WALKING the avenues of Manhattan, it’s easy to distinguish cubicle denizens from visitors. Apart from the slung cameras, mishmash of Hawaiian shirts, Bermuda shorts, craned necks and gaggle of bored teenagers in tow, the professional business image in the north east of the US remains what it has been for the last 100 years. For men, a simple collection of white collared shirts, dark suits, ties and formal shoes.
Individualism is expressed through subtle cues — the herringbone in the suit fabric, the delicate tracery of royal blue diamonds on a light blue tie, faint stripes in the structure of the shirt. Even cufflinks declaring ‘World’s best Dad’. For women, a similar fate. The little black dress is a popular choice second only to the light blouse, highlighting piece of jewellery, medium length pencil skirt in dark colour and the inevitable high heel clacking down the sidewalks of Fifth Avenue.
The advent of Casual Fridays and, ultimately, business casual, played havoc with the business stylists wardrobe. Gone were the well-defined rule books (salary men in Japan simply ignored business casual and maintained the tried and true business uniform of suit and tie). In their place, the option of choice — loafers, slacks, dockers, no tie! These harried and confused fashionistas could easily take a leaf from the business dress code in Malaysia.
Yes, there is a place in the fashion totem for the suit and tie. Multi-national sales people tend to use it but with a little more flexibility in the base formula. Variations include pastel coloured shirts, contrasting ties, loafers, sports jackets and a dazzling array of accessories. Where else do you put the keys to the BMW, the two cell phones (one personal, one business) and all the other gadgets that make life in KL traffic bearable? Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, provides an excellent example of the variability of the business dress in Malaysia. At a keynote address he was turned out in a dapper charcoal grey suit, pewter tie and white Oxford collared shirt.
In other images, he adopts the formal Malaysian attire of the baju Melayu in a bright magenta silk paired with the traditional black songkok or cap worn on his head. The Malaysian traditional batik fabric also has a place in the formal world, being imprinted upon brightly coloured silk shirts with the same shirts being worn loose and long over relaxed trousers and informal loafers.
Pausing only on the male side of business does not do justice to the extravagant hues offered by Malay women wearing the baju kurung to the workplace. Made of cotton or more often silk, the baju kurung is made up of a loose-fitting full length skirt and a blouse with long sleeves falling to the hips or knees. Often paired with the headscarf (or tudung), these outfits provide a shimmering, multi-coloured and patterns vision as their wearers float past.
The other wrinkle in this business wear conundrum is the multi-racial nature of Malaysian society. Indians, Malays and Chinese Malaysians throng the streets, each bringing their own unique stamp to business wear.
The Chinese cheongsam, a usually tightly-fitted one-piece dress with a high collar, is usually worn for formal occasions but sometimes slips into the workplace. Derivations from the cheongsam, including the eternally popular Chinese collar have stepped over into blouses and shirts worn by both men and women.
The Indian influence brings sarees to the workplace for women and the kurta for men.
The kurta is a knee-length or longer shirt worn over loose trousers and usually made from cotton or linen. Subdued earth tones are the general rule here.
For the maximum parade of fashion extravagance, linger near a mosque at Friday prayer time. An endless throng of purples, magentas, yellows, golds and reds flow past as men come to pray at the mosque. All topped with the songkok, this is one of the moments when the fashion palette is pushed to overdrive.
For the Western business person packing for a visit to Malaysia? The suit and tie will work just fine here, though be careful when walking the streets in the midday sun. That wool jacket will soak up the heat and have you dripping in moments. If the meeting is informal, seek out some short sleeve shirts and bring a jacket that can be taken on and off easily. Pack the ties but be prepared to ditch them after the first day. Eating out may be in air conditioning but if your hosts want to impress you (and you are willing to be a little adventurous) you may find yourself at a small table with plastic chairs and only fans to cool you down. (Note : these places will likely be the best eating you enjoy on your trip).
Business attire in Malaysia relaxes the rules. There’s a fondness for colour, a willingness to explore mixing and matching of styles and cultural origins, including those from the West.
Relax, enjoy and drink in this visual feast.