In the corporate world, an appropriate wardrobe can help set you apart from the competition.
Career climbers know style amplifies substance
When Leanne Hamilton started a new job in Dubai, she wanted to match her senior corporate role with an appropriate wardrobe.
Rather than simply embark on a solo shopping spree, the corporate marketing manager enlisted the help of a personal image consultant to ensure she not only looked the part for her new job, but also for any future positions.
"As you go up the career ladder, you need to change your style just as you do as you grow older," says Miss Hamilton, 32, who moved to the UAE from her home in Sydney, Australia, in 2008.
"I've learnt you need to differentiate your appearance in the professional environment and push yourself to not only wear what you think you should for your existing role, but also the roles you want to be in. So I might be the marketing manager, but maybe I am aspiring to be the marketing director so I should not be scared to be different."
Miss Hamilton's decision to raise her profile is key in the modern business community. With the world only just emerging from the economic crisis of 2008 and the possibility of another one looming, making sure you are one step ahead of the competition has never been more important.
According to The Aziz Corporation, a UK-based executive communications consultancy, almost half of employees would dress more smartly if their job was under threat.
And the way you look does not just extend to what you wear. In another poll by The Aziz Corporation, 96 per cent of executives believe a pleasing physical appearance will enhance professional progress and more than half of male and female executives surveyed would consider cosmetic treatments to help them get ahead.
Although Miss Hamilton has never considered anything so drastic, she did contact Marissa Woods, a Dubai-based personal image consultant and founder of Image Factor, who charges Dh350 an hour for a personal shopping service and Dh1,800 for a wardrobe assessment and image education session.
The pair trawled Dubai Mall, spending Dh3,000 on trousers, dresses, cardigans, shoes and tops - all designed to enhance Miss Hamilton's image at work. Mrs Woods also advised the career woman on her make-up, hair care and accessories to ensure she stood out from the crowd.
"The new wardrobe made me feel more confident, more assertive and powerful. It is a little bit of power dressing, but that's just the confidence coming out and if you feel confident, then everyone will trust you," says Miss Hamilton, who works for Emirates Leisure Retail.
"I would never say I was a bad dresser before, but now I understand my body a lot more, what works for me, how to take it to the next level and not be afraid to be a little bit different, such as wearing a bright orange dress with a blue blazer into the office - something I would never have done before."
Miss Hamilton's decision to ditch her trademark black suits, dresses and skirts, wear high-heels more often and more make-up has not only given her confidence a boost, but also raised her profile among her colleagues, who often comment on her immaculate appearance - something her stylist says is key to her future success.
"If you want to get ahead, you have to think about the way you are presenting yourself," says Mrs Woods. "The impression that people form about you is instant and a recent study in the US revealed it takes a further 21 separate occasions to change a negative impression. That's not good news for people who need to improve their visibility or their perceived credibility."
Mrs Woods often flies overseas to meet new clients on short notice, assessing their current wardrobe and image before helping the executives see how they can raise their profile.
"We discuss what their future career aspirations are, as well as the aspects of their identity they want to be known for. The idea is to make it as easy as possible to send the eye up towards the face, which is the communication zone and the area you have to get people to focus on," she says.
"Men need to stop wearing ill-fitting suits or trousers that make them look bulky around the waist or damaged shoes that are both major appearance distractors and can even lower their credibility in the organisation.
Similarly, women need to avoid contrasting colours or oversized prints that send the eye downwards, noisy, distracting jewellery, poor-fitting clothes or showing too much flesh."
Although Mrs Woods works with private clients, such as Miss Hamilton, the majority of her work comes directly from the HR departments of global corporations, which are keen to raise the profile of their senior executives.
"Ninety per cent of the time, it's the company that calls me in to change a person's image," says Mrs Woods. "They don't want that person or the company to be embarrassed because the executive has a blind spot about their appearance."
Mrs Woods recalls one client earmarked for a global head position who addressed 500 of his peers at a European conference wearing a cagoule and chinos.
"The HR department, who were at the conference, said they couldn't get over the fact he wore the company-branded cagoule when it wasn't even raining outside," Mrs Woods says.
"Senior executives wrongly assume that because they have the experience or the doctorate, that is enough to secure their position. They've never considered that their appearance is an issue.
"Corporate dress is a uniform - a psychological armour that can be used to your advantage when you want to appear powerful. It puts you on an equal footing with your peers and highlights whether or not you are comfortable in the environment. If you wear inappropriate or poorly fitting clothes, people will think you don't care about attention to detail or even the business."
What you wear not only affects your prospects while you are in the job, but at the interview stage as well. According to Amanda Dowie, the founder and managing director of Apple Search & Selection, an executive recruitment company, getting your image wrong could cost you the position.
"The first impression is so crucial and if you dress smartly and look like you have made a real effort, you are always going to make a good impression.
"We have had feedback from companies saying that a candidate was not well presented and have not gone forward as a result. Some clients are so fussy that if someone is not absolutely immaculate they won't get through the door, so it is very important."
Ms Dowie coaches all candidates ahead of their interviews to ensure they are fully briefed about the position and the way they present themselves, advising them to wear a full corporate suit, to comb or tie back unruly hair, ensure ties are straight and avoid garish make-up or overpowering perfume or aftershave.
"At the interview, a firm handshake shows confidence and you should always maintain eye contact and let the interviewer finish their sentence before you answer the question," she adds.
Once a candidate has secured a job, Ms Dowie advises them to assess their work environment and what they need to wear to fit in and stay in line with the company's policy.
"You've got to copy what the corporate culture is and you'll know within the first month what is expected. Corporate culture usually means wearing the uniform smart black suit. If you walk around DIFC, for example, everyone is dressed immaculately, but it is definitely more creative in media or advertising environments."
But image consultant Mrs Woods warns executives who want to get ahead to beware of simply trying to fit into the mould.
"You can change your dress code as you go up the ladder because that's what people at senior board level want - they don't want cookie cutters of themselves," she says. "A lot of women try to mirror senior female corporate executives in the company and think if they dress like that person, they will advance in the same way, whereas, in fact, the board wants the one person who stands out because they want the difference of opinion."
Miss Hamilton believes that finding a wardrobe to reflect her new corporate role, as well as including elements that are wearable at social events in the evening, has been key to her success.
But before she even attempted to shop for the right wardrobe, she had a full assessment of the styles, cuts, fabrics and colours that suited her and a full analysis of what was and wasn't wearable in her existing wardrobe.
"The first few hours I spent with Marissa were about measuring my body, understanding my size and what suits me," says Miss Hamilton. "She picked out one garment from my wardrobe and said, 'You love this, you wear it all the time' and I said, 'Yes; how do you know?' She then told me it was because it was the right colour, right fit and right shape for me."
And Miss Hamilton, who describes her former style as more natural and casual rather than the sophisticated and classic look she aspired to, says spending money on an image consultant was a worthwhile investment.
"It has definitely helped my career, particularly in the UAE because it is a very male-dominated business community so it's important for women to dress appropriately, but also assertively and confidently so that people take you seriously.
"If you're going to go into work with no make-up on and a pair of flip-flops, then no one is going to take you seriously and that's something you need to take you to the next level."