Business Casual: A Trend Well-suited to Israel

By the time Israelis learn to wear suits, most American businessmen will already be heading to work in jeans.

Beth Belkin doesn't like it when she sees Israelis wearing jeans to business meetings.

"I know it's accepted practice in hi-tech," says Belkin, spokeswoman for Israel's Trade & Economic Office in New York.  "But it took us years to teach Israelis that they have to wear suits and ties. After finally achieving all that, I really don't like the thought of telling them that it's okay to wear jeans."

You can wear jeans if you're Mark Zuckerberg, she advises. But if you didn't found a mega-billion dollar company, she would advise more formal wear: "It broadcasts gravitas and respect."

Jeans give off a sense of arrogance and Israelis already have a reputation for being arrogant. Denim won't help them overcome that negative image. "If you come to a meeting dressed in suit and tie, it broadcasts respect and people will relate to you accordingly," Belkin says.

Yet it appears that Belkin herself has some adjusting to do. The reality around her is changing.

Changing norms

It is true that suit and tie have been the expected attire in the U.S. business world. But times are a-changing and jeans are in. The trick is figuring out when denim is a refreshing sartorial choice and when it's just tacky.

Then there's Gil Harel, CEO of the start-up Bithunter that helps people find restaurant deals online. He says that a suit is no longer appropriate in his work. When he meets with venture capitalists to solicit funding he wears jeans, a button-down shirt and a blazer. Anything more formal would actually send the wrong message.

"Suits make you look like a suck-up. In the end that will hurt you," he said. "For a variety of reasons, the accepted style of dress is similar to the Israeli norm. But in the U.S. they place more emphasis on the details and are more concerned with looking fashionable."

Simon Nakervis, who helps American Eagle Outfitters setup clothing stores around the world, says high-tech is responsible for rendering "business causal" a legitimate dress choice.

"Today, even law offices and accounting firms have employees wearing jeans and a blazer," said Nankervis. "Of course, if you appear in court or go to meet clients, you are still expected to wear a suit.  But in certain industries, like cinema, fashion, architecture and engineering and design, jeans are much more accepted."

No soiled or 'distressed' trousers, please

Nankervis says, though, that only spotless, pressed and well-designed jeans are ever appropriate at work. "A company that lets its employees wear jeans has to explain to them what is allowed and what isn't, so there won't be any misunderstandings," he said.

While jeans may have entered the workplace on the hips of young Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, they can now be worn by businessmen of all ages, says Clint Groom, a denim expert for American Eagle. "It used to be that someone who wore jeans to work wasn't treated seriously, but those days are gone," said Groom. 

Jeans are the quintessential American piece of clothing, and this is reflected in American Eagle's sales figures, says Groom.

"We sell 7 million pairs of men's jeans a year and 10 million pairs of women's jeans a year," said Groom. "Everyone wears jeans, from the average factory worker up to the company CEO, and they can cost anywhere from $30 to $300."

With American business culture becoming more casual, even Israelis who have experience working in the U.S. have to be careful.

Marco Greenberg, the owner of New York-based public relations boutique Thunder11, lived in Israel for years and now provides professional fashion advice to Israeli diplomats appearing in the U.S. media. He says industry, event and even nationality have to factor into wardrobe decision.

Formal dinners still require a suit and tie, he says, as do meetings with lawyer and Japanese or Chinese businesspeople. But he says jeans are more appropriate at advertising or technology industry events, where a suit looks out of touch or out of date.

Don't chintz on the chinos

The biggest faux pas committed by Israelis who come to the U.S. to do business, is buying cheap suits, he says.

"Americans can distinguish between cheap suits and expensive suits that are well-made and well-tailored," Greenberg said. "They can pick up on whether you bought a nice button down shirt or picked one up at the bargain store. It's better to go casual than cheap."

Arik Puder is the founder of PuderPR, a firm with offices in Tel Aviv and New York City. He usually wears jeans and a tie to work, and steps it up to khakis for business meetings, he says. He says he only wears a suit if he is attending an official event.

"I talk with tons of clients and journalists every day, so I need to broadcast confidence and ease," he said. "I take myself to be an open and straightforward kind of guy and suit simply doesn’t express that."

