Oct 2, 2016

Save me from having to put on a penguin

One of the pleasures of working for yourself is that you can usually wear what you want. There is no dress code for entrepreneurs.

By contrast, every large business has its own corporate look. In many professions — from banking to law — dark wool suits, white shirts and silk ties still prevail for men. According to the 44-page UBS staff booklet on employee appearance, the bank’s mandatory corporate wear “symbolises competence, formalism and sobriety”. It claims that “charisma contributes a mere 7% of the impression we make” whereas outward appearance is 55%, and our posture and hand and body movements 38%. I really hope I don’t make judgments in hiring interviews based on those ratios.

Of course, lots of jobs do require a uniform — from the waitresses in our Patisserie Valerie cafés, to our barmen in Draft House pubs — who all seem to have beards and tattoos. Clearly workwear can be practical — in factories, hospitals and on building sites, for example. In such cases it is more than a matter of sartorial taste.

However, being self-employed is all about a sense of freedom, and that should also apply to your clothing.

I remember the relief when I gave up working at a stuffy old-school stockbroker in the City to run Pizza Express. Our offices were above the warehouse and had no air-conditioning, so in the summer, shorts and polo shirts became de rigueur because of the temperature. I even attended meetings with banks and institutional investors in those clothes.

Since then, the spread of dress-down Friday means lots of meetings are held in “business casual” style. But even I don’t expect flip-flops, torn jeans, shell suits or trainers — although I’ve seen business founders turn up in all of those.

Often, this is partly about making a statement. They are telling the “suits” in the room: “I’m a rebel, and I can wear what I want because I’m my own boss.”

Even worse than conventional business attire is the crusty ensemble summed up by the dread phrase “black tie”. When I open an invitation and I read those instructions, my heart sinks. It is not simply the ludicrous garb that one is required to wear — the uncomfortable jacket, the wing collar shirt, the throttling bow tie, the cummerbund, the ridiculous patent leather dress shoes. No, the funereal outfit is only a portion of what I dislike; perhaps the worst aspects are all the grim associations of a black-tie event.

More depressing than a penguin suit is the social baggage that goes with it: the snobbery, the stuffiness and the discomfort.

It evokes memories of endless male-dominated business dinners full of bores and drunks, of evenings watching Hooray Henrys misbehaving at Oxford University balls, of sad figures queuing to get into dreary corporate receptions at ghastly Park Lane hotels.

To me, black tie is the opposite of fun. What should be an enjoyable occasion — a birthday, an anniversary, or some similar social gathering — becomes a test of endurance. Black tie makes things stiff and formal and dull. Droning speeches, mass catered food, bad jokes, embarrassing dancing . . . my recollections are all negative. But somehow, a few times a year, I find myself having to put on the silly uniform once more.

I remember at my final interview for the job as chairman of Channel 4, I was asked by the most senior inquisitor if I would put on black tie for a formal occasion if that was the dress code.

He asked because I didn’t wear a suit or tie to the interview. I wonder if I would have got the job had I said no.

Ever since I helped run some shoe shops and factories in the 1980s, I’ve been fascinated by footwear. Terry Smith, a savvy investor, claimed that real chief executives wear rugged shoes like Dr Martens — for walking around proper workplaces such as factories — rather than expensive loafers from the likes of Grenson or Church’s. Apparently these £400 shoes are worn by smoothies who spend all their time doing presentations — but who don’t actually go near the coal face. I must admit I like suede shoes for their comfort, but I accept they are inappropriate in the rain.

The Social Mobility Commission recently claimed that wearing brown shoes and loud ties falls foul of “arcane culture rules” that keep working-class candidates out of City jobs — because they have never been taught the protocol that posh young men learn at private schools. Stating the obvious, any organisation that recruits based on such fatuous principles isn’t worth joining.

In my opinion, clothes do not make the man — attributes such as character, skills and motivation do. I try to look beyond the superficiality of someone’s garments to understand the person beneath.