By Mandy Lehto
So you’re self-employed. You’ve left behind the departmental politics, the meetings and the crammed commute. But now there are new challenges. Like clothes. Working from home may have landed you in a sartorial no-man’s-land, where suits are not quite right – and yet you’re not sure what is.
‘A suit is shorthand for “establishment,”’ says Markus Lehto, a former real estate executive, now co-founder and partner at Urbanista in Istanbul. ‘When you’re no longer part of the establishment, wearing a corporate suit can work against you, particularly if you’re in the creative or design industry.’
Incidentally, Markus has 34 designer suits now on mothballs. Oh, and more than 200 ties. He has truncated his suit and tie wardrobe to a mere four that still see action. There’s a whole new world beyond the suit…
This doesn’t mean swapping Prada for Primark in the style department. And unless you’re a personal trainer, steer well clear of the sweat pants. The good news is, your new look is somewhere between corporate suit and track suit.
Lets work fast.
Consider what you and your new business role stand for. Is your look formal or relaxed?; colourful or monochrome?; creative or conservative?; chic or boho? Just as you’ve created mood-boards and key words for your business name, colour scheme and logo, consider YOUR key words and how you express them with your clothes. You are your own best advert.
You might say, ‘My key words in my new role are fresh, creative, funky, innovator, outside-the-box.’ How does your current look reflect those aspirations? Would someone you’ve just met – like a potential client – use these words to describe you?
Antonina Mamzenko, a former marketer, left corporate life to become a family and children’s photographer. She came for image consulting to navigate her style transition.
‘I want to come across as professional, but also as fun, creative and approachable. I work with a lot of kids, so I can’t be too formal – I need to be part of their tribe to gain their trust. So it’s jeans mostly, but I add pretty tops and a jacket. With corporate clients, I still go for jeans, but I wear a smarter jacket with interesting accessories and makeup. When I’m in a creative zone with how I look, I’m more creative and expressive in my work. It’s all part of the same groove.’
Skeptics might say, ‘I’m not client-facing on a daily basis’. Fair enough. But recall that old chestnut: nothing great was ever achieved in tatty jeans and a coffee-stained t-shirt. (Or is that just my mantra?). Research suggests that productivity in the workplace is higher when employees are smartly dressed. It’s no quantum leap to apply the same philosophy to work outside the cubicle.
‘I want to reveal more of my personality in my style,’ says John Pearson, former banker and marketer, now founder and CEO of Intelligentsia. ‘At client meetings and on speaker platforms I want to project a confident, modern, professional and memorable image. This means I have to continually re-evaluate and update my look. The traditional suit and tie makes one blend in. As the CEO of a dynamic consultancy, I need to stand out. Your style can help you do that.’
So what can I do?
Reassess your style. Your keywords will help you. Now consider how those words translate into clothing. For instance, if you have ‘professional’ on your list, does it have to be a suit, or would a jacket suffice? If so, find out what kinds of jackets work for your body shape. (Psst! Abandoned suit jackets over jeans look like abandoned suit jackets over jeans. Investigate the world of blazers, sports coats and cool zip-front cardigans). Even if you work in chinos and t-shirts, how can you choose textures, cuts and colours that reflect the new you?
There is a space where your private persona and your work persona coexist. Familiarize yourself with that space. How does that translate into your working wardrobe?
Maybe it’s rediscovering clothes that weren’t part of your corporate repertoire. Many of my female image clients say they’ve found dresses again – and colour. ‘I live in dresses now and I feel so empowered by wearing bright colours,’ a corporate-leaver tells me. ‘I dress to please myself and feel unashamedly feminine!’
Consider colour. We all respond to it, yet so few of us actually wear it. Consider how you can harness the power of colour when you’re reflecting on your keywords. Then consider how you might integrate these colours into your wardrobe. Here’s how:
Do your key words include ‘exciting’, ‘high energy’ or ‘dynamic’? Find a red that suits you. Leatrice Eiseman, colour guru and author of ‘Pantone Guide to Communicating with Color,’ notes that human beings have a physiological response to the colour red. We actually breathe more rapidly, and our pulse and blood pressure increase. As such, our minds link red with dynamism and energy.
Or perhaps your keywords include calm, authoritative or trustworthy. Integrate more blue into your wardrobe. Blue is perceived as a constant in our lives, with the sea and sky associations. It’s reliable and confidence-inspiring. The brain may release chemical signals that work as sedatives when they experience blue, Eiseman adds. BTW blue is the colour of the season. Especially cobalt. If blue is your thing, it’s all over the shops right now. Go and get it.
For creative types (and because it’s been on trend for several seasons), there’s purple. Creatives often love it because it’s enigmatic, combining the raciness of red and the tranquility of blue. Purple is also a universal colour, in that it suits every complexion – good to know when you’re diversifying out of your usual palate.
Clearly, there is no style prescription for any industry, including the self-employed. The point is to get you thinking about how your clothes can best support your evolution. Awareness is a starting point. You’ve moved on as a professional and as a person. It’s time for your clothes to do the same.
The last word goes to Markus Lehto, real estate development and envisioning specialist, who has managed the style (and career) transition with panache:
‘Being self-employed doesn’t mean that you are no longer a professional. On the contrary, you are a professional who needs to generate business on the back of what you alone represent, rather than having a big corporate logo and reputation backing you. If you’ve set up a business in the sector you left, you have to be careful not to niche yourself, style-wise, to the point where it is impossible to credibly play on the same team.
If you’ve set up shop in a new sector, it is important to understand the lay of the land, see what the successful start-up entrepreneurs wear to preserve their professionalism, whilst still showing their individuality. Determine the bandwidth, then play.’
I’m keen to hear about your style metamorphosis since becoming self-employed. What are your experiences with shedding the corporate uniform and finding a new working style?