Fashion Girl, Corporate World: Saks’ Fashion Director Shows Us How to Do “Business Casual”

Amelia Diamond | September 28, 2016

5 outfits to consider regardless of where you work

Cleo Davis-Urman does Full Look like very few people I know. Where I’d run to a bodega in the nude if it meant I didn’t have to consider shoe options, the Saks Fashion Director dresses with the kind of dedicated, out-loud style that makes you assume she’d probably just as well go the dentist dressed in a ball skirt as she would an actual ball. Cleo works in fashion, the business of fashion — what she wears should “incorporate trends and communicate the essence of contemporary style,” as she told me — but Saks Fifth Avenue is a fairly corporate culture. Their dress code is technically “business casual.”

So how the hell does she rectify all of that in one outfit?

The photos above tell all. The short Q&A down below helps break all the rest down. (And to the readers who’ve got this part covered, who instead really need help with navy suits and white shirts, I hear you. I got you. Tell me your strict dress codes in the comments below because someone may or may not be writing a story on that soon.)

What’s the hardest part about getting dressed within a set of rules?

Trying to maintain your personal style while being appropriate for a more corporate setting. On any given day I could be sitting in an internal meeting with the senior management team and rushing to a fashion show with no time to change. The goal is to find a look that works for both.

What’s the BEST part about getting dressed within a set of rules?

It has prompted me to re-evaluate and carefully curate my wardrobe to be much more edited and refined. A few great pieces — the perfect pencil pant, a statement collared shirt and midi skirt, for example — mixed with the greatest hits from my wardrobe makes for a versatile, yet practical, working girl ensemble.

How does your work style differ from your off-the-clock style and how do you merge the two?

I have one wardrobe that serves multiple purposes. Off the clock, my choices are more expressive — I’m more likely to dress like the runway version than the commercial version. But the basic elements are the same, I just style them differently.

What are your top three Getting Dressed for Work pieces of advice for readers?

1) Think about what your upcoming week looks like and plan accordingly — I mentally storyboard my outfits several days in advance based on my calendar.

2) Buy a really good steamer in case you need to prep something in a pinch.

3) Have a great bag that can accommodate your essentials and go everywhere.

Someone’s starting a job. She can buy ONE new thing only. What should it be?

A great shirt. Whether it’s a classic striped style from J.Crew or a sculptural stand-out from Johanna Ortiz, paired with a statement skirt or a simple tailored trouser, this key item is always the answer to the question “what do I wear?”

What should someone wear on their first day of work?

I don’t think there’s a right or a wrong outfit. What’s important is you should look and feel like YOU. Don’t try to make too much of a statement, or look as if you are trying too hard. First and foremost, be yourself.

Tell us the most embarrassing work/internship outfit you can remember.

This is really embarrassing. At one of my internships, I wore my prom dress with a denim jacket. I thought it was very Carrie Bradshaw. My bosses must have had a good laugh at my expense.

Fill in the blank. I wish someone told me _________.

That the biggest favor you can do for yourself is to have a couple of stylish “uniforms” on deck — the outfit you don’t have to think about that makes you feel well-dressed in any professional situation.

Do you “transition” for the night, like if you’re going out or have an event after, or do you ride it out from morning until end of day?

I rarely have time to go home after work, so I layer my clothes during the day then remove a layer or two to transition to evening. For example, I wore a turtleneck over a dress the other day and then took it off before I went out. Little changes can transform an outfit.

What do you wear to commute? Do you change your shoes?

I often hit the ground running, so I typically dress for the day. As tempting as the idea of changing into more comfortable shoes is, my purses are often too small. I do, however, keep a pair of hotel slippers in my desk drawer just in case…

And finally, besides Saks 🙂 What’s the best place to shop for cool work clothes?

J.Crew. Their impeccably tailored separates, shirting and cashmere sweaters are definitely wardrobe staples.

Follow Cleo on Instagram @misscleoviolet. Photographed by Krista Anna Lewis.

cleo-davis-urman-work-appropriate

  • ESW

    Great article, and it is always fun to look into the life/closet of someone who works in the fashion industry. But since I don’t, really…
    I feel like the fashion risks I want to take can’t really happen in my work environment, because to the (old, white, male) people I work with, it might be seen as wacky. Anyone else encounter this issue?

    • Liz Warners

      Yes! Some days I leave the house feeling great about my fashion choices, but the minute I sit down in a meeting and the CFO is there in a suit and I just feel… silly. Its definitely a battle.

    • Old, white, males. Yes

  • Ashley

    This is so inspiring! I love her makeup!

  • Kathryn

    I work in academia, which runs the gauntlet of dress code options. Some older faculty wear sandals, shorts and t shirts, while others (a.k.a non-tenured faculty) dress like its a corporate office. Given this flexibility I feel like I’m allowed to be expressive with my clothes, but it is hard to know what note to strike. Furthermore, I sometimes feel uncomfortable given that I work in a profession where ideas are the focus and fun fashion is often viewed as a distraction at best and materialistic frivolity at worst.

    • ESW

      I worked in academia a few years ago. I was a young woman at the time, not much older than my students, and I found it especially important to dress more, well, ‘grown up’ than they did.

      Also, I once read an article by a female professor who always wore heels because she felt like young men in her class would try to physically intimidate her, and she wanted to be able to look them in the eye. V. interesting.

