It Wasn't About the Clothes

How to project professionalism in an array of fabrics.
July 28, 2015

I can tell the story of my life through the clothes I’ve worn (or wanted to wear). It starts with the strict dress code at my elementary day school. The school uniform was a simple khaki skirt and white blouse, or khaki pants with a blue blazer. It was bland and un-threatening—a goodkid’s outfit.

By the time I arrived at a public high school, I longed for the freedom to wear whatever I wanted, and I waded cautiously into the world of tank tops, low-cut jeans, and velour sweatpants. Not the best look for anyone, but among teens, Juicy Couture sweatsuits were the power suit of the day. Those who could afford to own a few in different colors could ascend to the top of the sartorial ladder. I wanted to do more than just fit in—I wanted to run the club. So I made my clothing allowance stretch to include a few bright colors in addition to the standard basic black.

Being described as “best dressed” felt good. I began to hone my fashion sense by creating bulletin boards of looks I liked from magazines—a manual precursor to today’s Pinterest posts. I starting wearing dresses with wedges or heels to high school, and it wasn’t long before other girls were asking me to go shopping with them. Fashion became what I wanted to study. Shortly before my sixteenth birthday, I asked my parents to forego a planned party for a clothing allowance.

With a bit of pleading, I persuaded my more academically minded parents to let me attend the Fashion Institute of Technology. There, in the heart of New York’s fashion district, students dress in trendy, creative designs, trying to one-up each other with clothing more avant-garde than the next. My own look changed frequently in the beginning, but then I gravitated toward a more traditional business look to stand out from the crowd of increasingly outlandish designs. Fashion students make frequent presentations in their classes, and I discovered I felt more myself and seemed to get a better response from students and professors when I wore a tailored skirt and jacket with a pair of gorgeous stiletto pumps. Business attire translated as expertise to my audience, and the four-inch heels gave me the power of height.

When I started interviewing for those all-important internships, I remembered the old adage that people should dress for the job they want. Hoping to land a job as a buyer or merchandiser with a major fashion retailer, I needed the armor of “business formal” to feel confident and set myself apart from the trendier classmates competing for the same jobs. Contrary to what one might think, dressing like an executive tends to be effective in most industries, fashion included. Hello power suits, with dark-colored blazers and matching dresses, or pencil skirts or slacks with cream-colored blouses.

For the junior executive look, I paired blazers with kneelength skirts or slim-cut pants. The idea was to look professional and confident, without appearing to be trying too hard. I purchased a few interchangeable Theory pieces, put a classic outfit together, and added those four-inch heels to interview for an internship with luxury shoemaker Jimmy Choo, and later for a corporate job at Saks Fifth Avenue.

When I interned at Saks before my senior year of college, most of the other interns were business-school students, with undergraduate degrees from Ivy League schools. I decided to add a business degree to my fashion merchandising degree, and I was thrilled to be accepted into the master of management studies program at the Fuqua School of Business.

A fashion student in the business school was relatively new for Duke, and I delighted in spreading the gospel of dressing for success. Business-school projects are often team-based, and I would persuade the guys on the team to take a trip to Brooks Brothers to buy a suit, while sharing some of my clothes with the other women on my team before making a big presentation. I taught my classmates that the goal was to have people focus on their presentations rather than their clothes. I mastered the art of pulling together conservative business-formal and business-casual outfits for other students, and I even returned to Duke after graduating to give presentations on dressing for success to undergraduate and business-school students.

Six months after starting my first postgrad job in the corporate division of a high-end luxury store, the company was taken over by a Canadian company. My mentor and boss left their jobs, and that uncertainty enticed me to take a detour. I added a bright-blue blazer to my standard Theory look and interviewed with the Duke Alumni Association.

At the DAA, I wore brighter colors and lighter fabrics than the navy and black of the corporate world, and my power suit became a lightweight sleeveless dress, with an added blazer for important meetings. But it was often a pair of fabulous Jimmy Choo shoes that made my outfit stand out. My go-to Choo was an elegant pump, almost always in nude.

When an opportunity arose at one of the most iconic giants in the industry, I switched out my trusty Theory blazer for a jacket from that company’s spring line for an interview and got the job. The usual dress at this company is decidedly more casual than the business attire I’d worn before: These days my power suit might include Frye riding boots, denim jeans, and an oxford shirt or cable-knit sweater from the company’s line. Dressing this way helps project the look that I’m professional and part of the team, essential elements for success in any organization. Lucky for me, this is closer to my true personal style, with an emphasis on classics rather than trends.

My journey from velour sweats to classic Americana isn’t rocket science; it reflects the power of knowing how to present oneself. That first business suit was a powerful confidence booster, but now I know how to project professionalism in an array of designs and fabrics.

Forlines M.M.S. ’12 is corporate product merchandiser at Ralph Lauren for Men’s Polo and Golf brands in New York.