“The End of the Office Dress Code!” trumpeted a New York Times headline in May, neatly summing up the gist of a conversation-starting piece by the paper’s influential fashion writer Vanessa Friedman. Her article went viral, generating a slew of follow-up stories dissecting workplace attire, from The Atlantic’s musings on “Casual Friday” (“why not be casual on other days, too?”) to a dissenting blog post (actually, from Vanessa: “there will always be codes”). Everybody had an opinion on the state of professional uniforms—or lack thereof—in 2016, but the collective takeaway seemed to be that the boundaries between dressing for work and life are increasingly hazy. It’s confusing, right?
Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of one of the world’s most valuable companies, wears a grey t-shirt every day, but our friends in finance still have to swelter in a jacket and tie. Then there’s Kendall Jenner, the epitome of the blurred lines generation, who can walk down the street (her version of the office) rocking a sheer top that reveals a made-for-paparazzi nipple piercing. As the conflation of self-expression and professional optics grows—hello, social media—arguably the best way to solve this aesthetic conundrum is by examining dress code guidelines in the fashion industry. It’s the very industry, after all, that’s responsible for everything we wear.
For our testing ground, enter Factory PR, a top-tier fashion, lifestyle, and technology communications agency headquartered in a gleaming 12,000-square-foot loft-y space in New York City’s West Chelsea neighborhood. Moody lighting and polished hardwood floors accentuate the racks of clothing from clients like Bar III and ASOS, shelves of sparkling Uno de 50 jewelry, and tables filled with cool gadgets, including museum-worthy Marshall speakers and UrbanEar’s futuristic headphones.
It’s the sort of place someone from Gossip Girl would intern at for the summer, the perfect setting for a glossy rom-com starring Jennifer Lawrence as a chic twenty-something navigating the big city. That’s not to say landing a job here requires a pricey makeover montage à la The Devil Wears Prada, but in talking to several of the firm’s 40 employees, a passion for fashion must be on your resume. That’s because when it comes to office style, “people here can wear whatever they want to wear as long as it’s the right thing to wear,” says Factory’s founder Mark Silver (who sends all new employees his favorite Net-a-Porter feature on day-to-night style). Silver’s outfitted in what’s presumably the right thing: a sharp blazer/t-shirt/jeans combination that comes off as classic, clean, and sophisticated. Or simply “put together,” a description I heard exactly 26 times during the course of my interviews with Factory staffers. If there’s an unofficial attire policy here, I think we’ve found the winner.
Of course, there’s also an official handbook supplied by HR, complete with a paragraph on dress code dos and don’ts: “Factory PR strives to maintain a professional environment where image, attitude, and style are front and center. It is essential that employees are dressed presentably and able to conduct an appointment with a client or an editor at a moment’s notice.” From there it goes off the typical dry copy script by way of some high doses of tongue-in-cheek: “If you wonder if your look is office appropriate, err on the side of fabulous. Short shorts: NO. Crop tops: NO. Flip flops: NO NO NO. Brands we hate: NO. Wrinkled: NEVER.” Got it. It ends, though, with an affirmation of sorts: “You have been hired because you display, among other traits, excellent personal style. Show us that every day.”
And show they do, as evidenced by Dan Chizzoniti, a digital account supervisor who just happens to be a fashion blogger on the side; He strolled into the glass-walled conference room sporting a preppy Simon Doonan-ish get-up of a patterned button-down with a contrasting floral tie teamed with shorts, nattily accessorized by a tie bar, a stack of bracelets, and a pair of Persol glasses. “One of the things I will never do is work at a place you can’t wear shorts,” he opens with matter-of-factly. “It’s the very first question I ask before I start.” If Dan can’t wear shorts, Dan can’t be himself (Dan really like shorts, apparently). The point, he says, is this: “I love working at a fashion PR firm, and Factory in general, because I can change my look and express myself in many different ways through clothing. Unlike in other corporate cultures, no one is constricting me and telling me what to do when it comes what I wear here.”
