Suit or No Suit?
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In the new tree-hugging age of financial advising, the term “suit” has taken on a derogatory meaning (e.g. “Since our IPO there’s been a suit in my office every day trying to sell me an annuity.”) Should advisors wear a business suit to meet with prospects or are less formal options a better choice?
Not always suitable
There are a few situations when it is clearly better to wear a suit, and I’ll address those in a minute. The decision to wear a suit depends upon the personal brand you want to convey – and how it is likely to be perceived by the prospect you are meeting.
I haven’t consistently worn a suit in years. Given I’ve been pregnant or nursing since October of 2013 (I had four kids in five years), over the last six years I’ve gone through every size imaginable. There was one pregnancy after which I had a hard time losing the weight. This is Antonio’s mother’s fault for continuing to cook me arroz con gandules. For those of you who are familiar with Puerto Rican cuisine, you know that the rice gets you every time.
Fast forward to one day before a big meeting and there I am staring into the mirror feeling like the Pillsbury Doughboy.
You know what happened next. I had a meltdown and called my mother.
Hours later I emerged from the A train at Times Square station, looking “fly” with a black a-line skirt and green silk blouse. Since then I’ve been a suit-less wonder like Lori Greiner. Without a suit, people are not as standoffish and more relaxed in meetings. With my more casual clothing I come across as more relatable. I’ve certainly enjoyed having a wider variety of outfits from which to choose.
My approach is to go without a suit unless it is warranted – and there are certain situations where it is.
1. The obvious
The times when it is clear that you should wear a suit include:
- Your company requires it;
- You work with ultra-formal clients such as attorneys, bankers, etc. who are always wearing suits themselves;
- You live in a cold weather environment and don’t like wearing bulky sweaters; or
- You love wearing suits.
2. When there is a perceived power imbalance
When you feel there is a risk of not being taken as seriously for whatever reason (age, credentials, experience), the safest bet is to wear a suit.
I have one client who is a millennial who started her own financial planning firm, and in many cases she works with people who are literally over twice her age. Most people don’t make a big deal, but she’s had her share of wrongful snubs.
I was editing a video of a presentation she recently did to a group of retirees and she’s standing up, looking fresh-faced and absolutely fierce in a business suit. It wasn’t just the suit that made the rap work – but it sure did help.
Everything about her was saying, “I’m young but you’d better take me seriously!”
And they did.
3. You’re feeling depressed or lethargic
Have you ever noticed that when you get dressed up you feel motivated? As much as your fashion sends a message to other people it also works as a signal to your own psyche.
Years ago I used to be a professional telemarketer. It was the worst. We used to have to sit facing a blank wall and make calls for eight hours a day. Looking razor sharp was sometimes the only thing that got me through the day.
4. You’re not sure about how the “no suit” look will be received
If you don’t know the person well that you’re going to meet and you suspect they may be more on the formal side, you can’t go wrong with a suit.
Well, let me revise that. Delete, delete, delete.
I know half of Phoenix is going to drag me on Twitter. Grillo, you arrogant New Yorker, it’s 100 degrees daily here in Arizona! Quit whining and let me finish my thought please.
You can go wrong with a suit if it doesn’t fit you. You know what I mean: shoulder pads sticking up, sleeves too short, jacket barely buttons over your stomach. Yes, I have seen advisors dress like this. When the jacket puckers where you button it, find another look that is more flattering.
5. Your LinkedIn picture
Take it from someone who spends a ton of time on LinkedIn looking at advisors’ profile pages. Wear a suit in your LinkedIn profile picture. You never know who’s looking at you online and as in #4, some people may be put off by more casual attire. Rather than risk it, just go the safe route.
YouTube video? Maybe not. The Tube is a bit more casual.
Suiting up in style
For the times when you do suit up, here is how you can set yourself apart by deviating from the boring, dry, cliché “advisor uniform” of drab black, grey, or navy suit:
- Cash in those sock options. My buddy Ric Edelman is a famous snazzy sock person. In fact, he is known to have worn mismatching socks on purpose. View this picture here of Ric modeling his signature sock look.
As I explored in this article, there are so many ways that socks can liven up an outfit. I personally am on a mission to make socks work with high heels but given that the fashion industry has tried unsuccessfully to make this work for decades, I’m not that optimistic.
- Test the waters with burgundy. If you’re not used to wearing color, burgundy is a great starter to try out and given we’re about to embark on the fall, you’ll be seasonally in vogue. Pair it with a shirt with a pinkish undertone.
What you say, Grillo? Pink? The looks depends on each person but try out this combo and see. I’ve done this and it worked out fabulous.
While we’re on burgundy, I was inspired by the idea of a grey suit with a non-typical tie by Philip Bailey’s outfit in the Easy Lover video with Phil Collins (frame 0:27). It got a hold on me, believe it. Bailey’s suit/tie combo may be too daring a stunt for an advisor – better forget it, oooh you’ll regret it. Instead try a grey suit with a burgundy tie.
- Belts. According to all the cool fashion magazines, the belted suit is “in” this fall. You’ll have to take their word for it. I don’t know about anything cool because I don’t do anything or go anywhere cool (because I have four kids under six years old.) I do know a lot about which My Little Pony has wings and which doesn’t, though.
I love this fabulous Three-Quarter Sleeve Belted Midi Dress from Calvin Klein in green, which is a superb pick for the fall. At $90 it won’t kill you financially either, you budgetmasters! If I ever get to leave my house anytime soon to do anything non-kid related (unlikely), I’ll def consider this belted dress.
- Wear a hat to your meeting (then take it off). Adjust the brim sizes for your facial structure. If you have delicate features, a smaller brim is necessary. Some of the more businesslike hat types would be fedora (remember Humphrey Bogart?), flat cap, or bucket hat.
- Unusual briefcase bag. I’ve been on a crusade to find a fun bag that can actually hold my high heels and laptop which has led me to ponder this fashion item deeply. My frustration has led me to contemplate designing my own briefcase bag line. One day I snapped and on a whim opted for a leopard print satchel bag that Antonio bought me from a street vendor in Spanish Harlem. To my shock this has turned out to be a big compliment getter but I have to be careful not to pair it with other patterns.
What’s your view on suits? I challenge you – try going suit or going no suit, whatever is the opposite of how you normally dress, and send me a note to let me know how it goes!
Sara Grillo, CFA, is a marketing consultant who helps investment management, financial planning, and RIA firms fight the tendency to scatter meaningless cliché on their prospects and bore them as a result. Prior to launching her own firm, she was a financial advisor and worked at Lehman Brothers.