I’m writing from the beach in Cannes, France but don’t be put off by visions of me splayed out on a sun lounger taking in the rays – it’s a work trip. I’ve been hosting my show CNN Talk from the Cannes Lions festival which is the Oscars and the Davos for creative types combined. The best media and marketing campaigns are honoured here while an array of panels and talks pop up on the side-lines, where the great and good of the industry try to make sense of where it’s all going next.
Celebrity brand ambassadors fly in and add the glitz that you’d expect of the French Riviera and as they do so, the fashion stakes rise. Achingly trendy creatives grace the promenade but we are what we wear and these are the figures charged with defining the zeitgeist and communicating it back to consumers. Joining the melee are those who control the multi-billion-dollar global marketing spend with the agencies that spend it and the media companies that receive it. These are the great and the good of the sector, the ones who succeeded.
When I look around I see people in shorts, colourful shirts, the odd tattoo and a beard … a summer dress. The trick here is to wear something that works for a breakfast meeting and can carry you through a conference, beach lunch and on to cocktails on a superyacht in the harbour as the sun sets. It might sound like luxury but there’s serious business being done behind the scenes which justifies all the expense.
This is one of those corporate events where the men feel as much pressure as the women about what to wear because they can’t fall back on the trusty suit, as I learned to my cost the first time I came here. I had to go straight out to buy a whole new wardrobe as soon as I arrived. Nobody wears suits on the seafront, least of all a creative and I would have realised that if I had only thought about it.
The pressure to conform with the right look exists in any work environment but so too does the will to stand out. It reminds me of an event I was speaking at recently where a female CEO from the property business described how she used to wear suits with shoulder pads in an effort to fit in with the male-dominated environment. Only later in life, when she’d found success, did she have the confidence to wear something she was more comfortable in.
There’s always going to be some level of compromise with your work wear. You can’t usually get away with what you have on at home and you may not want to. What you can do is put something on that compliments the setting so you look credible, then add a twist that expresses your character. Think about the rapper who hits the red carpet wearing a tuxedo in a pair of box-fresh sneakers, or the female leader who makes a virtue of the fact she is the only woman in the room.
The former UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, may not leap out as a fashion icon but her outfits were granted the rare honour of appearing at the revered Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2016. In her memoir, she wrote: ‘I took a close interest in clothes, as most women do; but it was also extremely important that the impression I gave was right for the political occasion.’ The V&A’s Senior Curator of Fashion, Claire Wilcox, said in a press release: ‘As a powerful woman in a predominantly masculine environment, Baroness Thatcher used her wardrobe as a strategic tool to inspire confidence and project authority. She understood the power of image, especially in a media-driven world, and inspired female leaders around the world to follow in her example. Not only do Baroness Thatcher’s sartorial choices reveal important aspects about her as a person, but the context in which outfits were worn reflect significant moments of social and political history of the late 20th century, as well as life after Downing Street.’
I had the chance to film in Thatcher’s personal archive at Cambridge University before she died where Chris Collins, who looks after it, was very keen to show me her handbag. He explained that she used it as a prop at meetings with European leaders. ’She would arrive at summit meetings, put the handbag on the table and you knew she was in business. And the idea was that she would swing it from left and right like some female Tarzan, laying low European leaders and eventually getting away.’
Collins is tapping in there to the tribal nature of the workplace and how fashion pays in to it. Leaders have always asserted their positions with what they wear, just look at the military. Every corporate environment has a uniform and you need to reflect that but also give it your own take to reinforce your independence, authority and character.
Now where’s that sun lounger..?