The same is true of Casey McDonald (pictured at the top of the page), a 25-year-old former model whose purview is all things technology. He dresses for work the same way he dresses for get-togethers with friends, which today means a checked ASOS suit that goes casual via some Converse sneakers. “I could never wear same suit and tie as all my colleagues are wearing, I think that’s crazy.” (Indeed, “guys wearing a suit every day at Factory is going to turn clients off,” Silver claims. “I don’t want it to be super-formal. The same thing goes for girls—don’t dress like you’re going to a cocktail party or opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange.”) Like most of the folks at Factory, McDonald says he doesn’t even think about any dress code regulations. The only time it came up was when he wore a tank top (that would be a NO), but besides said incident, his summation of workplace attire is that “it’s pretty much at your own discretion.”
Then there’s Eef Vicca, a bubbly Belgian who feels the same way about mini-skirts as Dan does about shorts; The senior fashion director says that being at Factory means “I can still wear a short skirt and have that freedom to go a little bit crazy. If I was in an accountant job, I’d have to wear a skirt that comes to my knees!” When pressed to think of anything she can’t wear to work, she draws a blank: “I know there is stuff, but I can’t come up with it right now.” Upon further reflection, she adds, “there’s an unwritten rule to look good. Mark really keeps up with the trends and it’s important to him his employees do, too. He keeps us on our toes.” Does that stress her out? “Well, I do think that if you work in a fashion agency you usually have a good sense of style.”
No one would dispute Genevieve Ascencio is lacking in that department—as an employee for more than eight years, the Digital VP is an old hand at appropriate Factory attire and characterizes her bold look as “Diana Ross does office.” She lauds the firm’s outfit latitude, particularly because it allows her to be practical. She’s a commuter and always meeting with clients, so she says she searches “for pieces that convey my personal style but can get the job done. It doesn’t mean that anything goes, it means you can put your twist on things.” One example she offers up: “If you want to wear a jogging pant, elevate it with some killer heels!” Oh, and speaking of heels, she keeps a pair under her desk to switch out with her regular flats when it’s time for important presentations, a trick of the trade Stacy Roman, Factory’s senior accessories director, also employs. Roman, like Ascencio, says she can quickly amp up her aesthetic with some statement jewelry: “If I have an important conference, I can throw on a necklace from one of our clients to polish up my look.”
Lest you think she’s breaking any rules, clients actually love it when Factory’s employees incorporate their products into their wardrobe. “My clients are inspired by my employees,” says Silver proudly. Ascencio concurs: “It’s important to experience the brand. You should wear it to show the client you understand what they’re about.” It’s a perk that mitigates the pressures implicit in that “fabulous” part of the employee handbook; some clients give staffers discounts, some give them items at the end of the season, and, to make up the difference, Silver also provides a clothing allowance. The notion of being in head-to-toe designer is far from the truth here, which makes sense as the brands on Factory’s roster represent a mix of what Silver terms “high fashion and high street.” In today’s logo-less world, you can get away with being that all-important “put together” sans breaking the bank. Chizzoniti, for one, tells me that when he went into the fashion industry, “I had this notion you had to wear what just came down the runway, but it’s the opposite at Factory—it doesn’t matter if the clothing is a $10 t-shirt from H&M or an $1,000 one from Gucci. You just want to represent you.”
Silver swears this trend helps foster the awesomely eclectic ensembles that populate Factory’s open-plan HQ: “The democratization of fashion in office space brings out a lot of creativity if it’s managed well.” Managed well being the key part. Sure, there’s an unspoken rule about the dress code, says the agency’s fashion director, Liz Franco, who stands out in an interesting ASOS dress complimented by a Cartier watch that can’t help but catch the light. “When you’re interacting with different clients and editors you have to look and dress a certain way.” But to everyone I talked to at Factory, that’s just what makes public relations such an interesting environment. According to Franco, “you really have to love fashion PR and love fashion to be in this industry. I think having a true passion for fashion and the way you dress yourself and the way you see others dressing is how you make it.” But, c’mon, have any dress code infractions resulted in termination? (Asked conspiratorially, hoping for some juicy copy.) “We’ve never had to let anyone go for that,” Franco answered. “You’d have to wear something pretty extreme for us to have to fire you so. So, no, there has been no ‘fashion firing.’ Not yet, anyway.”