Is the double-breasted suit still the only way to impress clients? To find out, Building gave this industry professional three different outfits and asked major clients to take their pick.
The traditional idea of what constitutes work wear has been thrown into confusion. Dress-down Fridays are becoming commonplace; in January, a former training manager at the Professional Golfers Association won a sex discrimination case after she was sent home for wearing trousers to work; and those stalwarts of the dark blue suit, Arthur Andersen accountants, are about to forgo the formal look and opt for light coloured slacks and a jacket.

Like accountants, the construction industry is not known for its interest in sartorial matters. Contractors and QSs tend to don the traditional dark double-breasted suit for meetings with clients. Architects, being at the creative end of the business, will wear anything from an Issey Miyake suit to Marks & Spencer slacks with a sweater. Arthur Andersen ditched suits to better fit in with young, trendy IT firms. So, should construction professionals ditch the traditional image in favour of a more modern look?

To find out, Building carried out an experiment. We put Nick Jones, a very game associate partner in QS Franklin + Andrews, in three different outfits, took photographs and sent the pictures to three clients to test their reaction.

The strong views expressed by the clients show that dress matters. The dark suit wins with Grosvenor Developments Associate director Lawrence Chadwick. Slough Estates general manager Bernard Rimmer finds the English-country-smart-casual approach a turn-off. And if you are pitching for a deal with Kate Priestley, chief executive of NHS Estates, leave a certain brand of footwear at home. “I have a thing about shoes and anybody who wears Hush Puppies is out,” she says.

Suit versus casual divides the industry. Some clients, such as Stanhope director Peter Rogers think that the traditional male attire prevents teambuilding between management and operatives – so much so that managers are often referred to as “suits”. Rogers says: “I think dress code is irrelevant at meetings. We should have grown beyond disguising ourselves.”

But the suit also acts as a uniform that gives the wearer self-confidence. Our model, Nick Jones, usually wears a classic double-breasted number from Suits You to work because it makes him feel professional and ready to do business. Philip Cleaver, chief operating officer at Mansell, wears a dark suit every day but inside him there is a casual dresser just waiting to get out. “I would like to come to work dressed casually. I would find it creative, but going up to meet a client would be difficult,” he says. Mansell employees do not agree. They recently voted against introducing dress-down Fridays because they thought the idea was passé.

Dress-down days can be particularly troublesome for women as they struggle to maintain an impression of power and competence in combat trousers and T-shirt. This is an issue that has worried Priestley and her female colleagues at NHS Estates. “Women presenting to clients have enough problems making an impact when they are dressed in a good suit. Chinos look much more casual on a woman than on a man.”

Image consultant Herman, who is often called in to major companies such as Ernst and Young, KPMG and Arthur Andersen to advise up-and-coming partners on dress and general grooming, says men and women can boost their self-confidence in client meetings by following a few simple rules. First, make sure your suit fits properly. The jacket should come down as far as the fingertips. Always look in a full-length mirror before you leave the house. And never wear the same suit two days running. “Buy as good as you can afford because you are worth the investment,” Herman adds.

But does the quality of your suit matter? Not really: clients are not interested in whether you are wearing Armani or Burton as long as you look presentable and can do the job. Construction Confederation chief executive Jennie Price says the label is less important than looking neat. “If you are meeting a client, it is a courtesy to look as if you have made an effort.”

Of course, this does not mean that construction professionals are not style-conscious. Hugo Boss is a favourite label of Rogers and Rimmer. Bovis Lend Lease chairman Sir Frank Lampl’s grey suits are the work of Savile Row tailor Chester Barrie. And, according to one industry source, Sir Neville Simms, chief executive of Carillion and in our top 10 of construction’s best-dressed personalities, likes to show off his latest ensemble whenever he can. “Simmsy is always saying ‘this suit cost me £500’,” confides one insider.

So, whether you buy your clothes from C&A or Savile Row, as long as you look presentable, it won’t make too much difference to your chances of landing a deal. But a word of warning to architects with a penchant for colourful outfits: what you wear says a lot about your creative abilities. As Rimmer says: “I have had architects so tastelessly dressed in terms of shirt and tie that I’ve thought, if that’s what they choose to wear, what will the building look like?”

How I choose work clothes

Jennie Price, chief executive, Construction Confederation I want my clothes to fade into the background and for me to be recognised for what I’m doing, not for what I’m wearing. I dress in a way that is comfortable and looks smart. Today is an ordinary day in the office and I’m wearing black trousers with black top and blue-grey jacket. It’s from Austin Reed, I think. I tend to buy clothes from Selfridges and other big department stores. I go for comfortable, classic business wear like Jaeger or Austin Reed. I usually wear black court shoes. I have seen some women in high heels looking very inappropriate for construction. If I’m giving a speech, I wear a suit or a matching dress and jacket. And I always wear earrings and some jewellery, but not lots. I don’t like to be laden with gold.

Picking outfits for the office

Peter Rogers, director, Stanhope In my early construction days, I was told to wear a suit, so I went out and bought a virulent blue corduroy one with a violently red tie to match. I was always considered unusual, but it didn’t halt my rise. These days I buy clothes from everywhere – Hugo Boss, Issey Miyake, even the local village shop. Today I’m wearing a pair of grey trousers and a darkish jacket but I can’t remember where they came from. I’m wearing a tie but I usually only wear one once a week. It depends very much on my mood. I tend to wear collarless shirts. My wife made most of them because she thought it would be a challenge. A colourful tie is fun but ties are a nonsensical piece of clothing. They get very messy when you lean over drawings. I don’t dress to make a statement. If I’m going to a do in the evening, I will wear a jacket and tie if I need to, depending on who’s invited me. I have a collarless dinner jacket with a collarless shirt to go with it.