The New Dress Code: Dressing in the age of millennials, start-ups and gig economy

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Updated: January 21, 2020 11:09 AM

The stiff collar is out. Dressing to work can be fun, more so in the age of millennials, start-ups and the gig economy. And, the brands are right in tune with the trend

With corporates becoming more acceptable and inclusive in their grooming code, a few wardrobe staples can be a navy blazer, a white shirt, unwashed indigo denims and a neat pair of loafers for both men and womenWith corporates becoming more acceptable and inclusive in their grooming code, a few wardrobe staples can be a navy blazer, a white shirt, unwashed indigo denims and a neat pair of loafers for both men and women

Formal is boring and cannot be stylish” is a sort of a misconception now. Workwear has evolved from ‘one style suits all’ to become more flexible and supple so as to cover personal choices. Bold coloured dresses, a chic black blazer paired with classy cowl-neck top, pencil skirt or high-waist trousers now fit well in what is termed as the ‘business casuals’ wardrobe.

Steadily, a trend is gaining popularity among a band of professionals who like to breathe a refreshing tinge of fashion into serious business dressing. The trend imbues job-friendly attire to suit the brand’s image. While some sectors certainly exude authority like bank managers, lawyers, politicians, and for them power dressing is imperative. Wearing clothes that are the right-fit, comfortable and do not restrict movement is important.

The degrees of sartorial formality tend to vary among industries, companies and roles. For law firm professionals, it’s black coat, button-down shirt, trousers; sari or salwar kameez, pant-suit or top — anything but jeans. In case of start-ups, T-shirts, tops, sneakers can be easily included in the wardrobe, much in tune with the easy-going and flexible work atmosphere.

In the banking sector, business formals is still the law. “A smart executive with professional attitude and appearance catches the public eye as he is an ambassador for an efficiently run organisation. Every Yes Banker should be a complete ‘yes professional’ and embody business etiquette, attitude and grooming.

The credence is that the importance of dress code for professionalism cannot be overstated,” feels Deodutta Kurane, senior group president, human capital management, Yes Bank.

Most women seem to prefer traditional Indian attire and there are unlimited options for them. Brands like Taneira, an offering by Titan, are creating a different browsing experience for its customers with its experiential display of saris, fabrics and ready-to-wear. “Women prefer Indian formal wear at workplace as it is more breathable and versatile. Indian weaves and silhouettes are trending globally. For instance, colourful Ikat with regional art make a timeless ensemble as work-wear, and can be teamed with jackets and waist-belts that look professional and chic at the workplace. Tussar saris in pastel hues add grace in a board-room meeting. Linen, cotton and kota saris in subtle tones, when accessorised with silver jewellery, add a regal touch,” says the COO, Rajeshwari Srinivasan.

With the concept of workwear fundamentally changing, brands and designers are incorporating conscious designs, patterns and colours to suit one’s choice, bringing options to your mundane work wardrobe. Early this year, fashion designer Varija Bajaj ventured into a label heavily influenced by Indian culture, body shapes and skin tone. It is targeted at working women professionals. With the brand Office & You, Bajaj has come up with figure correction techniques, which camouflage those extra inches, giving an illusion of a slim figure. For her, workwear is very individualistic and occasion-driven. “There is no blanket trend for workwear. Some work in air-conditioned environment, some on the field battling the weather, and some create a fashion statement. Women at work define their own rules and sport what reflects their personality. The silhouettes are getting feminine and the colours are reflecting their Indianness. Workwear is well adaptable to given cultural and climatic surroundings — whether you are in a cluttered market, a construction site or stationed in rural areas, the creations must be easy to maintain, functional, wrinkle-free and breathable,” she says.

While dressing to work, it is always recommended to dress smartly and appropriately. Forever New has a versatile collection of desk-to-dinner range. “One can easily adorn a dress and move from work to a cocktail party, or can wear a black jumpsuit for an evening out. Our trendy range is very fashionable yet classic and can be worn from meetings to party — high-waist wide culottes, cigarette pants, chiffon blouses and vintage embroidered shirts for work, gala events and power meetings. In fact, the modern-day urban woman is amplifying her unique personality and individuality, which resonates with her inner beliefs and values,” says Dhruv Bogra, India manager, Forever New.

