Thursday, August 07, 2008

How to Pull Off "CEO Casual"

If you catch Trevor Kaufman in a business suit, you can bet he's anxious. Mr. Kaufman is chief executive of Schematic, a digital-branding agency whose work you've seen if you've visited or glimpsed Nissan's online advertising. Despite a roster of blue-chip clients, Mr. Kaufman doesn't subscribe to the old-school uniform for chief executives.

[Go to discussion]
Who are some CEOs that you respect for their business-casual look? What do you wear to look executive yet casual? Discuss

"The suit is a signal that something's going on that I'm nervous about," says the 38-year-old Mr. Kaufman. "A suit has become something you wear when you're asking for money."

There was a time when a CEO in a dark business suit was safely dressed. That's still true in many fields: Lawyers, financiers and bridegrooms are largely expected to arrive suited up. But at creative or high-tech businesses today, a suit can feel as out-of-sync as a pair of denim overalls. It signals old-fashioned inflexibility when what's called for is casual authority.

"When people wear suits in the music business, it feels like they're not insiders," says Anni Sarah Lam, CEO of Parc Landon, a Houston-based music, sports and entertainment agency whose clients have included Broadway shows, the rapper 50 Cent and David Beckham.
Trevor Kaufman, CEO of consulting agency Schematic, discusses the role of clothing in running a business. His biggest challenge, he says, is to convey the authority of a suit without wearing one. WSJ's Christina Binkley reports.

"CEO casual" is seen most often on young people. But age isn't the determining factor here. It's all about presenting a modern, creative message.

Still, business casual is notoriously tricky, and for chief executives it has additional risks. Suits and ties convey a sense of command by hiding the body's flaws and augmenting its strengths, as well as providing psychic distance that a CEO can use to advantage. Shedding these signs of authority risks the vulnerability of exposing physical characteristics, such as a man's chest hair. A dressed-down chief executive can be shown up by a formally dressed underling. So how can a CEO signal command without pinstripes and worsted wools?

Ms. Lam, 28, indicates her insider status by wearing crisp jeans and trendy jackets to meetings. She signals her chief executive stature by carrying Louis Vuitton handbags and Montblanc pens.

Showing authority doesn't require designer labels. Steve Jobs created his own CEO uniform, with smooth, dark turtlenecks that protect the neck in much the same way ties do.

Schematic, with offices in Los Angeles, New York, Austin, Minneapolis and London, has been expanding rapidly. Its $30 million in revenue last year is expected to double this year, with clients that include GE and Coca-Cola -- and it was purchased last September by the British marketing group WPP Group PLC.
[Steve Jobs]
Getty Images
Apple CEO Steve Jobs has created his own uniform with smooth, dark turtlenecks.

As Schematic's co-founder and CEO, Mr. Kaufman wears made-to-measure shirts, tailored blazers and polished leather shoes. "I want to be viewed as a creative person, not a salesperson asking for money," he said recently, attired in blue jeans, a white buttoned Prada shirt over a Marks & Spencer undershirt, and brown Prada loafers with no socks.

When I saw him a week later, Mr. Kaufman wore a white Brooks Brothers shirt, custom-made with a lowered top button to accommodate a tie-less look without flashing too much chest hair. He has had the left cuff widened to make room for his thick Audemars Piguet watch.

Those Brooks Brothers shirts are made from no-iron cotton to withstand life in a suitcase. On the day I saw him, though, his no-iron shirt was crisply pressed. Mr. Kaufman said he also has his Levis 511 jeans pressed. They were dark blue and looked as though they'd recently walked out of the store.

His two-button Burberry jacket, worn as a sport coat, was actually part of a suit. Its trendy, 1950s-inspired, tapered British cut reminded me of the television show "Mad Men," which Mr. Kaufman says he watches with zeal.
[Trevor Kaufman]
Lori Hawkins for The Wall Street Journal
Trevor Kaufman achieved an informal yet strong look recently with details like an Audemars Piguet watch, Armani shoes and a Comme des Garçons shirt.

Schematic's other co-founder and president, 43-year-old Nick Worth, has also adopted an alternative style, a touch more preppy than Mr. Kaufman's. In the company's early days, he bought Turnbull & Asser shirts on eBay and wore them without ties. "You don't really want to buy cutting-edge digital service from a guy in a suit and tie," says Mr. Worth, wearing jeans, a white tailored jacket from British label Connelly, Converse sneakers, and a blue-and-white checked Paul Smith shirt. Details, details: The shirt had purple-stitched buttonholes and matching cuff-knots.

The two executives aren't shy about asking employees to adhere to the uniform. At a recent meeting in Chicago with a potential client, Mr. Kaufman asked his creative director to remove his tie. He is equally critical of sloppy looks and encourages subordinates to buy clothes at department stores, where they can be conveniently tailored in-house.

There's a fellow in the Los Angeles office whose unpressed collar often curves up "like the Flying Nun's." Mr. Kaufman is not above a little humorous nudging. "Gee," he's said, "no collar stays today?"Write to Christina Binkley at

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