Dressing up, not down: Clothing does send a message

No, I am not a clothing snob. Just because I nix flip-flops in the office and cargo shorts for Dress-down Fridays does not mean my idea of sartorial splendour begins and ends with Savile Row.

I will admit to a soft spot for black tie, a fondness for three-piece suits and a liking for tweed jackets with cashmere sweaters and cords, when the occasions arise. But this leaning towards tailored clothing doesn’t rule out hoodies and sweat pants — as long as they’re confined to the gym! Because when it comes to dressing down, I’m with Jerry Seinfeld. In the episode called The Pilot, where Jerry and George are pitching a TV network with their idea for a new show, Jerry wants George to shape up and dress the part:

“You know the message you’re sending out to the world with these sweatpants? You’re telling the world, ‘I give up. I can’t compete in normal society. I’m miserable, so I might as well be comfortable.’” Jerry in The Pilot

Jerry really got it right. Clothing does send a message. But there’s an enormous side benefit to a well-groomed appearance and general sense of “dressing up” — it gives you a lift. Big time. One of the greatest advocates of this philosophy is my friend Bill Shaddy. As former Senior Director of International Personnel Operations at Pepsi, Bill knows “the right stuff” when it comes to stocking his closet. These days, however, things are a little more complicated. For starters, he has all the buttons on his shirts replaced with snaps. Bill, I should explain, has been living with MS for the last 18 years and snaps are just easier than wrangling with a button and bitty hole. Rain or shine, Bill dresses up. His only concession is a stylish cane by his side.

After life in the fast lane — including overseas postings in London, India, Cyrus and eventually Corporate HQ, just outside New York City — Bill now lives in Sarasota, Florida. Naturally, the local “dress code” is far more casual than his habitual boardroom haunts. He accepts that a relaxed dress code makes sense in Sarasota’s climate and that it’s a lifestyle thing, too. It’s only natural that clothes reflect the laid-back culture of Florida but I can picture Bill saying; “Dressing up just makes one feel so much better!” His sense of well being reflects a keen level of attention to detail. Trousers need a little extra knee-room to accommodate his new, life-changing walk-aid (link) and there are the snap alterations on shirts. Actually, Bill has become adept at making adjustments:

“My left side is sort of ‘going for the tide’ so I need to request restaurant servers to be certain my food is cut into bite-size pieces.”

Certainly the greatest adjustment was his decision to leave Pepsi. It was an intense and dynamic environment. The focus of his work was building local business teams in critical, emerging markets while helping to drive Pepsi operating systems. An essential component of his mandate was fostering the company’s global, cultural values at a local level. There were some challenges during the earliest stages of his diagnosis, when colleagues noticed something was not quite right. Ultimately, despite encouragement to remain on the job, Bill made his move to medically retire and relocate to Florida, so he could better manage his health agenda. Today, his mandate, depending on how he feels, is to deliver Junior Achievement basic business programs to students at local middle schools.

When it comes to dressing up, Bill Shaddy and I are on the same wavelength. Merci Bill for sharing your point of view!

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Working with positive people is a blessing

Who doesn’t love Thanksgiving turkey with all the trimmings? Although it’s a favourite of mine, I have been known to forgo the feast in favour of the south-of-the-border, Columbus Day shopping frenzy that coincides with our Thanksgiving. But this year I stayed home. Perhaps it was the essence of the holiday itself — or just the time of year with all the beautiful fall colours, or maybe it was the evening recently spent babysitting our eight-week old granddaughter — whatever the reason, I found myself in a reflective frame of mind.

Life in downtown Toronto is fast-paced. Perhaps not by New York City standards, but more oil and gas companies are listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange than any other exchange in the world. Just stand in the underground walkway beneath the financial district at lunchtime to get a taste of the energy that defines this city. My work is very much a part of this intense and exciting atmosphere. Every day I meet new people. New connections are made, new alliances formed. And although corporate associations last for years — my private consultations are usually one-offs. I work with these clients on a very intense basis for a short period of time and then poof — mission accomplished and time to move on.

Such is the case with Pamelia. I will never forget the day she walked into my office. Tall. Blonde. Great presence, tons of positive energy and a radiant smile. She was about to turn fifty and wanted to update her look. It was obvious from the first few minutes that we were going to work well together. We made a date to meet at her place for a thorough closet run-through.

The big day arrived and before we tackled the tough editing process — there are always more discards than “keepers” — Pamelia showed me her beautifully appointed home. She had high praise for her neighbour, Mel, a deft hand at constructing numerous enhancements throughout the house and explained that since retiring, his accomplished skill-set had worked many small miracles.

Then, it was time to get to work. We started with the bedroom closet and were making great progress when Pamelia opened her armoire. I stopped in my tracks. There, in front of me, on the inside door panels, all Pamelia’s jewellery was beautifully arranged and hanging from a series of hooks mounted on large boards. This was simply the most brilliant jewellery storage system I had ever seen. Courtesy, once again, of gifted Mel. Forget the usual tangle of necklaces and jumble sale of earrings. I nicknamed it “accessories central” and immediately filed away the concept for my own armoire.

But Pamelia was a step ahead of me. While I organized and sorted her clothes into groups, she quietly slipped away. Of course, at the time, I wasn’t really paying attention but about a week later the whole picture became clear. The day of our final official meeting arrived and as Pamelia welcomed me at the front door, her radiant smile was replaced with a mild-wide grin. “For you,” she said, “from Mel,” as she presented two beautiful Tiffany-blue jewellery boards. My very own accessories central!

