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Dara Lamb

Practice Management > Building Your Business

Wardrobe Do's and Don'ts for Looking Successful and Trustworthy

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“Men should absolutely pay as much attention to their image, clothing and presentation as women do,” Dara Lamb, a leading custom tailor and manufacturer, tells ThinkAdvisor in an interview. “It’s a very critical part of gaining a client’s trust.”

Lamb designs for women exclusively, mainly leaders in banking, top financial advisors and upper and middle management.

But the Custom Tailors & Designers Association board member is also an authority on wardrobe strategies for men in finance.

In the interview, she serves up advice for both male and female financial professionals and warns of dressing blunders they’re apt to make.

“Wardrobe has the power to profoundly influence both your career and your audience. If you dress [strategically], it can almost pull you along to your goals,” says Lamb, who has helmed her own company in made-to-measure and bespoke apparel for more than 35 years.

Her designs are classics with “a modern element,” as she puts it, and equivalent in price to high-end designer fashions.

In our conversation, Lamb, a frequent speaker at such events as Barron’s summits and institutions including Harvard Business School and Columbia Business School, provides wardrobe techniques to generate trust from prospects as well as revealing women’s clothing choices that trouble male colleagues.

ThinkAdvisor recently held a phone interview with Lamb, based in Long Island City, New York, and Westport, Conn.

Her main wardrobe message to men in finance is: “Stay away from anything making a statement that somebody will either love or not like at all.”

Here are highlights of our conversation:

THINKADVISOR: How much thought should men in finance give to their business wardrobe?

DARA LAMB: Men should absolutely pay as much attention to their image, clothing and presentation as women do. It’s a very critical part of gaining a client’s trust.

Meeting their expectations [of your attire and look] gives them a comfort level so they can open up, enabling you to have a realistic conversation to understand how you can be an effective advisor for them.

Now that in-person meetings have resumed, does wardrobe matter more?

It’s a second chance to make a first impression, except now we know a lot more about the people we’re meeting for the first time.

When you meet a client, you want to understand their expectations. If you’ve had conversations with them on Zoom, you’ve already developed a relationship and can assess [them] much better.

So now is a really great [chance] to dress for opportunity.

You use the term “strategic wardrobe.” What does that mean?

Wardrobe has the power to profoundly influence both your career and your audience.

You have to take into account what you want to achieve and how you want to influence. [Especially for women], it’s almost like developing a strategic marketing program for your personal brand.

If you dress [strategically], it can almost pull you along to your goals.

How long does it take before a prospect takes note of your appearance?

Before you open your mouth about their risk tolerance, they’ve already formulated an impression of you.

A very famous investor said, “I make up my mind about a company as soon as the [leader] walks through the door. I know whether or not I’m going to invest in them before we shake hands.”

Another very high-level person in wealth management told me, “Men and women need to spend much more time on the proper fit of their clothing and invest in the right kind.

“It will tell people they’re experienced and have the confidence to manage someone’s money and make decisions for them.”

If a man is wearing a garment that’s too tight or too loose, other men will notice that. Men are extremely attentive to fit.

To look like you’ve been a success for a long time, invest in very fine fabrics because if you’re presenting to a wealthy, successful person, they’ll recognize that, since they’ve probably seen a lot of those fabrics and know their cost.

That said, I wouldn’t go overboard and wear something that makes you look like your fees are too high.

No 1 is to aim for [attire] that isn’t going to offend.

What type of clothing would convey, “Trust me with your money”?

It’s always best to err on the more formal side until you know someone.

And when times are difficult and challenging [like now], people tend to dress more formally.

How can a wardrobe create impact and influence?

In an advisory position, where someone is giving you a great portion of their money to invest, they have to trust you.

If you dress in a way that’s not authentic to you, they’ll see through that immediately.

Is the attire of male leaders in finance more flexible nowadays? Or is proper dress still the traditional suit, shirt and tie?

Wardrobe has become more flexible, but you’re always trying to thread the needle, in custom clothes especially, between what feels authentic to the wearer and what meets the client’s expectation.

You can put on a fancy suit; but if that doesn’t feel right to you and if a really causal outfit makes you feel you’re not buttoned up enough to make a good impression, you’re not being authentic.

How about male leaders in technology who wear casual outfits — often, t-shirts and hoodies. Have they paved the way for a looser wardrobe for advisors in finance?

It’s important for both men and women to research what the client’s expectations are for your attire.

You can look at how a company’s CEO or CFO, or their accountants, lawyers and consultants are attired; see what the COO wears to earnings calls.

What if you’re unsure of the expectation for the way you’re dressed, but the company’s wardrobe is casual? What’s appropriate?

For men, a nice pair of trousers, a pressed shirt and a sport coat will work really well.

A really good color for a sport coat is blue — not navy but a brighter blue. It’s a color that people don’t have a problem with, and it’s very popular today.

Don’t wear a plaid or pattern going in to see a client for the first time because you don’t know how they feel about that, and their reaction to visual things is going to be pretty much instantaneous.

What if the expectation is for you to dress casually — mirroring the firm? Suggestions? 