Keep it casual
Salesh Grover, business head, OSL luxury collections that houses Corneliani dressing, finds business casuals like khaki pants, button-down collared shirts and shoes comfortable. He is of the opinion, “Many companies are pretty lax with the dress code these days, leaving room for comfort. With performance and work efficiency given highest importance, minimalism and utilitarian approach towards dressing has taken a forefront.”

Uniforms have been an essential part of the hospitality sector, and are brand differentiators, helping customers identify the employees easily for better service. At Andaz hotel in Delhi, the case is different. The staff doesn’t wear turbans or saris; instead they’re geared with a variety of designs by Indo-French fashion brand Lecoanet Hemant at work. A rather non-uniform avatar — from the door man till the top officials — the dress code is casual. White tees or tops with short blue-and-white jacket and a lacy blue long coat, even denim dungarees are a common sight. At Seaside Finolhu Baa Atoll, a luxury resort in Maldives which is right in the middle of the island, flip-flops and sunglasses are fashion staples. “Flip-flops are important in this climate, can be stylish and add colour to the look. As long as the glasses are not covered with reflective mirror, one can be stylish and flaunt designer names,” says Edyta Peszko, director of sales and marketing.

A lot of workwear depends on the context — industry, location, function, role, social norms, nature of interaction, time of the day, and even season of the year. Take the case of start-ups and technology enthusiasts. The ease of doing business has given rise to the ease of dressing. With the influx of millennial population and start-up/entrepreneurial culture, one can see that corporate dressing is revolutionising. It has come up the graph as never before. “Comfort is now taking over more in start-ups and corporates,” feels Raghav Verma, co-founder of Chaayos. “This is important as we are now moving to anywhere, anytime connectivity, and a lot of work actually happens from remote locations. What is very important, though, is identity and a connect to the organisation and that is a big trend for start-ups — especially wearing your company logo, badge or uniform most of the time.”

Jaideep Ghosh, Partner & National Head – Transport, Leisure & Sports, KPMG in India, sees myriad factors contributing to the transition from formal to a dress-down environment. A commonly cited reason is that Silicon Valley compelled Wall Street to change. “Tech giants founded in the last two decades by young founders continue their casual dressing. Some served as role models for many things, including their own style. Hence, start-ups are more accustomed to casual work attire. Technology is omnipresent in traditional industries like finance, healthcare, retail and professional services. Global traditional organisations such as Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, IBM, GE have adapted to a more flexible dress code. For instance, the IT and digital departments in finance companies usually have a relaxed dress code. Internet and connectivity have led to remote-working sans a set dress code. The work environment has also transitioned to more ‘result-oriented’ with less emphasis on ‘formal process-oriented’ approach. Even psychologically, employees increasingly rely on work quality and output vs materialistic aspects like dressing to prove themselves,” says Ghosh, who personally likes to follow simple dress norms: dress as the context demands; keep it simple; and when unsure, dress up. For example, he would be in formal attire for a meeting with a top corporate client and prefer a business-casual attire to visit a manufacturing facility in a suburban industrial area. If unsure on a dress code in an event, he likes to dress down by removing a jacket or tie than the other way round!

For Nina Kler, a freelance media professional, there’s no dress code as she has flexible hours and sometimes works out of a co-working space. “Everyone who comes in is really just a more presentable version of themselves in comfortable clothing. Since there’s no dress code, I wear the same style of clothes to work as I do on the weekends. The only difference is that I wear more dresses, tops when I’m not at work. About a third of my closet is tops and dresses in all colours, shapes and materials,” she says.

The changeover
A recent media report on Japanese social media on dress practices and women in the workplace highlighted how firms had banned wearing glasses for female employees as glasses-wearing shop assistants gave a ‘cold impression’. Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs this year announced ‘firm-wide flexible dress code’ in an internal memo, urging employees to use ‘good judgment’ in their fashion choices. JP Morgan also cited the changing nature of workplaces, generally in favour of a more casual environment that prompted the move to a ‘firm wide flexible dress code’. Brands such as Dockers from Levi Strauss emphasised khakis. Untuckit, an American casual men’s apparel, promotes relaxed fit shirts that are to be worn un-tucked. Umashan Naidoo, head of cosmetics and customer, Westside, says, “Organisations have realised that allowing people to be more flexible in their dressing doesn’t hinder performance but increases it. This allows people to be more expressive, confident and comfortable with themselves.”

