It's all in the look

It wasn’t that long ago when casual dress days, led by the late 1990s dot-com revolution, were pushing out traditional business dress codes at many companies.

Beyond game rooms in the office and pets wandering around the workplace, new-age entrepreneurs simply weren’t considered hip or cutting-edge unless they showed up for meetings with potential investors clad in polo shirts, khaki pants and even wrap-around sunglasses.

Business suits, if worn at all, were reserved for important shareholder or board meetings or used as that finishing touch for closing deals with large, traditional industry clients or old-line investment banking houses that looked down upon the laid-back style.

That look eventually seeped into the traditional workplace and supplanted the dress code as we knew it. No longer were men required to wear suits and ties or female employees restricted from arriving in pants.

Now, several years after the dot-com meltdown, casual dress remains alive and well in the workplace. A Smart Business/Employers Resource Council survey of Northeast Ohio businesses found that 77 percent of companies allow business casual dress every day. Another 22 percent permit it once a week, and 1 percent extend the practice on a seasonal basis.

But with a rocky economy lingering, suits are finding their way back into the day-to-day wardrobes of senior executives and top sales representatives looking to recapture that professional look.

“People need to dress up again,” says David Cotugno, president of davide cotugno executive tailors. “They need to have an edge over the competition. Those dot-com companies were dressing down a lot, and now they’re gone. A lot of people have had to say, ‘Let’s get back to basics,’ and that’s what they’ve been doing.

“If executives are going in for meetings, they have to look better than the other guys vying for the contract. Three or four years ago, the person who came in wearing khakis and a polo shirt was OK. And a lot of guys in sales have always dressed for whomever they see. If it’s a high-level exec, they’d better wear a suit.”

This attitude shift, which Cotugno first noticed in Europe a year-and-a-half ago, may not apply to your employees’ dress. The casual dress revolution of the ’90s may simply have left an indelible imprint upon the American workplace that could be here to stay for non-senior level executives.

“I think it’s going to be a compromise between where it was prior to 1999 and the dress down,” Cotugno says. “It could be some sort of dress casual — a nice sport coat, pair of pants and maybe a polo shirt underneath.

“For the most part, the law firms and brokerage firms have gone back to dressing up. If you go to New York or Chicago, you’re seeing a lot of more of it on the streets.”

Here in Northeast Ohio, the trend is returning, albeit more slowly than in other regions.

“Walk around on the streets during lunch time,” Cotugno says. “You’ll see more people dressed up. That’s a good indicator.” How to reach: DGC Executive Tailors and Shirtmakers, (440) 526-8860

Dressed for success

There’s an old adage that says clothes make the man.

In business, what you wear can say a lot about your level of professionalism, as well as the image you want to project for clients, investors, peers and employees. David Cotugno, president of davide cotugno executive tailors, offers these tips for ensuring your look conveys the right message.

* Make sure your suit fits properly. This is crucial to any professional look. Many people don’t take the time or expend the energy to buy a suit and have it made to fit.

“Take it to a tailor to get fixed the right way,” Cotugno says. “A lot of department stores don’t have the right tailors on premises.”

If it’s a custom-made suit, it will be tailored at the store where you purchase it.

* Create a packaged look. If you look at a picture on the wall, the suit is like the frame, Cotugno says, and the shirt and tie are the actual picture.

“If either one of those are off, it will upset the whole look of the outfit,” he says. “For example, if you have a nice-looking suit on and have a cheaper shirt and tie with it, it will upset the balance. So make sure everything matches correctly.”

Also, consider two to three ties and two to three shirts to go with each suit, and don’t forget the belts, socks and shoes. And make sure your belts match your shoes.

* Get the most bang for your buck. Buying a suit doesn’t have to cost as much as a European vacation.

“A lot of people are under the misconception that all custom-made suits cost several thousand dollars,” Cotugno says. “You can get nice ones for prices starting around $700.”

And if you’re on a budget, you can find suits for $200 to $300 at places like the Men’s Wearhouse. But if you can afford it, Cotugno suggests buying two good suits in the $700 range and coordinating multiple shirts and ties for several different looks.

“It changes the look and feel,” he says. “A lot of times, you have six suits in your wardrobe and only wear two or three regularly. You’re not getting the most out of your clothes.”