Maximize your career potential with a professional image


Sloppy sweatshirts and torn jeans may not merit a second glance on campus, but when it comes to the workplace, image matters. You probably already know the importance of an interview suit, but that’s just the first step to launching your career.

“Image does communicate a great deal about us, whether we agree with it or not,” says Christina McDowell, image consultant with Holt Renfrew Bloor Street in Toronto. “Before we even start to talk, people look at us and start drawing conclusions. If your image isn’t saying the right thing about you, tweak it.”

She shares that advice with countless students preparing to make the transition from university or college to the workforce. She’s been invited to speak at institutions such as the University of Toronto’s Joseph L. Rotman School of Management and York University’s Schulich School of Business.

Raiding your parent’s closet until you begin earning enough money to buy your own clothes is a definite no-no. “If a young man wears his father’s suit that doesn’t fit properly, it doesn’t speak well to his independence or professionalism,” McDowell says. “It’s about being professional and polished. Those two words are key.”

A beautifully cut, dark-coloured and well-proportioned suit made of the best fabric your budget allows is a good starting point. “Build strong separates, with suits and jackets being your pivotal pieces. Save trendier pieces for your social life.”

Well-made items may carry more expensive price tags, but will be worth it in the long run. “They wear well and the cut will last a long time,” McDowell says. Consider allocating a portion of each paycheque to staples — including shoes, boots and overcoats. Prioritizing your needs will help you avoid wasting your hard-earned money on sales items you later regret buying.

A classic colour palette — navy blue, dark grey, black, white and red — is a good building block. “A classic colour palette works for everyone. Stay away from shrieking loud colours in the workplace,” McDowell says.

Do corporate fashion rules apply to a creative work environment? “You have a little more licence, but the end result remains the same: you want to look professional and polished,” McDowell says.

What about the business casual look? “We have been moving away from that trend for a couple of years now. It ran amok because no one set standards,” McDowell says. “The pendulum has definitely swung. But remember, business formal does not have to be uptight; it does not have to be cookie cutter.”

When it comes to accessories, less is more. “Don’t go in to the office with large, dangly earrings and clanky bracelets. But don’t go wishy washy either,” McDowell says. “Buy good, impressive handbags and briefcases. Like your clothing, always buy the best your money allows. In the long run, it will save you money.”

Remember, an investment in your professional wardrobe is an investment in your career. Not only will it let others know you can be taken seriously, it will impact how you feel about yourself. “You will feel empowered and confident,” McDowell says.

School to work transition

Make the transition from university or college campus to the workplace with a professional wardrobe. Pay careful attention to cut, colour and fit. Navy blue, dark grey, black, white and red should be the backbone of your wardrobe and will help you create a professional, polished image.