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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Return of the Interview Suit, NYTimes.com

My last blog was about making certain your company retains top talent. Many of you are the top talent (because you are smart and read these blogs). I want to make sure your company tells you how important you really are. For those of you who are not feeling the love, you may be contemplating a change. Others may have found themselves the victim of the industry slow down. Break out the resume and the interview suit. This article, found in the New York Times, should get you motivated.

One note on interviewing....I once "got the job" because when I walked in the President's office, I picked up a ball of paper on the floor that looked like trash. I was hired because a "Trammell Crow Employee Never Steps Over a Piece of Trash." While you are in that snappy interview suit, look out of performance indicators such as the old piece of trash on the floor. -Kate

By ERIC WILSON
Published: November 12, 2008

This is possibly a bad moment to bring up a 1959 film called “The Best of Everything.” But, oh, was that a glorious period for the interview suit. It’s hard to imagine rejecting Hope Lange for a job when she walked into 375 Park Avenue, and the breeze caught her cuffed navy jacket, revealing a flash of its polka-dot lining and a smart blouse that matched her cream hat.

“Working Girl,” in 1988, reflected another moment for the interview suit, appropriately enough during the pinnacle of the broad-shouldered, brightly colored power suit, when Elie Tahari and Jones New York were staples of a career woman’s wardrobe.

It was so much simpler then.

For a generation of young people who were recruited to technology, financial and news media fields right out of college, and who may now be competing to hold onto the jobs they have or to find any that might be available, figuring out what exactly is the modern day “interview suit” is not so easy to do without looking like Melanie Griffith. Walking downtown the other day, the designer Nicole Miller noticed an attractive young woman who was headed toward Wall Street. The woman was wearing a gray pantsuit, which caught the designer’s eye because, for much of the last decade, corporate fashion has pulled so far away from the polished, two-piece look that the outfit, while professional, seemed dated.

“I hadn’t seen anybody in a pantsuit for so long that I thought it looked wrong,” Ms. Miller said.

But with the unemployment rate in America at a 14-year high and more than half a million jobs lost in the last three months alone, there has been a detectable shift in the way people are dressing for work. In the financial sector, certainly, the tone has become more serious, and as a predictable result, somber suits are making a comeback. Companies like Men’s Wearhouse and Tahari are reporting an upswing in suit sales, particularly for those classic navy or gray pinstripe styles they classify as “interview suits.” Arthur S. Levine, known as the suit king of Seventh Avenue (who now designs a collection of women’s career clothes in a joint venture with Mr. Tahari), said he sold 1.8 million outfits this year, almost 10 percent more than he had expected.

“We are back to a time when every company expected both women and men to wear suits and we didn’t have a Casual Friday,” said Gloria Mirrione, a managing director of A-L Associates, a financial services placement firm. “They are looking for a sharper style. I recommend a strong suit that says you are collected and ready to work.”

Still, there are a lot of possibilities for error, and even fashion professionals differ in their opinions about what style will make the best impression. For example, on the great debate of pants versus skirt, Simon Kneen, the creative director of Banana Republic, had this advice: “I would definitely go with a pantsuit because that gives a better silhouette.”

Ms. Miller said the opposite: “I’m really against pants. They look too casual in most situations.”

Who to believe? There isn’t always a right answer, but each decision an applicant makes — pants or skirt, bright color or neutral, heels or flats — sends a subtle message that may play a role in how she will be perceived in an interview. To relieve some of that pressure, designers and career counselors offered some points to consider when deciding what to wear.

PANTSUIT, SKIRT SUIT, OR NO SUIT?

“There is no one right way to dress,” said Karen Harvey, a recruiter for top fashion and retail jobs. “But there are a lot of don’ts.” The key is to research the corporate culture to learn what a potential boss might expect. But on a basic level, “it doesn’t have to be a suit at all. I recommend clean and simple lines — anything that doesn’t distract the interviewer from understanding the qualities you bring to the table.”

Jenna Lyons Mazeau, the creative director of J. Crew, said a pencil skirt or tailored trousers, worn with a simple cardigan (preferably cashmere) and a beautiful necklace, looks as sophisticated as a pantsuit. A more individualized look is also a modern way to approach an interview, she said, suggesting that the applicant is creative, free-thinking and confident. But it also depends on the field, and the sportswear ensemble look may be best suited to creative fields. For corporate interviews, the options are still slim, and usually require a suit of some sort.

