More than two decades after a boxy-suited Sigourney Weaver tormented a wide-shouldered Melanie Griffith in 1988's Working Girl, power dressing is back, but with a whole new sales pitch. Its resurrection, pinned to our increasingly insecure times, reflects the return of formality to many modern offices. But if the contemporary power suit is still in many ways a suit of workplace armour, it is also a new marker of female professional cool. These days, the women who wear business suits aren't just signalling to the world that they've made it, but that they've made it on their own terms. In other words, they've come a longer way, baby, than those corporate pioneers who felt they had to dress like men to make it in a man's world.
Annie Mesenge, a Paris-born image consultant who has been dressing women on Bay Street, Toronto's business centre, for the past 25 years, remembers a time when female corporate attire meant ill-fitting polyester suits comprised of A-line skirts and oversized jackets paired with opaque lightgrey tights and – shudder – running shoes.
"These so-called power suits were supposed to set [executives] apart from the secretaries, who often wore dresses," she recalls. "It was tricky for those women because there wasn't much [workplace-fashion] choice available to them in Canada."
The look of the Working Girl era was largely defined, of course, by designers such as Giorgio Armani, who basically shrunk men's suiting to address female demand. This season, however, suit specialists are, thankfully, looking in a different, better-fitting direction.
As seen on the runway, the latest version of the business suit is sleek and ultra-feminine, with pencil skirts often replacing pants in the equation. At Oscar de la Renta, the new suit skirts are cut below the knee and cinched with belts. Brooks Brothers Black Fleece trims them with lace.
"Women today hold higher positions in the work force," says Mina Ely of Isaac Ely Bespoke, a Toronto men's-wear shop that recently started making custom-tailored shirts and suits for a growing female clientele, including some of Canada's top executives. "A well-made suit represents power and confidence for women as much as for men."
Carrie Kirkman, president of the Jones Group Canada, says the way to work the trend is with a wardrobe of interchangeable pieces that enable women to customize their corporate look.
"The key approach to Jones New York suiting this season is to provide a simple wardrobe-building system that's anchored by a great three-piece suit: jacket, pant and pencil skirt," she says, adding: "Begin with solid suiting in a dark shade, then introduce [pieces in] a men's-wear-inspired fabric, such as a subtle plaid or bird's-eye tweed that can be mixed and matched with the solid."
At Hugo Boss, dresses worn with jackets are also proving popular, especially among corporate women who double as moms after-hours.
Pulling on a dress, says the brand's Toronto spokesperson, Dawn Bellini, "makes it easier to walk out the door."
Lesly Tayles, vice-president of personal banking and investment planning for Ontario at the National Bank of Canada (plus one of the women photographed for this feature), has been wearing a business suit five days a week for the past 20 years. But whereas she and women like her tended to adopt the styles and trappings of male execs at the beginning of their careers, she no longer feels, she says, the need to do so today.
"Women bring diverse qualities, experiences and contributions to the boardroom and we don't have to dress like a man to earn these seats," Tayles says. "Although I continue to be more comfortable in traditional-style suits, I have become increasingly braver about incorporating more trendy and feminine accessories, pieces and even suits into my wardrobe."
Sabrina Fiorellino, a lawyer who also served as a model for the spread on these pages, buys her suits at Marlowe, the fashion-forward Italian retailer. One of her latest acquisitions, a navy-blue jacket-andskirt combo in wool and silk, features a lapel that's a different shade and texture from the jacket and a skirt with a wide waistband and bubble shape created with pleats.
"While I do think that wearing a suit is important when interacting in certain settings with certain clients, I don't feel the need to wear my mother's suit," says the associate at Gilbert's LLP in Toronto. "I approach suits every season the same way. I find something that is appropriate for the office, but something with a unique flair that represents me."
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