I knew offering payment was off-limits — Pamelia had told me Mel’s projects were his pleasure — so a few days later I delivered a bottle of bubbly. Their generous gesture still has me smiling. Working with positive people is, indeed,
a blessing; they bring joy and brighten the day. It’s like a gift of sunshine. I’ve thought long and hard about how to share this sentiment with Pamelia and Mel and finally decided. I’ll send them this blog to simply say it was wonderful to meet you … Mes chers amis, merci bien pour tout.

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Talbots’ Trudy Sullivan personifies Executive Presence

Rebranding implies excitement. With Supermodel Linda Evangelista as the new face of retailer Talbots, excitement is an understatement. I say this because, to paraphrase garment industry jargon, Talbots delivers the goods. Behind every signature red door, there’s a savvy mix of merchandise. It’s this extraordinary range of clothing that reinforces the new image. Linda may “bring ’em in the door,” but only the right clothes will produce sales.

When CEO Trudy Sullivan arrived at Talbots, from her previous position at casual apparel giant Liz Claiborne, she was startled by the absence of in-house design and product development departments. Ms Sullivan quickly addressed this through new hires to build a design team. An obvious place to start, right? But what set Ms Sullivan’s direction apart was her approach. She resisted the urge to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Instead of a total overhaul and an immediate call to arms to create new products, she organized a systematic review of best, and worst, sellers from the past sixty years! This re-examination of the foundations — the pearls, twin-sets, flats, trench coats — was not an exercise in finding old favourites to re-issue but to understand the core of Talbots’ business and the cachet of true American style.

Surely there can be no more enduring examples of American style than Katherine Hepburn, Jacqueline Onassis and Princess Grace of Monaco. Cleverly, Talbots has created three separate fits for jackets, each named after one of these iconic women. In total, there are 23 styles available on-line, each grouped according to fit, and with an accompanying video called — Meet the Ladies:

Kate: Sexy, hourglass, fitted-at-the waist jackets for dressing up or down.
Jackie: Cool, sophisticated and playful jackets. Great with jeans and skirts.
Grace: Classic, slightly fitted jackets — feminine and ladylike.

Jackets are a big-ticket item, rarely an impulse purchase. This technique of “romancing the merchandise” Talbot's Gracecarries with it the promise of boosted sales. Who could resist exploring these enticingly different looks? I don’t want to second-guess Ms Sullivan or the design group but the implications for this brand within a brand are intriguing and filled with possibility.

Equally as audacious was Ms Sullivan’s willingness to take on denim. From its modest, missy-fitting past, Talbots has emerged as a leader in the denim category. Again, there’s the new signature emphasis on multiple fits, plus, an assortment of silhouettes and finishes or “washes” to ensure every woman finds her dream jean.

It’s clear to me that Talbots is a work in progress. The holiday collection proposes “re-imagined offerings” and from what I’ve seen so far, only the edgiest vintage details will be reinvented or the source of inspiration. Simple, traditional pearl necklaces have evolved into dramatic, glamorous multi-strand showpieces. It wouldn’t surprise me if Michelle Obama shows up for a Christmas party in one of these beauties.

But the real measure of Ms Sullivan’s Executive Presence is surely her grace under fire. The rebranding took place during extraordinarily challenging financial pressure: plummeting stock prices, selling off the men’s and kid’s divisions; criticism for overpaying for recently purchased casual retailer J. Jill. Throughout all this public scrutiny, Ms Sullivan and her team rolled out the rebranding and never lost their poise or their vision. What a coup! Félicitations for creating the cachet that is Talbots today.

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Re-branding: From stodgy to sensational

Creating the right image is a powerful tool for success. This is as true for corporations as it is for individuals. Over the last few months, I’ve been fascinated to watch as traditional retailer Talbots re-branded itself from a chain for conservative, some would say stodgy, sixty-somethings to a destination store for younger, hipper, edgier, career women. But there’s more — and this is where it gets really exciting — they are exceeding market expectations! During a recent pant promotion they sold almost 600,000 pairs in nine weeks. Talk about a sensational performance.

I often speak about the importance of developing Executive Presence and Talbots certainly has it — now. I’m not suggesting, on any level, that Talbots’ metamorphosis was instant, easy or a magic bullet for immediate sales. Au contraire. It was meticulously researched, artfully orchestrated and ultimately, is a work-in-progress. What obviously intrigues me about the campaign is how it reinforces my philosophy: your image directly affects your ability to achieve success.

Linda Evangelista as Talbots new modelThere are some extremely clever features in the re-brand but surely the most controversial is the choice of 1980’s supermodel, Canadian Linda Evangelista, as the 45-year old face of Talbots. Chances are you don’t remember her in the Miss Teen Niagara contest — the beginning of her illustrious career — but do remember her famous quote about her salary expectations at the height of her fame, “I don’t get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day.” Chameleon Linda, once known for her constantly changing appearance, has now stepped out for Talbots in a series of super-glam shots.  Some nay-sayers argue that Linda doesn’t look 45, that she is unfamiliar as a style icon to the new, targeted thirty-something customer, that her “fast” look will scare away existing customers and on and on …

To all those objections, I have the obvious response. The campaign just launched, the results aren’t in, but and it’s a big but, remember those pant sales. And besides, there are many other components than just Linda. What Ms. Evangelista did was create buzz and a ton of free publicity. Linda made me sit up and take notice, to actually visit the website and, I should add, a store. And what I found was impressive. This frumpy old store has a new Executive Presence!

To be continued (Part 1 of 2)

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