How hard can it be to take off your tie? With the suit-and-no-tie look gaining prominence lately—US presidential hopeful Barack Obama has drawn attention for sporting a version of the approach, and Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer and Boeing chief executive officer (CEO) Jim McNerney have done it, too—more men are trying it out themselves. In the process, they’re discovering that this seemingly effortless style takes work to get right.
Try it with a formal pinstripe suit and you could look like you simply forgot your necktie. Choose the wrong collar—button-down instead of spread—and the resulting casual effect might say middle management, not corner office.
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Obama achieves the style with a subtle variation, wearing a sports coat and pants of the same or similar colour instead of a suit, a campaign spokesman says. When it comes to serious occasions such as the televised presidential debates or a recent service commemorating the Los Angeles riots, he typically wears a tie.
At ProLogis, a real estate investment trust in Denver, the tieless suit is called “upscale business casual”. It has been the dress code since the REIT merged with a California company two years ago. The company stopped requiring ties, although employees still had to wear jackets.
Chief executive Jeffrey H. Schwartz says he found leaving his tie at home “a little disconcerting at first... kind of like losing a security blanket”. To ease his transition into tieless suits, he delegated responsibility for choosing his clothes to his wife.
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s button-down collar adds a slouchy effect.
Business casual, of course, is an entrenched concept in the corporate world. It often describes khakis and button-down shirts worn without ties. What’s different about the latest no-tie look is that it’s a dressier version of business casual, where a suit, or a formal jacket with matching pants, is worn. It might also mean wearing dress shoes, instead of more casual boat shoes.
For Christopher P. Neahring, striking the right balance has been a challenge. The 39-year-old former sales engineer tried ditching ties about a year ago because they made him “stick out like a sore thumb” among more casually-dressed clients. At first, he says, he looked like a guy heading out to a bar at the end of a workday. Three-button jackets looked weird, even unbuttoned, he decided. Solid-coloured shirts called attention to his lack of neckwear.
He began spending his mornings modelling in front of a mirror until he found the right outfit—a two-button simple suit and a dress shirt with stripes or other patterns. Now studying law and working as a summer associate at a Chicago law firm, Neahring still goes tieless most of the time—but he keeps one at hand just in case he has a formal meeting.
Alex von Bidder, managing partner at the Four Seasons restaurant in New York, says some regulars look great tieless while others flounder. For example, he says frequent diner Gerald Levin, the former Time Warner CEO, “looked like he wasn’t put together” during recent visits to the restaurant.
Levin, who has been doing a variation of the no-tie look for years—notably, during the press conference to announce the AOL Time Warner merger in 2001—says his sartorial style has been approved by his wife, Laurie Perlman, “who believes that tieless, I am integrated and authentic”.
For Obama and other candidates such as John Edwards, who have gone tieless in public appearances, the look could help convey youthfulness and openness to change, says political consultant Chris Lehane, who advised Bill Clinton. But “the downside is, does it reinforce any issues regarding whether he has enough experience or gravitas to be president?” he adds.
To successfully pull off the look, experts offer some general rules. Avoid pinstripe suits. The contrast between formal and casual can be stark. A better option: trim-fitting solid-coloured suits, with one or two buttons on the jacket rather than more formal three-button styles.
Stylists recommend shirts with a stiff collar in a spread or pointed style. Undershirts shouldn’t show, which may mean opting for a V-neck undershirt instead of a crew neck. Lloyd Boston, a former executive at Tommy Hilfiger and now a commentator on NBC’s Today show, suggests shirts with high collars or double buttons at the collar that make them stand up.
Alessandro Sartori, creative director of Ermenegildo Zegna’s Z Zegna line, prefers what he calls the “pyjama collar” that shows more skin and gives men “a nice neckline”. This year, he dressed models in pyjama collars and suits for the label’s first runway show. He says the style wouldn’t work for bankers or accountants in formal environments.
Stylists say adding a pocket square takes Boeing president and CEO Jim McNemey’s look one step up.
For the office, unbutton only the top button, and for evenings out, stop at two. Anything more and you risk looking like Wayne Newton, warns Jim Moore, creative director at GQ.
Some occasions still require a tie. Even designer Tom Ford, who went tieless years ago as “a great way of wearing a suit and looking relaxed and less formal”, says he wears ties out in the evening in London, where he lives. Dress is more formal there than in the US, he says.
At New York restaurant 21 Club, which dropped its requirement that men wear ties at lunch, the accessory is still something of a status symbol there. Manager Roger Rice says men in ties get more prominent tables. “We try to certainly have the room look a little more formal,” he says.
Devotees aren’t afraid to take the tieless look to the extreme. Eric Bolling, a 44-year-old trader who specializes in the commodities markets at the New York Mercantile Exchange, recently accepted an award from a charitable organization wearing a tux and no tie. Wearing a tie “just doesn’t work for me”, he says.
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