By Maria Buckley; Photo credit: Mia F. Antonio   

Once again, the last weekend in April brought a respite of sunshine and the fourth annual Murray Hill Institute Fashion Intelligence Symposium. The theme that MHI and the Fashion Institute of Technology used to build this year’s program was especially timely: Fashion in the Workplace. In a culture where the dynamic and standards in the workplace are changing faster than ever, this theme offered a moment to pause, reflect, and reassess. 

The topic of fashion and work has universal appeal as all women work, and many work at more than one type of job. What was so helpful about the Symposium was the emphasis on the specific needs of the individual. Each woman needs to look at and define what her workplace (or workplaces) are and what is required of her in each. A woman working in a bank is going to build a different wardrobe than a woman who works at home with her children throughout the day. Increasingly, more women need to build a wardrobe that will let them do both and seamlessly transition from one role to the other. Regardless of your job, you can argue that traditionally women have had more freedom and flexibility in their attire than men. Even the most conservative dress codes leave room for the elegant details of jewelry, nail polish, or a silk scarf on a briefcase. Women have the unique opportunity to use fashion as a tool in the workplace, as a way to teach without words. Every detail and every choice are ways to communicate who you are, what you stand for, and the standards you expect. 


A huge thank you is owed to the Fashion Institute of Technology for partnering on this event and adding so much from their rich and varied experience. FIT has seen the industry change and evolve and has adapted in response. Joanne Arbuckle, Deputy to the President for Industry Partnerships and Collaborative Programs, shared how the focus remains on the future as the school seeks to educate and shape the next generation of leaders in the industry. Ms. Arbuckle commented that the current moment finds the fashion industry collaborating with different industries and focusing on applying new advances in technology. 


Ms. Arbuckle also confirmed and explained two trends that you’ve likely experienced. First, consumers are demanding experiences to bring them into a brick and mortar store. When you can find anything online with just a few clicks, there needs to be something more exciting than the products themselves in a store. This is just one example of a perfect opportunity to collaborate with different industries, whether it is musicians, artists, or charities. Secondly, purchasing is down even though spending is up. Whether people are conscience of the environment or the size of their wallets, more and more individuals are starting to see the value in paying more to invest in something of higher quality that will last longer. (Click here for a longer summary of Joanne’s talk). 


On this same note, Taly Russell, Founder and CEO of SilverChair Partners spoke about the importance of investing in a few staple pieces, including: shoes, a black dress, and a quality rain jacket. After five years running her own executive search firm, Taly’s advice to dress simply and elegantly, so your colleagues or clients can focus on you, was very well received. Taly took the time to address several questions from the audience reminding everyone that while there are a few standard guidelines, no uniform set of fashion rules can fully apply to an individual situation. Questions ranged from what size earrings are appropriate in the office, if it is ok to dress more formally than your boss, and if nude pantyhose are really necessary or still in style. 


Karen Tai, founder of OnePointSix, built on the theme of the individual, encouraging consumers to demand more of the industry. She started her womenswear brand that “brings reimagined classics to today’s discerning and dynamic woman” as a result of her time working abroad where she saw the customizability of suiting available to her male colleagues. Believing that women deserve the same quality and function in their clothes, not shortcuts, she set about to found a brand for women that focuses on cut, proportion, construction, and quality. Getting these elements right is the key to dressing with confidence, which is paramount in the workplace.

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Attendees were reminded of the importance of the symposium’s theme when Melissa Norden gave testimony of how clothes and image really do communicate and reflect confidence, especially when it is most needed: Not that clothes themselves validate or give confidence, but they can and should reflect an interior confidence. Norden is the Executive Director at Bottomless Closest, a non-profit that “provides professional clothing, shoes, and accessories; resume help and interview preparation; workshops and other resources to women in need.” Without proper interview clothes how can you expect to nail an interview? But, the clothes are just one step in helping Bottomless Closet’s clients see themselves in a new professional position. Bottomless Closet builds on that initial confidence to provide the other necessary training and skills needed, accounting for the needs of the whole person. 


Carla Vázquez Jones, Director of Communication at Delpozo, closed out the afternoon by bringing us back to the top. She has worked at the international level of the fashion industry, with top luxury brands, and shared how the major fashion houses still shape and influence fashion in the workplace. This was a great transition out of the auditorium at FIT and back onto the streets of Manhattan where their influence is seen at nearly every turn. 


Attendees from all over the city, country, and even Canada, left the symposium with a better understanding of why fashion in the workplace matters, plus lots of practical advice. As spring warms up into summer and you change over your wardrobe, it is worth casting a discerning eye over all your various pieces to see how they fit into what you want to communicate and the confidence you feel and project. And, as was repeated many times, it is always ok to ask for help.