Suits have, in the insidious way that only clothes can achieve, become part of our lives. I can still think of a time when they weren’t—and the only people who wore them worked either for hotels or airlines.
That’s changed now and people who don’t wear suits do so at their own peril. I realized this a few years ago while entering the office of HT Media which I had recently joined. With me was one of my colleagues (a senior editor, but junior colleague) who was dressed in a sharp suit. He too was relatively new in the organization. I was, like I still am on most days, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt.
I was asked to produce some identification. He was waved in. (What do you think? He no longer works for me).
I remembered this incident last week at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit. One of the speakers at the summit was Rajiv Bajaj, managing director of Bajaj Auto. Bajaj is usually the tallest person in the room. At the Leadership Summit’s gala dinner, he was also the only man not wearing a suit. Or a jacket. And he was wearing jeans. (For his session the following day Bajaj wore blue khakis and a Bajaj T-shirt; he later told me he doesn’t own a suit).
Bajaj is lucky he works in the manufacturing business. He also has a reputation for being an engineer’s engineer, so I guess that helps. Executives in other businesses may not have it as easy. A few years ago, an article in Business 2.0 described the then Infosys CEO who, it said, had a “unprepossessing figure” thus: “With his boxy suit and black moustache, the 49-year-old CEO of outsourcing giant Infosys looks like a small-town bank manager...”. I don’t know whether the article got it wrong or whether it made Nandan Nilekani go on a shopping binge, but a few months later, when I met him and reminded him about the article, he merely smiled and turned the lapel of the rather sharp brown jacket he was wearing so that I could read the label. Brioni.
So, should all of us who want to look striking—who doesn’t?—sport suits.
Most CEOs I know always sport suits but at least two editors I know have made the flowing Fab India kurta their uniform. The editor of Mint’s only significant rival prefers to sport jeans, casual shirts, and sneakers. As do I (although I do balance out a liking for day glow Grateful Dead T-shirts with sharp Italian suits that come out whenever I am attending an event hosted by the people signing my cheques).
What I do find interesting, however, is that unlike a few years ago, when people in India wore suits to stand out, they now do so to merge in (and never mind the flashy ties). And I don’t think that bodes well. Is it merely a coincidence that the man who gave us the iMac, iPod, and iPhone wears jeans and black turtlenecks? I’d like to think not.
Post script: In response to last week’s column on microfinance, my former colleague R. Sridharan, now a senior editor with ET Now, wrote in with one obvious fact I’d overlooked (well, can’t be all too obvious if it’s been overlooked, right?). The LP, or limited partner, model where microfinance companies seek and get funds from investors looking for returns is built on a high-risk, high-return assumption, he said. “With access to relatively cheap public financing, good microfinance companies will be in a position to lend at cheaper rates.”