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Men's Fall Fashion Issue

Job security

Screenwriter. Real estate developer. College president. Manufacturer. What they and others wear--and when--is part of how they stay on top.

September 12, 2004|Peter McQuaid

Where is the line between individuality and conformity when a man goes to work? If the answers from a variety of well-dressed L.A. men are any indication, it depends on what you actually produce.

Are you selling ideas? Or things? In today's image-driven world, most of us sell both. The accountant who thinks he doesn't have to wear a suit that fits is just as deluded as the design director who imagines he can be avant-garde and avoid the mainstream.

Putting yourself together is all about knowing the rules before you break them. The money manager knows he must wear a suit--and a good one--so he conveys the impression that he knows how to make money. Once that's established, he can have fun with details--socks, ties, shirts, cuff links--that people won't notice until after he's made them comfortable. The creative director knows he can't wear something that smacks of convention. He's selling ideas, preferably new ones, which will then be pressed into service to make very ordinary products seem innovative and exciting and sexy.

If it all sounds calculated, it is. But it's also based on some time-tested results. You will never look right in a classic, conservative suit unless you're a classic, conservative guy. And when was the last time you met an MBA who knew how to wear Dolce & Gabbana?

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Roberto Benabib, TV screenwriter, "Ally McBeal"

"There is a screenwriter uniform. It's very collegiate, Hyannisport, John F. Kennedy Jr."

Benabib spends his days writing material designed to lure viewers so that they will spend time staring at TV sets. For this, advertisers will fork over big bucks to television networks for the right to tell viewers to buy things. But in Benabib's line of work, it's not always about the number of viewers, but also the type, and whether critics and industry leaders like what he's doing. And that can start with how he looks.

"If you walk into a room dressed like Cary Grant, they're going to think you're nuts. It's sneakers, jeans, a T-shirt under a button-down, under a sport jacket," Benabib says. "However, you want the best sport jacket you can afford." The fortysomething screenwriter is a big fan of Austrian designer Helmut Lang, who is known for breathing new life into menswear with a tailored fit and high-end fabrics. "He just keeps churning out those staples: the perfect three-button black jacket; the simple gray V-neck sweater; the crisp, white shirt; all stuff that is basic, but executed in a way that it always looks really sharp," he says.

"You finish this off with well-tailored jeans. Again, Helmut Lang makes great ones, and some good sneakers--like Pumas or Adidas--but never, ever running shoes. Basically, what you're doing here is combining some very un-sloppy clothes in a sloppy way. To sell myself--to other writers as well as the 'suits'--I have to look like a young, educated, creative type. The truth is I would rather wear something more interesting, but there really is a uniform. You can update it, you can improve it, you can make sure it fits really well, but it is still a uniform."

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John C. Siciliano, director of global institutional services, Dimensional Fund Advisers Inc.

"You don't have to have imagination to dress yourself properly for this business."

Siciliano's job is to get people who control vast sums of money to park some of it with his firm, so that he can disburse it to people who hopefully will take it and make more money so that he can, in turn, give lots of money back to the original investors. His product is the number on the bottom line of the quarterly statement he shows his clients.

"My suits are very conservative: dark charcoal pinstripe or solid navy, or low-key plaids," Siciliano says. "The only thing men can do is wear a shirt and tie that's different. Red is my all-time favorite color, but for shirts I love pink and I love yellow--for ties too. I have to dress a certain way, and I think color makes the difference between looking nice and respectable and looking nice and respectable with a little flair." Siciliano, 50, loves cuff links and shirts from Charles Tyrwhitt, as well as Turnbull & Asser, with French cuffs. "I don't want to look boring, but you also don't want to look too frou-frou for the old-line L.A. crowd," he says.

"Since I travel to New York a lot, I go to Saks and Bergdorf Goodman, but I've also recently gone back to Brooks Bros. They've really come back in a big way, and I just bought a sport coat in blackwatch plaid from them, very classic. I wear loafers from Cole Haan and Ferragamo--I get them at the outlet store--and I'm notorious for my socks: polka dots, light yellow, plaid. It's another way to express some individuality and have some fun. But you have to keep in mind that the rules about what is appropriate business attire and what isn't are very clear."

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Brian Leitch, independent advertising creative director for companies such as Banana Republic and Gap

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