financial times

how to spend it: looking the business

Dress codes in the city are evolving, and with them, the role of the personal stylist. Once seen as a luxury, a “dresser” is now recognised as a legitimate business tool. Lucia van der Post meets four executives who are ahead of the curve.

13 December 2012

Most of us can remember when City offices were more or less style-free zones. Women generally seemed to work on the assumption that anything too fashionable risked making them look flaky, and so they took refuge in anonymous dark trousers or skirts, teamed with the inevitable white shirt. Men were at least better served by having a long-established dress code, which dictated that a suit, shirt, tie and classic shoes would pass muster in almost every office. This left a very narrow window in which personal taste or a nod to current trends could be displayed. However, times have changed; even the stuffiest offices have begun to realise that a modicum of interest in fashion and style is both a commercial asset and a means of self-expression.

The challenge now is to shape up and keep up which is where the role of the stylist-cum-personal shopper comes in. Still more widely used by women than by men, stylists may seem to some a mere indulgence. But many executives are turning to them as a professional tool a means of sorting out both their working and personal wardrobes, of feeling better about themselves through their clothes, and of widening their sartorial vocabulary so that it is just as appropriate and yet a lot more fun.

As lawyer Sangita Sangar says, why wouldn’t I use somebody to help with something so important, which affects how I look every day? The first female equity partner in her law firm, Sangar needs to project a more sophisticated image. She met stylist Annabel Hodin through a friend, and was interested to see how she could help her improve her working wardrobe. Hodin showed Sangar that there were alternatives to the wrap over dresses and dark coats she usually wore. She introduced Sangar to detailing, explained that structured tailoring was what suited her best and tried to persuade her to move up several notches in the quality stakes. When I met her, Sangar was still debating whether or not to buy a printed Prada dress (£1,010) and pale blue cashgora coat (£2,100) picked out by Hodin. She had also been shown a Diane von Furstenberg dress (£430), which though still a wrap-over style had a strong, graphic print in mustard, grey and black. Sangita needs to keep her silhouette sleek, then add glamorous accessories, such as some burnished hoop earrings from Erickson Beamon (£654), says Hodin.

As for men, the room for manoeuvre is relatively small, but a good stylist can show them how to play with colour in shirts, ties and socks, to add a touch of individuality without raising corporate eyebrows. They can also advise which designers suit different body types; Hodin takes her larger clients to Armani, Ralph Lauren or Douglas Hayward, and her slimmer ones to Dior, Spencer Hart, Dolce and Gabbana or Yves Saint Laurent. What men mostly seem to want are subtle changes, she finds, to look less staid without standing out too much from the crowd. Hodin also believes that men are often more in need of help than women, as they are less inclined to trawl through style magazines or e-tail sites. She is currently helping to smarten up the wardrobes of several City executives. Dan Cooper, a partner in a law firm that numbers hip IT companies among its clients, turned to Hodin for help because he like almost all the other men in his office bought his suits from a tailor who came round to their desks. It’s easy, but I thought it a little dull, he says. I was up for a bit of a change.

An American who now lives and works in London, Cooper had the added complication of being unsure if he fully understood the subtle dress codes. In the US there are only three colours of shirt - white, blue or pale yellow, and until I came to the UK I’d never seen a dark tie on a dark shirt, he says. Hodin felt he needed to look more sophisticated. “There was no difference between how Dan and the more junior lawyers dressed,” she says. She believed Richard James was perfect for his size and shape, and picked out styles in softer, lighter wools with a slender, more modern cut and notched lapels. A Prince of Wales check suit (£945) was at first ruled out by Cooper (“it would be too cutting-edge and create too much talk in the office”), but then he tried it on, realised how good it looked and bought it. She found him some slim, 6cm-width knitted silk ties from Richard James (£75), but also likes Browns’ own-label designs for their interesting colour palette (from £60), or Charvet’s classy classic selection (from £105). When it comes to socks, she adores Paul Smith’s collection of stripes and spots (£17 per pair)

Hodin’s clients don’t pay enough attention to their shoes, and Cooper was no exception. She showed him the difference a really good shoe could make, choosing a Richard James brogue (£365) that elongated the foot and gave a sharper silhouette. Other brands on her radar are American label Alden (stocked by Browns; from £455), Church s (now owned by Prada, and particularly good for brogues; from £275) and Grenson (from £180), all of which give a longer, sleeker line. For more casual days in the office, he has now added some Richard James grey flannel trousers (£305) and a casual single-breasted jacket in lightweight grey-brown herringbone wool (£625).The current look is much sharper and more tailored than it was a few years back. Those who are ahead of the curve are beginning to consider double-breasted suits and waistcoats again.

For the finishing touches, Hodin often sends her clients to The Refinery grooming salon (in London s Brook street and in-store at Harrods) for a decent hair cut; to Cutler and Gross for glasses (from £295); and to Grey Flannel, a men s boutique on London s Chiltern Street, for Codis Maya s enamelled cuff links (£59.50). Cooper now feels his wardrobe is more up-to-date, and has asked Hodin to come and help sharpen up the image of others in his office.