January 21, 2011 5:14 pm

When in Davos ... or Paris

Fashion and financial people have more in common than they think

One of the odder calendar coincidences occurs next week, when the fashion flock descends upon Paris for the couture shows, and the financial flock hits Davos for the World Economic Forum. And though this might seem perfect fodder for a comedian’s monologue, as the two events are so different, sartorially they are strikingly similar.

Do not laugh. Think about it.

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The two sects (which, arguably, fashion people and finance people are – and while I know Davos involves speakers and attendees beyond the world of economics, such as Angelina Jolie and Paulo Coelho, it also has a critical mass of “numbers” people) are easy to identify: they stick out, not because of their accents or what they say behind closed doors, but because of how they look.

The fact is, whenever groups of like-minded – or like-industry – people get together, their dress codes become ever more rigorous and self-referential. In the world of an industry event, you stop comparing yourself and how you look with the people on the subway sitting next to you, or at the school gates, and start comparing yourself with the guy at the conference centre or the hotel; to your peer, or someone whose peer you would like to be.

This is why, as the fashion shows go on, the heels get ever higher, the platforms more towering. In the real world, full of flats and sneakers and kitten heels, it would be clear how insane walking in five-inch footwear is to the rest of the world, and the wearer of said footwear might get embarrassed and pause to reconsider. But in the front row of a catwalk presentation, where everyone else has been elevated to basketball player height because of the boots they are wearing, the need to look into people’s eyes instead of up at their chin seems completely rational – and imperative.

And it is why at Davos last year, Max Levchin, former chief executive of the tech company Slide, now a Google executive, appeared in a suit – much to the surprise of the editor of TechCrunch, Michael Arrington. In fact, Arrington was so surprised, he noted Levchin’s sartorial about-turn in an interview: “You’re wearing a suit today. You never wear suits,” he said.

“I never wear suits,” agreed Levchin.

“Kind of a World Economic thing,” observed Arrington.

“It is,” said Levchin. You know: “When in Davos ... ”

So that’s the macro case. But there are also micro issues of temperature and timing which bring the groups together. The complications created by winter, for example, and the need to negotiate passage from a freezing outside to inside spaces – auditoriums, catwalks – where the body temperatures of the hundreds of audience members (not to mention hot stage lights) can make a room feel almost tropical.

This leads to a constant weighing of the question “to snow boot or not to snow boot”, which is another form of the debate about image versus substance.

Do you stay in your professional clothes even when elements dictate against it, assuming that in a 24-hour work situation (which events like Davos and couture are) the odds are you’ll see people who know you professionally, not just in a controlled environment, but waiting for a bus or sloshing through streets, and you’ll want to fulfil their expectations of you and not look like a cuddly or fearsome or just awkward abominable snowman?

Or should you opt for practicality and reject costume, because that message (you’re not a sucker for your peer group) will be more effective?

. . .

That doesn’t even get into the logistical issues of carrying proper shoes around in a ... briefcase? Handbag? And the weird moments the public changing of shoes can create, or the packing problems caused by lots of necessary layering.

Or, for that matter, the fact that at both Davos and couture the primary sartorial palette, from World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab through Nestlé’s Paul Bulcke to new French Vogue editor Emmanuelle Alt and Givenchy designer Riccardo Tisci, is dark.

(By the way, if anyone thinks this is overstating the matter, and the attendees don’t plan out their wardrobes, all you have to do is Google “What to wear to Davos?” and “What to wear to couture?”, then count the hits.)

All of which means what? That fashion people and financial people, who have long-held and deep-seated suspicions of each other (and believe me, I know, because I work with them both, and the amount of Mars/Venus whining that goes on is beyond tedious) should stop acting suspicious of each other and acknowledge they are actually siblings under the skin?

No, even I would not go that far. But perhaps they have more in common than they think: they have both pledged their allegiance to a group, signed on for its rituals and native dress, read the catechism and adopted the identity.

And this identity is recognisable from the outside. You could even say the folks at the World Economic Forum have predicted it. The title of the 2011 event, after all, is “Shared Norms for the New Reality”. I could have used it as this column’s headline, only they thought of it first.

vanessa.friedman@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/friedman

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