He urges his clients to be very aware of the signals their clothes are sending, especially given the changing cultural context in the U.S. He notes that American politicians take of their coats and roll of their sleeves when they go out to meet people in the street. Even Wall Street types, who are known for their expensive suits, now dress casually on Fridays, sometimes even wearing jeans, he says.

And, of course, people who work in high-tech actually need to dress casually to appear innovative, or like the person who is going to "bring the world the next Facebook," he said.

According to Edith Davidson, the manager of an executive recruitment company in the U.S., people should still dress up for interviews in the U.S. "It is true that a job candidate should feel comfortable during an interview and express his personality," she said. "But the surest way to do this is by wearing a suit."

 Back in Israel, formal is in

While the U.S. business world is getting more casual, many Israeli companies are pushing their employees to dress more formally.

At Israeli investment firm Psagot Investment anyone who deals with clients wears a suit and tie, even in the stifling heat of Israeli summer. Brand doesn't matter: Zara or Celio are fine, rather than the costlier Gucci or Armani. Employees in the back office can get away with jeans and a button-down shirt.

Avivit Peleg, co-CEO of Yania, Peleg and Partners Investments, says her company has similar standards.

"The saying, don't judge a book by its cover, definitely doesn't apply here," she said. "In the business world, people like to work with others who show aesthetic taste and a sense of style that reflects the reputation of the company and the character of the person."

Peleg notes that the hot weather in Israel makes American-style formality difficult, but she says that there are solutions.

"The style of clothing here is a bit different because of the summer," she said. "You don't see people wearing suits and closed-toe shoes during the hot season. Women definitely can wear nice and proper dresses that are appropriate for the day."

In 2007, Bank Hapoalim instituted a dress code as part of an effort to improve customer service. Female employees at the bank were told to wear a buttoned-down blouse that was one of a selection of bright colors, dark-colored pants or mid-length skirts and a dark-colored button-down blazer. Men were told to wear a button-down shirt, dark-colored tailored pants, a dark-colored button-down blazer and a tie, preferable in a shade of red. A blazer and tie were made optional in the summer.

Yet not all Israelis get this "formal attire' thingie quite right.

Israelis aren't generally known for their formal attire like their business colleague from the U.S. and Japan. According to business and personal image consultant Galit Sharon, Israelis at home still haven't fully adopted the traditional business dress code.

"Ties here [in Israel] always look bad, regardless of the temperature setting programmed into the office air conditioner," said Sharon. "There is this feeling in Israel that people wear suits like they are some sort of costume meant to disguise them. Israelis always wear suits that don't fit right and have an unclear color pattern. There is no care for the entire look that includes coordinating the choice of dress shoes, belt, hair styling and cosmetics."

Men typically purchase cheap suits because they only to wear them once or twice and don't view their purchase as a long-term investment, she explains: Some even pull their old wedding suits out of the closet and go to meetings looking completely out-dated and out of place.

"A proper-fitting suit can work wonders," Sharon tries to persuade. "[Israeli Channel 10 news anchor] Guy Zohar and [famous television comedian] Eyal Kitzis wear suits that really fit them. Ehud Barak, though, looks like a catastrophe. His suits are always too long on him and he appears a bit disheveled."

Women do little better, Sharon says.

"The tailored feminine look [in Israel] generally incorporates elements of the masculine dress code," she says. "For example, TzipiLivni and Ronit Tirosh always wear turtlenecks and Mandarin collars and end up hiding any sign of their femininity. Common mistakes you see with Israeli women are a lack of coordination between the fabric of the blazer and the skirt, inappropriate skirt length, and a blouse underneath a blazer that doesn't match the jacket and inappropriate cleavage."

That said, Sharon abhors the idea of casual dress staging an Israeli comeback.

"Israelis absolutely love casual," said Sharon. "Jeans are written in our DNA. I am afraid that if we let the genie out of the bottle, it will go too far. Outside of Israel, strictly casual dress means a pair of dark, brand-name jeans, a pressed and starched shirt along with matching shoes. The advantage of easygoing dress is that it provides an opportunity to express your personality, but when you give too much place for self-expression it becomes inappropriate for the business world."