How To Spend It

Style

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. Main photograph by Richard Grassie

December 13 2012
Lucia van der Post

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’s 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).

Many of 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 – no doubt something to do with the recession and a need not to appear too relaxed in the office,” says Hodin. “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.

Amanda Gestetner is a young mother (with three children under 12) and a busy businesswoman. As well as being the co-founder, with husband Daniel, of YooMoo – which sells premium frozen yoghurt – she is also its brand and marketing director. Her wardrobe has to cope with the school run, visits to yoghurt kiosks, and looking in command at important meetings. “My life is so hectic,” she says. “I am out of the door before 8am every morning and I don’t have time to shop. I need clothes that really work for me and that I can wear to everything. Colomba [Giacomini, her stylist] has transformed my life.” Giacomini reorganised her cupboard so that it’s all colour co-ordinated, with the clothes she wears most often in the middle, where they are easily accessible. She also put together eight daytime looks and six evening ones, which she photographed so that Gestetner has a record of them on her iPhone.

Clodagh Hayes, a partner at Linklaters, had also begun to feel that she needed to spruce up her wardrobe. “When I first started out, we weren’t allowed to wear trousers, so I used to resort to pretty dreadful suits from high-street stores,” she says. “Now that I’m a partner doing corporate work, I wanted to sharpen up a bit and yet still be dressed appropriately. I love clothes, but I hate shopping and the choice out there was just bewildering.” For Hayes, getting professional help made perfect sense. She’d noticed that a couple of other women in the office had suddenly started looking a lot better dressed. Both, it turned out, had been helped by a personal shopper at Selfridges, and that persuaded her to visit stylist Martina Wagener – formerly at Selfridges’ Oxford Street store but now working on her own.

“Martina took me right out of my comfort zone,” says Hayes. “She made me try some things I thought I would never wear, but then I put them on and thought ‘Oh, wow’. She also encouraged me to buy much more expensively than I had been doing, but I now have a great wardrobe full of dresses that I absolutely love, which make me feel good about myself.”

Given her job, opening Hayes’s closet is an absolute revelation; it’s a joyous mass of print and colour, and she wears almost nothing but dresses. “Martina found me some jackets, as well as some wonderful shrugs-cum-cardigans by Azzedine Alaïa (around £800), which I wear over the dresses, to turn them into smarter office wear. I find that combination works much better in winter than a suit, which often feels too bulky with a coat on top.” She has built her wardrobe up carefully over time with Wagener’s help, so that now she has something for almost every occasion. “Martina knows what’s in my closet, so if she finds, say, a Missoni knitted long cardigan that would work with something already there, she’ll give me a ring to see if I’d like it. I now only need to add a few pieces each season.” The result is some beautiful dresses – a couple of new styles this season from Roland Mouret, including one in a delicious print (£1,330), as well as others by Marni and Dries van Noten. Hayes now notices that many of the younger women in the office have also taken to wearing dresses. “They’re more feminine and yet perfectly appropriate for serious work,” she says. She puts on heels in the office, but wears Tod’s flats for walking to and from the Tube.

All three of the stylists start by meeting the client to find out if they like and trust each other. If they do, they examine the existing wardrobe, to see what works and what needs throwing out. Hodin then offers the option of meeting her clients in a central London boutique, such as Brown’s, where she will have assembled full looks for them to try on. The stylists are all firm believers in investment dressing. “Most women buy too much, too cheaply,” says Wagener. Giacomini agrees, and believes that every professional wardrobe should have certain key pieces. “First off, a beautiful jacket by a designer such as Alexander McQueen – like this season’s black crepe wool peplum one (£1,495) – or a Stella McCartney blazer (from £735), which can be worn over a daytime dress, a cocktail dress or jeans. Then a pencil skirt by Tom Ford (£800) or Diane von Furstenberg (from £200), which can be worn with a cashmere sweater from Joseph (from £285), and turned into smart board-meeting-wear by adding the jacket. A great dress is also essential – such as a Roland Mouret, Victoria Beckham or Antonio Berardi. Then, for somebody like Amanda, a range of jeans, some of which she can wear to work when she hasn’t any meetings and then, come the evening, match with a great pair of heels by Nicholas Kirkwood (from around £425). Finally, a winter coat that works from day to night; this season I’d advise going for a slightly masculine Givenchy design (from £1,600), which can just be thrown over the shoulders.”

Since I last took a look at dress codes in the City, much has changed. Even in the highest echelons, attitudes to working wardrobes have loosened up. Hayes’s wardrobe, for instance, is as sassy and desirable as they come, yet a few years ago probably would have been thought too frivolous. She chooses her outfits carefully according to what her day holds, although she admits that “sometimes I’ll choose a bright print just to scare them”. And Cooper has learnt to dress his suits down for when he’s dealing with cool tech companies on America’s west coast. “I don’t want to look like an alien being,” he says. “When I went to one office, the guys there said it was the first time they’d ever seen anyone wearing cuff links.” But the difference a sophisticated eye can make to those who don’t have the time or know-how to maximise their style potential in the office is still immense.

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Stylists