Stanley Bing

The elephants of style

If not for Steve Jobs, we might still be wearing suspenders to work.

By Stanley Bing

(Fortune Magazine) -- We are always reinventing ourselves. In the beginning, when we are very new, we reach for gravity, adopting silly pinstripes and tight shoes.

Later on, when youth is but a memory, we start dressing like hipsters. Some of us don't even shave, we're so youthful, even though the beard that comes in is chased with gray.

We molt with the seasons, trying to answer key questions: Who are we? What do we do? And why should we be paid a lot of money for it?

The problem is, if Fate had given us an innate sense of style, she wouldn't have made us businesspeople. We may be able to invent rationales for ungodly mergers, but style? We need guidance.

We generally end up adopting whatever uniform is in fashion given the business we're in, the locale, the weather. For us, it's all received wisdom. Put us in a Snuggie, we don't care. It's business. It's not personal.

Except, wait. It is personal! Intensely personal! We're not just cogs in some machine! We are a human being! But what kind? It's hard to say.

Stylistic options have accumulated over the years, and none seems to have primacy at this time. Each was established by a titan who defined a certain look that has survived and found a home in the way we live now.

Let's start with Howard Hughes, not because he dressed differently from any other billionaire but because he was sharp, wore funny hats, and had an insane gleam in his eye. That soupçon of madness gave him a je ne sais quoi I couldn't emulate until I had been in business long enough to lose my mind. His muse lives on in swaggering moguls who buff up as bright as a newly minted euro, all of them too frightening to name.

There was also the ur-figure of Sammy Davis Jr. He pioneered the huge collar worn open under a snappy sports coat. He also favored the turtleneck sweater, which is now so outré that it is worn only by lumpy venture capitalists at think tanks, who believe it makes them look casual. The big open collar lives on as the West Coast standard and seems to be making strides among East Coast players who want to say they're a little bit showbiz. Thanks, Sammy.

The classic uniform for the mercantile class, of course, remains the business suit. Even that mainstay, however, has been interpreted over the years, changing from its 19th-century roots. The two main strains of current attire were established in the 1980s by John T. Molloy and Alan Flusser. Like Newton and Leibniz, who discovered calculus concurrently, these two giants worked separately but made similar discoveries.

Molloy's "dress for success" concept -- featuring solid colors and pink or yellow ties with tiny blue dots -- was in ascendance for both sexes when I entered the world of business. Flusser established the greedy jerk look of the 1990s, designing the costumes for Michael Douglas's character, Gordon Gekko, in the movie "Wall Street." Because of Flusser, I had to wear paisley suspenders to work for two years.

No discussion of seminal influences can exclude the man who codified the black T-shirt. I am speaking, in the reverential tones due the Mozart of our age, of Steve Jobs. Before Steve, the idea of sporting underwear to work was a pipe dream. Today, unless I have a show meeting of some kind, I always consider donning a crisp black T and slacks/sports jacket combo. It's a look that says business, even big business, is just another part of life. I like to think that sometimes, even if it's completely bogus.

Is there anybody who puts it all together, then? The suit and tie? The casual open collar? The snazzy mogul glint? The occasional T-shirt and sweater? One player who can pull it all off and still carry the day, who sets his own rules and carves out his own style? Why yes, there is. Here's to you, Warren Buffett. You make it look easy, my man.

Stanley Bing has recast his book "Executricks" for the new paperback edition due out in November; it is now entitled "How to Relax Without Getting the Axe." For more Bing, unrelated to the Microsoft search engine, go to stanleybing.com. To top of page

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