Business dress codes in a state of flux
While most companies lean increasingly casual, others reverting to stricter attire

By any definition Ivo Gorinov is fairly successful businessman. As president of Six.Net, an Internet service provider, Web-site design and network-consulting firm, he heads a staff of eight, with offices in the heart of downtown, and a host of quality accounts.

But Gorinov looks like any other Six.Net employee, and if you walk through the company's offices, it's pretty hard to tell that he is the boss. That's because Gorinov eschews the traditional badge of corporate success and power: the business suit and tie.

"I like to dress up," said Gorinov. "But when you are working long hours, you want to be comfortable. So we all dress fairly casually here."

Gorinov is not alone. According to a survey conducted by Thompson Lightstone & Company for Levi Strauss & Co., makers of Dockers casual slacks, only 7.0 per cent of working Canadian men typically wear a suit and tie to work.

The survey also found that 60.0 per cent of men believe that they don't need to wear a suit and tie to look professional, and that 54.0 per cent of Canadians believe that a casual dress environment is a compelling perk.

The survey's findings comes on the heels of a host of conflicting anecdotal evidence that some companies, particularly Wall Street investment bankers and law firms, are steering away from the secular trend to causal wear and are reverting back to more formal dress.

The bottom line is that the business community is in a state of flux; with unwritten -- and often foggy -- rules dictating what should be worn at work.

There is no question that the long-term trend among most businessmen is toward more casual dress. And for anyone who has ever worn a business suit it's not hard to figure out why.

The typical wool business suit is itchy, uncomfortable, expensive and difficult to maintain. Almost no one in his right mind would wear one unless they were forced to. Watch any high powered executive walk into his home at night after a hard day's work and the first thing he will do is tear off his suit as fast as he can. Almost none of them wear business suits on their free time unless forced to by some formal commitment or outing.

On the other hand the business suit continues to perform an extremely powerful function. A suit and tie sends the instant message that "business is conducted at this establishment," and that it's wearer is in the mood to deal.

The business suit is really a uniform, whose utility goes back to the good old days when most businesses used a military command and control structure, and a man's dress indicated his rank in the hierarchy.

But the explosive growth of small business, home office and independent worker jobs during the last two decades has increasingly obviated the use of the business suit. Someone working alone in his basement doesn't have to impress anyone, and can pretty, much dress as he likes.

On the other hand, there appears to be a backlash against casual wear in certain sectors of the economy arising from the collapse of the dot.com bubble, and the discrediting of its often casually-dressed leaders. This trend is also evident among the top one or two per cent of income earners, who have done particularly well during the past two decades, many of whom want to show off their success and can afford to dress a little better.

"The business suit is back," said Steve Antoniou, director general of Harry Rosen Menswear's Cours Mont-Royal store, whose clientele's family incomes average between $150,000 and $200,000. "The trend was set when George W. Bush took over in the White House. Bill Clinton's people had been far for relaxed (in their dress)."

Business suit sales are up between 30 and 35 per cent at the Cours Mont-Royal store during the last two years Antoniou said. But he concedes that business casual and sportswear sales have also increased, making it difficult to generalize whether his statistics are more indicative of his store's success, rather than an overall trend. "I can only speak for my clients," Antoniou said.

Robert Korne, an associate at Mendelsohn, a high-powered downtown law firm, with 65 lawyers and an equal number of ancillary staff, also sees a return to dressing up among his contemporaries. "We continue to maintain our casual Fridays," Korne said. "But casual doesn't mean you wear just anything. You still have to look good."

But according to Yvonne Diesing, a brand manager at Dockers, one of the big winners in the move toward business casual, dressing up movement is narrowly based, with only one per cent of Lightstone survey respondents indicating that their companies had adopted the trend.

"The return of the suit does not seem to happening, as many people had anticipated," Diesing said. "Most Canadians continue to indicate that they can still get that "business feeling" without a suit."

Six.Net's Gorinov agrees, but he concedes that he too sometimes wears a suit when the occasion calls for it, particularly when meeting bankers and new clients. "Sometimes it's just a matter of courtesy," Gorinov said. "You dress the way people expect you to dress."

Photo caption: Ivo Gorinov, president of Six.Net, an Internet service provider wears a suit when he goes to meet his banker, or big corporate clients. The rest of the time he dresses casually.

Diekmeyer can be reached at peter@peterdiekmeyer.com

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