c.2013 New York Times News Service
c.2013 New York Times News Service
In Martin Scorsese’s new film, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” it is not hard to tell when Jordan Belfort, the high-finance hustler of the 1990s, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, has officially made it on Wall Street: His suits go from billowy, double-breasted, off-the-rack numbers to lordly pinstripes, complete with a chunky gold Rolex watch, Gucci loafers and a giant red silk tie.
Ah, for the days when greed was good.
Throughout the go-go “Wolf” years on Wall Street, the Gordon Gekko definition of a power suit — think blue pinstripes, shoulder pads, wide lapels and a red or yellow power tie — held a particular grip on the psyche of young men like Belfort (those who shared his ambition, anyway, if not his contempt for the law).
Caught up in the testosterone-soaked frenzy of a bull market, would-be masters of the universe found that the power suit not only provided the psychological armor it took to survive the trading trenches, but signaled, through its sheer gangster-ish cockiness, one’s intention to scrape his way to the top by any means necessary. (Yes, this was a boys’ club.)
Today, the Dow is once again soaring. But on a more sober, post-financial-crisis Wall Street, bankers and clothiers said, the dress code for men has steered away from Gekko-style displays of conspicuous sartorial consumption.
Sure, among bonus babies, there is always room in the closet for a $6,000 bespoke suit, or 10 of them. But anyone showing up on the trading floor in suspenders and a contrast-collar shirt better be old enough to remember Drexel, or off to a 1980s theme party after trading closes.
“The power suit is over,” said Euan Rellie, a New York investment banker with deep ties to the style crowd (he is married to fashion editor Lucy Sykes, the twin sister of Vogue’s Plum Sykes). “Less is more today. Finance is less brash, and so are its clothes.”
We are a long way from Belfort’s day, when the broad-shouldered power suit, along with the Lamborghini and the Charles Gwathmey-inspired beach house, advertised extreme wealth.
“When you have someone who is incredibly successful and has no time to devote to polishing his style, you end up with the 1980s,” said Sebastian Tatano-Ramirez, creative director at Alexander Nash, a maker of bespoke suits with a large Wall Street clientele. “Nowadays, it seems that successful men have finally understood what ‘stylish’ actually means.”
The contemporary equivalent of the power suit, for those who still wear suits on the Street, tends to be sleeker and more subdued, Tatano-Ramirez said. In place of pinstripes is often a trimmer-fitting ensemble in solid blue or gray, or perhaps glen plaid, with narrower lapels and softer shoulders. It may be offset by a narrower tie of a more subdued color, perhaps even (gasp) wool instead of silk.
While such a latter-day power suit can still command power prices (a top-of-the-line bespoke suit from Alexander Nash costs $8,000), the status cues are subtle, Tatano-Ramirez said, invisible except to those who are versed in the codes: super 120 wool, if not super 150; working buttonholes on the sleeves, perhaps with the final one stitched, rakishly, in a different color; side tabs instead of belt loops (a suit that truly fits requires no $300 belt to hold up the trousers); a playful lining in, say, electric-blue paisley.
“Any external sign of wealth in how Wall Street dresses has been replaced with a desire to look average or normal,” said Gregory Lellouche, a former senior investment banker at UBS who now runs a men’s clothing and accessories website, No Man Walks Alone. “You see very few ‘banker stripe’ suits on Wall Street these days, except on the oldest gents. No Prince of Wales or windowpane suits, no Gordon Gekko contrasting-collar shirts.”
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If today’s power suit makes a quieter statement, it is because its role has evolved considerably since the ’80s.
For a glimpse of how it once was, consider the early scenes of “Wolf,” which are set in the days before the 1987 crash and were exhaustively researched for period accuracy, said Sandy Powell, the film’s costume designer. The young Belfort, a working-class wannabe from Queens, shows up as a junior equity salesman at an august Wall Street bank and finds more pinstripes and navy blue than the New York Yankees clubhouse. At the height of the ’80s boom (and, to a large extent, the ’90s boom that followed), bankers and traders morphed into cultural icons, so they adopted a showy gentleman-fop style that befitted their new status: French cuffs with shimmering cuff links; suspenders in bold statement patterns, like a skull-and-crossbones motif.
“It wasn’t about fashion,” Powell said. “It was about showing your money on your back.”
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The dot-com era of the ’90s swept all that away. In an effort to meet the khaki-clad Internet zillionaires on neutral sartorial ground, even institutions like J.P. Morgan and Morgan Stanley did away with the suit and adopted business-casual dress codes, a shift that was well documented by the fashion and business media. Cut loose of their stylistic moorings, bankers often defaulted to khakis and blue polo shirts, a look that was quickly derided as the “Blockbuster uniform.”
Like Pets.com, Wall Street casual got a lot of ink but had no prayer of surviving the bursting bubble of 2000. With the easy money gone, many bankers reverted to formal attire — at least, many bankers in so-called client-facing roles, like investment banking and mergers and acquisitions. (Men in sales and trading can often wear the casual slacks and button-down look that took hold in hedge-fund culture.)
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The Gekko look took another body blow during the financial crisis of 2008 and, several years later, from Occupy Wall Street, several bankers said. Suddenly, it seemed either tasteless or personally hazardous to walk around in an outfit that shouted “1 percent.” It is no wonder that Wall Street peacocks have learned to dial back on anything that smacks of capitalist dandyism.
“I haven’t worn a pocket square in years,” said one investment banker, 40, who spoke anonymously because of his employer’s policies against workers’ speaking with the news media. “After the financial crisis, the people who are really stylish want to tone it down. Even if they’re wearing the same suits, they wear simpler shirts, simpler ties. People are making adjustments. I’m not wearing a pocket square, another guy is not wearing French cuffs.”
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This is not to say that style is dead on Wall Street. Quite the contrary: The shift has allowed a new generation of Wall Street men to explore new frontiers of patterns and cuts.
“When people are going into meetings, there’s a flexibility to dress more like you’re seeing in the rest of the world,” said Paul Trible, chief executive and designer at Ledbury, an online clothier in Richmond, Va., whose downtown-inflected shirts and ties are trendy among young men on Wall Street. “The casual aspect you see in industries like media and advertising is starting to seep into finance.”
That means slimmer, more form-flattering suits, like the J. Crew Ludlow suit. It also means thinner ties; socks with more color or personality; and, particularly for those who do not have to wear ties, shirts with spread collars in fabrics borrowed from the “heritage hip” look, including, Trible said, gingham, Tattersall check and chambray.
“At the junior ranks, you see J. Crew and Theory,” said an investment banker in his 30s, who also spoke anonymously because of his employer’s policies against talking to the media. “In the last 18 months, I’ve seen first-year analysts showing up in wool ties and making it work.”
In the end, the goal is a look that does not scream “banker,” but whispers it. “The proper tone today is an elegance that doesn’t try too hard,” Rellie said. “Wall Street doesn’t want to show off anymore, because no one is listening.”