One of the biggest drivers of any enduring fashion trend is a shift in lifestyle and society, Francesca Muston, fashion director at WGSN, a trend-forecasting company in New York, finds this as the biggest reason for the casualisation of office wear. “Corporate environment is becoming more relaxed, and there is better representation of women in senior roles. Most businesses relaxed their dress codes several years ago but the athleisure boom — a trend that WGSN forecasted in the early 2000s — has really been instrumental in accelerating a more contemporary and casual way of dressing. The appointments of Virgil Abloh at Louis Vuitton and Kim Jones at Dior have broken down the barriers between luxury fashion and streetwear, especially as these designers are digging their teeth into tailoring.

We see a resurgence of formal looks for both menswear and womenswear, but in the post-athleisure era, comfort and fashion come as a prerequisite, even for tailoring. This essentially means that nothing is stuffy, there is stretch, drape and softness built into silhouettes, and a freedom and confidence to play with colour and print,” says Muston.

Future trends
Ermenegildo Zegna, a leading global luxury menswear brand founded in 1910 in Trivero, Italy, has a retail network covering over 100 countries. Their contemporary mix of formal and luxury leisure wear offers a wide range of looks for men. “If we look at the way men were dressing 30 years ago and how they are dressing now, the differences are significant. Weights, garments and constructions are lighter and men’s suiting has a lot more freedom. The same suit that would have been described as business formal is no longer worn in a formal way — it’s about the combination of having a top and bottom with the same tailoring base,” says Alessandro Sartori, artistic director of Ermenegildo Zegna.

The new collections add an element of freshness to the brand. In Vero Moda’s Autumn Winter 2019 collection, the colour palette is unconventional — neutrals tend to rule the formal wear hues, solid yet distinct colours like teal green, maroon, jewel-toned blue play around to break the monotony while keeping them formal and sharp. Experimenting with silhouettes like palazzo pants, blazers or even culottes; high-waist pants are high on the trend quotient. Layering helps pairing dresses with tailored blazers or cardigans with camisoles and pencil skirts.

Fashion designer Kunal Rawal suggests, “Multi-utility and functional outfits move from workwear to evening-wear to make versatile outfits. Knowing our hectic lifestyle, workwear should be comfort-driven with an infusion of lycra, organic or cotton fabric. The fabric is a big differentiator, moving from the basics and the classics,” says Rawal, adding that fun-patterned, colourful socks make it big too. A well-fit white shirt is something that works all day, and a classic two-button suit paired with denims and T shirt makes for a great evening look.

Rawal says people wear formal sneakers to work. “Stick to materials like faux leather, which can either be patent or formal-looking but are comfortable. Colours like blush pink, old rose pink or olive work well,” he says. One brand that can be identified with smart dressing and not particularly formal attire is Benetton as it presents stylish wear in fun and bright colours. Sundeep Chugh, ceo & managing director, says, “It’s no longer selective colours or mundane dressing. The regular pants come in various styles, shirts are styled differently and the dresses have interesting change of hemlines.” Benetton looks at innovations as the key. For example, to make semi-formal wear more contemporary Benetton launched ‘commutable jackets’— comfortable, easy to maintain and don’t crush easily and are ideal for professionals who are always on the go. Knitwear semi-formals are a big trend globally.

Accessories can also be a powerful statement in the boardroom. From the time when wearing fashion accessories to work was frowned upon, modern workplaces have transcended decades to become far more relaxed. Vishwas Shringi, founder of Voylla, (fashion accessories online and offline stores), says, “Subtle accessorising is important. A customised pendant says a lot about you, yet does not grab too much attention. Smart, elegant and classy accessories are now considered a part of good grooming for any professional. Men are looking beyond chains and rings and can accessorise with jewelled cufflinks. Stacked charm bracelets for women and braided or metallic ones for men are well-accepted at work irrespective of the profession.” With corporates becoming more acceptable and inclusive in their grooming code, Naidoo suggests a few wardrobe staples as navy blazer, a white shirt, unwashed indigo denims and a neat pair of loafers for men and women. Women must invest in a well cut shift dress and a pleat skirt. Silhouettes should contour the body but not be figure-hugging and the fabrics should not be jazzy but in matte.

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