“Fashion is instant language,” famed designer Miuccia Prada once said. “What you wear is how you present yourself to the world.” No matter who you are, or what your job level, how you put together your visual brand—as in what you wear—has a dramatic impact on how you are perceived.
I experienced this firsthand a few weeks ago when I was honored with an award for my professional achievements and commitments to non-profits. I received many accolades for my remarks about staying true to my values during my career. I also received kudos for my dress. After trying on every dress in sight, I apparently made the right choice with bold, summery stripes in a wrinkle-free fabric draped and wrapped on the bias. Shopping retail paid off.
And Prada is right. As much as we may not want to admit it, appearance is a crucial part of leadership, especially for women. What you wear creates an instant first impression. True for everyone, it is doubly true for women. So I always advise women leaders to “cultivate their brand” in making fashion decisions—as brand is the promise of consistent delivery of a personality you like and expect. But this is easier said than done.
For those of us who may lack an inner-fashionista, here are my tips to help you develop your visual brand.
Keep it simple. For some women, their brand is as easy as wearing clothes from a favorite designer or sticking to a color scheme. You can also dream up a simple basic formula, or “uniform.” One NYC editor I knew only wore black pants with white kimonos—and always looked phenomenal. A simple motif that’s right for you can really help you stand out from the crowd.
Consider comfort first, not last. I recently attended a client presentation with a group of other women executives who had chosen to wear sky-high heels. They unexpectedly had to walk a quarter mile between their parking garage and our meeting room. Not only were they late, but they had a difficult time arriving with ankles intact! Uncomfortable or impractical clothing may look great in the store, but may be a distraction from presenting your best self in real-life situations. The last thing you need is a wardrobe malfunction. Do yourself a favor and make sure that you can move freely and confidently. Save the extremes for your own personal weekend wear.
Figure out which fashion rules to keep, and which you can bend. Fashion guidelines for women in business are always changing, and often, we can have more fun than the guys. But keep your eyes open, and watch how far you can go. Pay attention to the style at your office and figure out where you should conform, and where you can deviate from the norm. Are stockings required, or will bare legs do? If you’re getting comments, note what they are (and where they come from!). Remember that others look up to women leaders for guidance on their own fashion direction.
Finally, pay attention to the details. A leader’s “brand” is not just about the clothes she wears. It’s also about the accessories: jewelry, glasses, bags, briefcases, notebooks, pens, and other personal items. I know one exec who invested her seasonal clothing budget in a set of matching luggage. She often shows up at meetings fresh off the plane, she explained, and wanted to present a coordinated image even when saddled with her travel belongings. Attention to the small things shows that she’s put thought into every part of her appearance. What else? She also communicates that she approaches her job with the same level of attention to detail.
A woman leader doesn’t have to be a fashionista or spend excessive amounts of money to present a compelling image. But she does have to be aware of what she’s doing, and make all of her choices with poise and intent. An effective leader has a look that is all her own, something that’s not only appropriate and comfortable but that also helps her stand out from a crowd. No matter where she is in her career, by adopting her own look, a leader creates a brand identity that will make a permanent and lasting impression.