Mr. Kneen argued that the advantage of a pantsuit is that it elongates the legs, and “it’s all business when you’re wearing pants,” he said. He recommended double-face fabrics, which look more expensive and feminine than pinstripes. Another traditional choice would be a solid wool crepe dress worn with a matching blazer, as long as the dress is well fitted and flattering.

“And if you decide to wear a white shirt, make sure it is pristinely clean,” he said. “A new shirt is always the whitest.”

TO STAND OUT OR TO BLEND IN?

“I’m a big fan of sticking with navy or gray pinstripes,” said James Purcell, a onetime Seventh Avenue designer who now works as an image strategist for executives and politicians. “But avoid a solid black suit. It’s the worst thing a woman could wear because it shows any sign of dandruff and every gray hair that you have.”

But color can be a tough call. The majority of human resources professionals recommend wearing the classics — navy, black or gray — but, then again, playing it safe can also run the risk of looking too uniform.

“To me, the most important thing is give people something to remember,” Ms. Lyons Mazeau said. “There’s going to be a lot of people out there competing for a job, so pick a color, as opposed to wearing all gray.” But no brights, she said, and “if you are a blonde, pinks can look less expensive. This is not about wearing a neon sign.”

Earthier colors, like brown or a rich blue, impart a distinctive personality without coming off as overpowering. But beware of pastels: “I think that lightly colored suits, unless they are absolutely perfect, can feel a little Eastery,” she said.

Lisa Axelson, a senior vice president of design at Ann Taylor, said colorful accessories are another way to add color to a basic suit without risking an outfit so loud that the candidate appears out of place in a conservative environment. Prints, meanwhile, are discouraged. As Ms. Miller said, “They’ll remember you better, but what you want is for them to remember your personality, not to be totally distracted by that person who came in wearing the loud print.”

ISN’T THERE SOMEONE TO COPY?

Take cues from what powerful women are wearing, as in Michelle Obama or Sarah Palin. Mrs. Obama wore a J. Crew cardigan with a textured skirt on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” that demonstrated a classy combination of polish and ease. And Governor Palin, despite the controversy surrounding her campaign clothes, was most often wearing sensible suits from Tahari Arthur S. Levine that she had mixed and matched. Mr. Levine was upset that news programs were so impressed with a red suit with a ribbon belt that they assumed it was by the likes of Oscar de la Renta, not the Tahari suit sold at Neiman Marcus for about $498. About 20 other suits from his collection worn by Ms. Palin cost less than $198.

“The point is, you can look like you are wearing designer for not a lot of money,” he said.

HOW TO FINISH A LOOK?

“The bag you carry is key,” Ms. Axelson said. “You don’t want to be walking in with an old shopping bag. You want a beautiful, chic tote that carries your BlackBerry and your résumé. A tip for people who wear black suits is to pack a small lint roller in your tote bag.”

And if there’s room, some designers advise packing a nice pair of heels to change into just before arriving at the interview, so that they remain unsoiled.

“There’s nothing wrong with wearing flat shoes and bringing heels,” Mr. Purcell said. “Maria Shriver has somebody who carries her shoes for her. High heels help your stance. The American Orthopaedic Association may say I’m crazy, but the right heels will help you get a job.”

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posted by Kate Good at

2 Comments:

Blogger Kate Good said...

After reading and posting this article on professional dress, I took my sweet self shopping for some new threads. Happy to say everything is on sale these days and I got a great new wardrobe. I purchased a pinstripe dress, black pant suit and some stylish dresses for the office. I'm topping most outfits off with a thick belt in patent leather with matching ankle strap heels. I guess I was inspired!

January 15, 2009 9:50 PM  
OpenID brainoblog said...

Excellent article Ms. Good. There are two occassions where a suit is mandatory in my book: funerals and job interviews. Whether you are interviewing for the fry cook opening at McDonald's or the VP opening at Equity, you should always wear a suit!

January 19, 2009 11:12 AM  

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