SBHD: First impressions mean everything, and more and more business people are turning to image consultants to improve their personal appearance.
The colour of success, says Irene Nathan, a colour consultant with Face Facts – a leading London image consultancy – is a neutral shade, worn (if you are a man) with a cleverly co-ordinated and subtly matching head-to-toe ensemble of shirt, tie, shoes, socks, cufflinks and watch.
Women should curb their tendency to overdress at work and aim to look “businesslike but feminine” rather than overtly sexy, she says.
Power-dressing is out for both sexes because it is “far too Eighties”, though she says comparatively few business people have managed to make the transition from Eighties “power” to Nineties “casually smart”.
Success means dressing like the person you want to be, according to Nathan, and not the one you already are. So this involves copying the managing director rather than your immediate boss.
Black should be avoided because it is “far too funeral” and, while it continues to be the colour of political power, grey tends to be a shade best kept for the back-room boy rather than a captain of industry. Unless that is, you are prepared to dress up with jazzy accessories.
While olive green or brown are acceptable colours for business suits in France or Italy, in Britain – where grey skies dilute rather than enhance the colours we wear – a deep burgundy, charcoal or navy are the order of the day.
The notion that the colour of your clothes can contribute to success or failure at work still sounds alien in a country where a man who shows undue pride in his appearance is considered foppish, or even a sexual deviant.
Yet according to the colour consultancies, who now see Britain as slow-burning but steadily growing market, the demand for image-enhancing advice now crosses age, gender and socio-economic boundaries.
“It used to be the case that our only clients were female – usually women executives who feared that their new-found status at work was being undermined by what they wore,” says image consultant Nadine Woolly.
“But while women find it hard to look smart without sometimes looking like they’ve just stepped out of a fashion parade, men haven’t even reached first base. A growing proportion of our clients are men who haven’t bought a new suit for several decades and fear that their promotion prospects are being lessened because they look so untogether, even shabby,” adds Woolly.
If psychologists are right, people assess a stranger within 90 seconds of meeting them – before they’ve had the chance to say anything more earth-shattering than “Hello”. So it is little wonder that business people are turning to image consultants to give them a morale boost.
“The men who come to see me are frequently experts at marketing consumer products. But when it comes to presenting or marketing themselves they often haven’t the first idea,” says Nathan.
“While they might have found a look that suited them ten years ago, my message is that in marketing, which relies on understanding the future, a person must always keep abreast of current and developing trends.
“Men get very worried about looking too informal at work, but with the exception of the City, where pinstripes are often still the norm, they can be more adventurous in business than they think. A pair of black trousers teamed with a dark olive or burgundy jacket is probably not the right thing to wear if you work at a stockbrokers, but it’s quite acceptable if you’re in something more fashionable like marketing,” Nathan adds.
Wherever you happen to work, Face Facts takes the view that a man’s tie is a “beacon to the face, an absolute statement of how you want to be viewed by your clients and peers”.
While women who come for a consultation tend to have fairly fixed views on what does or doesn’t suit their skin tone or hair, men tend to be more malleable. “I have a lot of problems with my clients’ facial hair, because many men fail to notice that, while the rest of their hair is still dark, the fuzz has already turned grey. I usually recommend a complete shave,” says Nathan.
The marketing types who turn up at Face Facts for a Ãº50 an hour consultation are invariably about to face an important interview, make a career move or are perhaps preparing for a new life after redundancy.
Nathan says the vast majority have so little flair when it comes to dressing that they almost have to be cut from their regulation dark suits with scissors.
Yet once they do start to experiment with different colours and fabrics, there’s no stopping them: “We find that men can get quite carried away with a wholly different sort of suit, but they often forget the other bits,” she says.
“It’s simply no good to dress up in your best suit and then forget that your collar is frayed. That’s the first thing people will notice.”
While the “rules” of colour might appear rather strict – generally warm shades for brunettes, cooler ones for blonds – the company is keen to enhance individual personalities rather than suppress them with a blanket approach to personal style.
“We want to help people speak through their clothes, rather than create a whole new army of men who use different colours and styles and yet still somehow look exactly the same,” adds Nathan.
She claims that “after our consultation, people simply ooze confidence. The shyest man begins to walk straighter and taller and the aggressive man loses his rather off-putting arrogance”.
According to Nathan, 98 per cent of her male clients accept the advice she gives them on their clothes or hairstyle, but that a tiny minority are “simply unable to change their current style for something new”.
For many men it is the subsequent post-consultation shopping trip that proves most effective – that’s when Nathan marches them up and down Regent Street and Oxford Street and helps them buy a completely new wardrobe.
“I know a lot of men hate shopping, but this trip has a purpose. Whether their budget says Selfridges, Austin Reed or Marks & Spencer, we come away with a lovely new set of clothes,” she says.
And the result of all this image-making? “Several people have got places on the board at their firms and many have gone on to better jobs in other companies,” says Nathan.