The minimal arc has even extended to accessories — sensible shoes have supplanted their unwieldy predecessors. Now it’s about pumps and loafers. As for handbags? Well, they mean business too. Envelope clutches and flat, zippered portfolios that fit an iPad, and smaller pouches that tuck into bigger totes, make for streamlined, and stylish, compartmentalization.
The new workwear dress code reflects the sartorial temperature of the country at large, notes Stefani Greenfield, who recently took over as chief creative officer of fashion conglomerate the Jones Group, which includes the Jones New York labels that countless American women turn to for office attire. “When Sidney Kimmel started this company 40 years ago, women were more suited, much more androgynous,” Greenfield says. “Now they go day to date, desk to dinner. You’ll see a more casual element, but it’s always sophisticated.”
Though the nouveau pantsuit telegraphs “I mean business,” it doesn’t have to convey the message that you’re trying to be a man. “I think if it’s cut beautifully, there’s a way of being really feminine in a suit,” says Tory Burch. Numerous female designers have gone all-out to create versions that are real head turners. Along with Burch, consider Stella McCartney’s and Diane von Furstenberg’s deftly rendered interpretations.
The pantsuit is just one pillar in the new workwear construct, but it isn’t right for everyone. Novelist, TV presenter, and Newsweek contributor Rula Jebreal recalls a style metamorphosis from her early days in Italy a decade ago. “I was the first foreign anchorwoman in the country, so I was very concerned about being taken seriously,” she says. “Now, instead of a suit, I wear dresses. Girly dresses are 80 percent of my wardrobe.” Jebreal’s look revolves around a rotation of frocks by such designers as Jason Wu, Sophie Theallet, and Rachel Roy — and her well-groomed colleagues share similar inclinations.
“The perception of women has changed,” Jebreal says. “I go to Newsweek, and my boss Tina Brown is wearing Alaïa. And she is a serious woman. We talk in meetings about trade with Libya, about Iran, and after, about clothes. Even when you meet Christine Lagarde, she has her Louboutin shoes and her Chanel dresses. It’s not a contradiction.”
Conversely, this new freedom comes with a downside: exponentially increased opportunities for making faux pas. Having to select a personal uniform from the staggering array of options available to working women (Hermès to Helmut Lang and everything in between) may make some professionals long for the days of requisite nude hose and shoulder pads. Aside from the obvious rules (nothing too sexy or too “weekend”), today’s guidelines aren’t as concrete as those of yesteryear. So how do we synthesize?
“Make sure that your clothes convey the message of how you want to be perceived,” explains Greenfield. “If you walk into a room, be honest: What impression are you giving?” Getting it right means asking these questions for your particular role and industry. Carol Greene, who owns the Greene Naftali gallery in Chelsea, says, “I have a pretty powerful position in the New York art world, and I like to communicate a sense of seriousness but also a kind of cutting-edge sensibility. I’m in a visual field, so my fashion has to communicate.” Greene’s strategy has involved streamlining her wardrobe to four avant-garde labels — Bless, Threeasfour, Boudicca, and Martin Margiela.
There are also myriad suiting alternatives that preserve the polished spirit of the classic look. Greenfield favors the jacket-over-a-dress approach, while Rachel Roy turns to a fitted pencil skirt, a crisp white or cornflower blue button-down (she swears by Jones New York’s no-iron versions), and a long cardigan in a rich color. Roy’s go-to shirt is one of those perennially chic pieces that you can never have enough of. There’s nothing better to ground a festive skirt, a pair of tailored shorts, or a bright cardigan.
The most modern styling tip is to freshen up serious staples with a panorama of colors, be they neon twinsets, brightly hued pumps, or oversize clutches in rainbow shades. These imbue any look with a certain amount of bravado, which lends an air of confidence — a necessary weapon in any boardroom.
For the color-averse, there’s a way to keep monochrome from looking dull. A beautiful white silk blouse tucked into a black skirt always works, but adding something personal, like an interesting shoe or a great pair of earrings, really takes it to the next level. And these days, personality counts. “To me, a boring outfit shows a lack of creativity,” Roy says. “It’s 2012 — a woman doesn’t need to look like a robot.”