      • Deborah

        This describes me! I am short and look young generally, so I try to dress “adult” to distinguish myself from undergrads. I’m in a very male-dominated field, so I try not to dress “girly” so as to be taken more seriously, but still “pretty” so as to seem likable. All of this ridiculous effort to look serious actually *detracts* from my teaching and research. I do it anyway, because unlike laszloooo I feel more confident when I’m wearing less fun outfits–but I wish I felt differently.

        Years ago the New York Times ran an article about women at Harvard Business School, and a female professor said she wore double-sided tape every day to prevent wardrobe malfunctions. I think about that constantly. There’s nothing frivolous or wasteful about dressing expressively, but dressing anxiously seems like a terrible waste of my time.

        The outfits shown here wouldn’t work for me on teaching days–they’re just too interesting and would be distracting. But the Man Repeller sentiment to dress for myself is one I struggle to achieve at work. I’d love more of a conversation on how to avoid these fashion-anxieties that some of us academics seem to share and some of us (Aly, Emily) seem to have overcome.

    • laszloooo

      I’m in academia too but I actually feel that wearing stylish or interesting or fun outfits actually makes me feel more confident in my ideas, more comfortable in front of students and other staff, even senior academics. For me the occasional crippling sense of imposter syndrome etc. etc. is really remedied by making an effort to wear some huge earrings or something…! It’s just like, “Hi everyone. Two key points: first, I look great; second, I’m really intelligent so listen up”.

    • Emily Lever

      Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie had this great piece about how as a woman in the intellectual world she felt like she had to repress her desire to dress in loud and stylish clothes in order to be taken seriously…the upshot was at the end she was like “fuck it, I dress how I want and my intelligence will speak for itself,” which was very inspiring, but I get that not everyone is in a position to do that.

    • Aly

      Extreme lefty academia here. Fashionable clothes/makeup/looking like you even tried=vacuous. Since I am a grown-ass woman, I will do what I want at the expense of probably not being taken seriously by the PhDs.

  • Natty

    I love this so much. Can we see a story about stylish suiting for those of us with full blown corporate dress codes? Ted Baker has been rather inspirational lately…

    • Amelia Diamond

      Yea girl! It’s coming! I wrote it in the intro! (but who reads that shit when Cleo is running around looking cool, I know!!)

      • Natty

        Thank you! I obviously dove straight into the slideshow, duh.

  • Callahan

    AHH! So good. But as a fashion-friendly person working in a conservative Southern art museum, I can only twirl in my bedroom in fluffy shoes like that. Typically “art museum” might sound like a more lenient workplace, and the rules are just “no graphic tees, no blue jeans,” but everyone of staff dresses as if it means “Ann Taylor/J Crew” and related fare. After years of accumulating Statement Pieces, it breaks my heart that I am hesitant to wear anything that might be considered pushing the envelope – for the first year of being with this office at least. What do I do?? How far do I push it as a late-20s professional with a lot of wacky vintage/Alexander Wang and not much Tory Burch?? xxoo

    • Lulucylemon

      You should wear what you want (and it sounds fab). A lot of Southern women do default to that Tory Burch/Ann Taylor/J. Crew aesthetic, but I’m guessing they might appreciate your style even while saying, “I could never pull that off!”

  • Lola

    Love her outfits, but I would get flagged to HR if I tried
    to wear this to work. I work in a relatively conservative law firm. On a day to
    day basis I wear cigarette trousers/pencil skirt and some sort of blouse/shirt.
    Women don’t need to wear a full suit, unless going to court. I tend to take the
    view that you can either do structural pieces in muted colours, or bright
    colours and conservative silhouettes. My real issue is with the ‘dress down
    Friday’ minefield…impossible to navigate. And I HATE HATE HATE those tight
    corporate dresses. Ergh.

    • Natty

      Dress down Friday is literally the worst. I feel like its a trap!

  • Kelsey Loraine

    Could she get any cuter!? She is adorable & has inspired pieces!

  • Vickee

    I love her style!!

  • MG

    This is really great!

  • Mine is a tough one! I work in a pharmaceutical lab at a small company in Kansas. Yes, Kansas. But I am also a women’s wear designer in Kansas City. So I’m torn in two directions and my clothes are so drastically different between 8-5 and 6-midnight. I get dressed twice! I struggle so much with navigating the lab safety dress code at a conservative-run company. We can be casual, but my whole feet and legs have to be covered. No dangling jewelry. No baggy clothes/sleeves. I never wear anything particularly fashion-y because people seriously don’t get it. To the point that I think they’d just think I was inappropriately dressed for work. I can’t imagine I’m the only scientist out there that loves fashion. Help if you can…but I understand if you don’t even know where to start. XOXO

    • ESW

      Well, I would think the real issue here is how not to be “distractingly sexy.”

  • Fee

    I work in a corporate law firm and would looove help styling in a way that doesnt make me look like a clone!!!

  • Mallory Harmon

    Love all of her outfits, and especially those Bionda Castana shoes!

  • Julia Hogikyan

    Ugh my place of work is biz casual with jeans allowed which mostly means that people wear jeans and tshirts but that’s no fun and I wanna *stunt* on em but I always feel overdressed