If you wear a polo shirt, wear a white one or a neatly pressed white cotton shirt.

I wouldn’t wear a solid pink shirt because some people don’t like that color. But you could wear a blue or white shirt with a colored stripe.

And forgo a tie?

No tie. You can always have a tie in the car. Or if you do have a tie on and find that the [client doesn’t], you can take it off.

What about shoes?

If the company is dressed very casually, you might go in wearing Allbirds, a very fancy, expensive sort of sneaker in [Merino] wool fabric — very popular on the West Coast with venture capitalists.

Or you might wear an expensive loafer to look like: “I’ve been successful and have made good money for clients, and therefore I’ve earned good money.”

Generally, what’s your advice for financial women’s business attire?

The human brain likes things it can see easily and clearly. When it can very quickly discern what’s going on, that immediately creates trust.

What works really well for women is to use high contrast in their [wardrobe]. Men do that by wearing dark suits and white shirts with high-contrast ties.

So it’s wearing a white blouse and a dark suit or a black dress with pearls because the pearls will light up the eyes. A white blouse brings out the whites of the eyes.

How much do colors matter in a professional woman’s wardrobe? “Viva Magenta” is Pantone’s color of the year. Should such a bright color be worn to business meetings?

Magenta is a terrific color, but more of a novelty color, not the mainstay of the wardrobe. It should be used over a dark color, like black or navy.

Here’s another good use of color: A client in health care financing was doing a presentation to a hospital network affiliated with a university and wore a blouse in the color of the university — purple.

Her entire team of men wore ties in the same color. That showed they cared about the institution.

What do men notice in particular about a woman’s business wardrobe?

Men — both bosses and clients — ask me to tell women to stop dressing like they’re going on a date and not to wear a low-cut blouse because when they lean over a conference table [it can be revealing] and not to cross their legs in a too-tight-fitting short skirt that creeps up.

Men want to work with women on a professional basis. They tell me, “I’m here to do business. I don’t want to be distracted.”

[Women’s provocative attire] makes them very nervous, and you certainly don’t want somebody you’re doing business with to be nervous.

What should women wear for evening business events, then?

The last thing men appreciate is if they’re with their wives and a professional woman they have a connection with is there wearing a low-cut, very revealing dress.

Aside from the inappropriateness, it drops the eyes off the face. You want to keep the focus at your face and, hopefully, your eyes, which is really helpful both in person or on Zoom.

What do you think of the returning trend of wider-shoulder jackets for women?

It’s important to show currency in your wardrobe and for things to look fresh. But getting caught up in trends is an issue.

How do you know if your client likes those more peaked shoulders? If you have a client in high fashion and expecting everybody to be in the latest thing, get a peaked-shoulder jacket in black that you can wear again and again.

But it’s the condiment or the dessert — not the main course.

What are some of businessmen’s worst wardrobe gaffes?

Not reaching the client’s expectations [about dress]. Or wearing large patterns or unusual colors in sport jacket, suit or tie.

A wonderful Hermes tie works beautifully. They say you’ve been a success.

Generally, stay away from anything making a statement that somebody will either love or not like at all.

What about accessories for men in finance?

Details can create trust and a bond. But wearing too many accessories isn’t advisable. So no jewelry except a really great watch and a ring, if that’s appropriate.

Stay away from earrings unless you’re pitching to someone in high fashion, a sports superstar or a Hollywood actor. But don’t wear them for a [meeting with] a [Hollywood] producer — or anyone else associated with the money.

You don’t want to do anything that’s going to throw up an immediate barrier.

Is wearing cologne or after-shave lotion OK?

Not too much of it. Make sure the scent is something most people won’t complain about.

What’s your advice about beards?

Be careful. Even though “the scruff” — outgrowth like a [heavier] five o’clock shadow — is very popular, it may not be popular with your clients.

It may look unkempt to them. If someone doesn’t look neat, the signal is: They aren’t very careful with their presentation. Are they going to be careful with my finances?

Last month, The New York Times’ advice was that it’s OK to wear shorts in the office, but not “too wide.” Your thoughts?

People have a deep expectation of what a financial advisor should look like, and most people don’t want their advisor to be in shorts unless they’re in Cabo San Lucas or Bermuda or meeting at the golf club.

What issues do female leaders in finance have with the way young female employees dress?

They say that a lot of women first entering the workplace don’t know the difference between dressing for Saturday night and dressing for a professional event.

Wearing a low-cut dress at an evening event isn’t the way to cement a professional relationship, as I’ve pointed out.

What other blunders are younger women making?

What’s driving senior women crazy are the shoes they wear: high platforms or thongs [flip-flops]. And they don’t have a pedicure [to put it delicately].

Wait — women are wearing flip-flops in the office?

Oh, yes. Not advisors, but their assistants.

We want everything to be neat and organized [relating to] our finances. That allows us to feel trust.

But seeing [an employee] wearing thongs [on their feet] in your financial advisor’s office [clashes] with that. I advise younger women to have a frank conversation with a female leader in their company to ask them what the wardrobe do’s and don’ts are.


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