WHEN you look good, you feel good. And when you feel good, you present with greater confidence and poise. What’s more, your attire is an important part of your visual communication. Just like your body language, the clothes you choose to wear send important messages to your audience. So, knowing how important your business wardrobe can be to your speaking and career success, our own Paul Barton asked fashion expert Mary Zarob for some advice.
Q. A business professional has a big presentation coming up that could make or break their career. They want to look their best and they come into your shop. Where would you start?
MZ: I would start by asking about their business, the event and who they are presenting to. Lawyers? Real estate professionals? Sales teams? CEOs? In today’s business world, you need to dress for your customers and clientele. Also, I would learn about their personal style and how they like clothes to fit. It’s important to me that my clients feel comfortable in their clothes and like what they wear. I wouldn’t put them in a three-piece suit when they are presenting to technology executives and should wear a jacket and jeans. You want to look professional and tailored, however, it’s important that the audience is focusing on what you are saying and not the color of your shirt or shoes.
Q. Would your fashion guidance change if the person was in their 20s versus someone like me in their 50s? Does the age of the speaker in any way influence appropriate attire?
MZ: It does! It’s important to dress for your age. However, a lot of my younger clients want to dress older and my older clients want to dress younger. An easy and inexpensive way to change an outfit for your age or to appeal to another generation is what accessories you choose. Shoes, belt, watch, handbag, jewelry, etc. can transform an outfit quickly. Pearl earrings vs. trendy hoops or loafer vs. Chelsea boot. Simple accessory changes and details can make your outfit age appropriate.
Q. What trends are you seeing in business attire for men and women? Anything in particular for Phoenix?
MZ: Overall, Phoenix isn’t a very formal town but I am seeing a lot of men and women turning away from casual (T-shirt and jeans) and dressing up more. For women, I’m seeing more and more jackets or blazers in the office. However, it’s not a full suit like the 1980s but more a stylish color or pattern. They also wear them out to dinner or happy hour. There is a feminine trend happening with more lace, florals, and ruffles on shirts and skirts. It’s still professional but with a feminine touch. Women in the office want to be taken seriously but still feminine (not sexy).
For men – (like women) – they are dressing up more. The untucked shirt is only for short sleeve shirts and not for the office or happy hour. Men are tucking in the shirts and showing off their belts and accessories. They don’t go anywhere without a jacket and aren’t afraid of color and pattern. Patterned slacks are very popular. If they own a patterned suit, they will wear the pants by themselves with a collared shirt to the office or on an appointment. Another trend I’m seeing for men is monochromatic dressing – wearing the same shade of color head to toe.
Q. What should business professionals consider when beginning or updating their wardrobes?
MZ: I always suggest going through your closet first and tailoring/altering anything that doesn’t fit how you like. If pants are too long, hem them. If a skirt is too big, take it in. If a shirt is too baggy, have it slimmed down. Often times, in people’s closets there are great clothes that aren’t being worn because they don’t fit right. Or, the style was fuller or baggy and now it’s more tailored. Simple alterations can help bring life to your clothes and it’s less expensive than throwing everything away.
Next, I suggest making sure you have the basics: a suit, a couple of slacks, shirts, skirts, dresses, and shoes in the basic colors that can go with everything. Then slowly add colors or patterns in key pieces like slacks, shirts, skirts, and shoes. Keep in mind when you shop, you don’t have to buy everything at once. The stores will always be there and offering great styles and colors. Also, watch what people wear at the office or in meetings and take note of what you like and don’t like. Ask them where they got what they are wearing or where they shop – especially if they have the same build or frame as you. It can help take headaches out of shopping because you know that store or brand will fit you. Don’t forget accessories like jewelry, pocket squares, belts, shoes and glasses can elevate an outfit. If you tend to wear the same shirts and slacks to the office, have fun with different heel weight or loafer or even belts. Simple details can change an outfit (for the better).
Q. I once worked with a CEO of a Fortune 500 company who often wore a black belt with brown shoes. It drove me nuts! What are some common fashion mistakes you see business professionals make?
MZ: The most common mistake I see with business professionals is their clothes don’t fit properly. Clothes are either too tight or too loose and it makes them look unprofessional or sloppy. Many people get hung up on only wearing a certain size but each brand fits so differently that you may wear a different size from store to store.
Q. Summer is coming. How do you look professional but stay cool at the same time?
MZ: Natural fibers are the key. Cottons, linens, and even very lightweight wools breath and allow air to pass through (especially for suits, slacks, and shirts). A lot of performance fabrics or brands have finishes that whisk moisture away and I recommend them as well. If you sweat a ton, no matter what you wear, keep an extra shirt or two at the office so you can change. Sometimes you can’t help but sweat when its 115 degrees outside.
Q. Business presenters usually move around and may sweat a little. Often, they have lavaliere microphone wires strung inside their jackets. They may need a pocket for a presentation clicker. Given all of these possibilities, what do you suggest for their attire?
MZ: I strongly suggest you wear a jacket or suit that you can move around in and that isn’t too tight. A higher armhole on a jacket allows for more movement vs. a larger armhole. Wear something that is lighter weight vs. a heavy fabric – it will move easier. Also, when shopping, practice walking around or moving your arms to ensure the clothing you are buying is comfortable and not restricting.
Q. Presenters are often on-stage and this poses a unique challenge for women. What are your thoughts on appropriate dress length?
MZ: I strongly suggest wearing dresses or skirts to the knee or longer. Also, wear stockings or tights if appropriate. If you are unsure, wear slacks. You want the audience to focus on your face and what you are saying vs. a wardrobe malfunction.
Q. Speakers may need to travel. When you arrive at your destination, you might find that your perfect speaking outfit is a wrinkled mess. Any thoughts on fabrics that pack well?
MZ: Clothes will wrinkle and some more than others. Many brands advertise wrinkle free or resistant shirts, tops, and slacks. I would start there. Another option is better quality wool suits or jackets. To look good and presentable, it’s going to cost some money and investing in yourself is worth it. It doesn’t mean you have to fork over thousands of dollars, but certain pieces go a long way. I would avoid linen or lightweight cottons. They tend to wrinkle more.
Polyester or synthetic blends are great options to avoid wrinkles. One last resort would be to invest in a good travel steamer and steam your clothes when you get to your destination. It may take 15-20 minutes, but you will feel like a million bucks knowing you look ironed and polished.
Q. When a speaker knows they will be video recorded, do you have any suggestion regarding colors or patterns to stay away from?
MZ: I would avoid white shirts – they can be stark and glow on camera. I would also avoid small patterns or designs, they tend to vibrate and move on-screen, which can be very distracting. Also, keep accessories and make-up subtle. You want the viewer to focus on your face and what you are saying instead of your loud tie, pocket square, lip color or eye shadow. You want people to remember what you said and not to be known for your neon necklace.
ABOUT OUR GUEST
Mary Zarob is the owner of Q. Contrary in Phoenix (3188 E. Indian School Road), which offers bespoke tailoring, image consulting, personal shopping, and alterations to help men and women look and feel their very best. Before opening her own business, Mary was a designer for Macy’s and Calvin Klein Jeans. She studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.