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Business fashion in Asia: How to look the part
A professional look doesn't have to be dull. Fashion insiders in Asia explain how a business image can also be trendy
The days of stiff, generic work outfits are long gone in Asia.
Today's young professionals are incorporating stylish individualism into their office looks.
Much of this is targeted at post-work parties, combining a professional day look with a stylish evening or night outfit.
"Both women and men are striving to become more eclectic and sophisticated in business settings," says Shanghai-based June-Mee Hong, fashion buyer for a U.S. luxury department store in China.
"Dresses with jackets and heels, chic and clean silk blouses with high waisted pants or shorts, and minis with cozy knitwear and boots, can all be translated from night to day."
The best part -- you don't need to know a dozen tiny or obscure outlets to take part in these trends.
We asked fashion stylists, buyers, merchandisers, designers and tailors for tips on where to get the hottest items of the season.
Hong Kong: Men
In Hong Kong, casual elements are being introduced to the usual office ensembles for men this year.
“Weekend wear elements, such as cottons, khakis and denim are being integrated into office looks,” says Iris Lam, divisional merchandising manager of Harvey Nichols department store in Hong Kong.
But Lam says that defined tailoring is the most important detail in menswear this season, as the typical suit is slimming up and becoming sharper.
“Tailored jackets with emphasized shoulders and cinched waists are proportionally paired with cuffed cigarette trousers,” says Lam, who points to WooYoungMi’s collections as an example.
For extremely fashion-forward individuals, Lam recommends elements of “blue collar workwear” which are being reinvented for Wall Street looks, including strap-closure blazers, coveralls and quilted jackets.
“A good example of this would be Kris Van Assche, where loosely tailored suits are paired with quilted vests or overalls,” she says.
Hong Kong men are becoming more focused on accessories as well -- especially bags.
“Bag shopping is no longer just a woman’s hobby,” says Waisze Choi, a buyer at Electric Sekki, a fashion marketing and distribution company in Hong Kong.
“The menswear bags are not just briefcases anymore -- they are becoming more fashion forward with shapes and materials.”
Kris Van Assche suits and WooYoungMi jackets both start at HK$8,000 (US$1,032) at Harvey Nichols, The Landmark, 15 Queen's Road Central, Hong Kong; +852 3695 3388; Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sunday 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; blog.harveynichols.com.hk
Hong Kong, Women
While pantsuits and skirtsuits still dominate the businesswear market for women, the dandy look is growing.
“We’ve been spotting a lot of male elements in womenswear to create a more androgynous look,” says Tony Lee, women's merchandising manager of Harvey Nichols Hong Kong.
Choi at Electric Sekki agrees that the “borrowed from the boys” look is in this season, with the trend encompassing pantsuits, full-print geometric and digital looks and the structured shoulder.
In terms of fabric, the Harvey Nichols team has observed that jacquard and boucle has been a popular choice for outerwear, particularly paired with light shirts or sheer blouses.
Lee recommends a simple pencil dress with a defined waist, teamed up with a jacket or a cardigan.
“Labels which typically provide great dress options include Herve Leger and Mantu, perfect for a day-to-night look."
Herve Leger dresses start at HK$8,900, Mantu dresses start at HK$5,900 at Harvey Nichols, The Landmark, 15 Queen's Road Central, Hong Kong; +852 3695 3388; Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sunday 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; blog.harveynichols.com.hk
Traditionally, businesswear in Seoul is conservative, with suits confined to black and charcoal colors. But the younger generations are searching for ways to subtly express themselves via accessories and little “points.”
“In the past, everyone just headed to a department store to buy their suits, but now professionals are going to select shops (boutiques) and are interested in ‘half-tailored’ suits,” says Hong Suk-woo, a fashion editor and stylist.
Hong adds that interest is moving away from high-end luxury to more individual, tailored styles that incorporate casual elements.
“We’re seeing more of a casual look to business menswear these days, from oxford shirts and knitted ties to accessories that include bracelets.”
Hong says bags in particular have a lot more variety than before, with many opting for satchels and leather document cases over traditional heavy-looking briefcases.
He recommends UNIPAIR for shoes and accessories, where you can get “very unique shoes for a really good price, wonderful styling tips and great tailoring and after-service," and g.street 494 homme businesswear boutique at Galleria Department Store.
"Rather than obsessing about brands, it's all about casual outerwear this upcoming season," says Jae-yong Lee, the merchandiser at g.street 494 homme.
Top items the boutique is pushing this season?
"The Camosita checkered jacket (₩1.1 million (US$1,102)), a Della Ciana cashmere down vest (₩2.1 million) and an Herno hooded knit duffle coat (₩1.6 million)." says Lee.
For mens shoes and accessories, try UNIPAIR, 37-1 164-gil Eonjuro Gangnam-gu Seoul (서울시 강남구 언주로 164 37-1); +82 2 542 0370; Monday-Saturday 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; www.unipair.com
For unique businesswear looks, head to g.street 494 homme, Galleria Department Store Luxury Hall East, 515 Apgujeong-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul (서울시 강남구 압구정동 515); +82 2 6905 4494 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m.; dept.galleria.co.kr
More on CNN: Best men's select shops in Seoul
Women's businesswear in Seoul this season is veering in the opposite direction from menswear.
“The colors are more muted and women are dressing very conservatively,” says Hong.
Slim, simple silhouettes continue to dominate.
“Young female professionals in Seoul seem to be more conscious of looking respectable than flamboyantly expressing themselves.”
For a one-stop shopping spree, Hong recommends new select shop My Boon, a collaboration between Shinsegae Department Store and fashion icon and former Jil Sander creative director Milan Vukmirovic, which opened in July.
“They stock a lot of cool, creative items for both men and women so it’s definitely worth checking out for extremely fashionable takes on accessories and fashion items such as umbrellas and scarves to finalize your business outfit,” says the stylist.
My Boon carries niche brands like Tom Binns and Chrome Hearts. 4-1 Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul (서울시 강남구 청담동 4-1); +82 2 6947 1270; 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; www.myboon.co.kr
More on CNN: The supermodel's guide: Where to shop in Seoul
Passing over the traditional blazer, Shanghai men are looking for more interesting outerwear with unconventional fabric combinations, collars and statement pieces.
“Even though big name designers like Armani and Hugo Boss are dominating menswear in Shanghai, local designers and unconventional work outfits are becoming increasingly popular,” says luxury fashion buyer June-mee Hong.
Hong says one of the best menswear shows she saw during Shanghai Fashion Week Fall 2012 was May J.
“The exposed stitching, unconventional collar and slouchy yet slim-fit trousers is a great example of an up-and-coming local designer look for the young Shanghai businessman,” says Hong.
A popular one-stop shop for tailor-made services among young professionals in Shanghai is SL Bespoke.
"Seventy percent of our VIP clients are Shanghainese elites and we have many Fortune 500 corporate clients such as IBM or investment committees like New Synergy, an active group of 800 'young' professionals based in Shanghai," says Stel Lee, the designer/tailor behind SL Bespoke.
This season Lee recommends a tailored vest for its functional versatility.
"It can complement a two-piece suit and transform it into a distinguished and debonair look, while also complementing casual wear such as skinny jeans and a softer-fabric shirt with rolled sleeves," says the tailor.
Custom suits start at RMB 3,800 (US$605) at Stel Lee Bespoke (历宁男装定制), 569 Fuxing Zhong Lu, near Ruijin Er Lu, 复兴中路569号, 近瑞金二路, +86 21 5465 1953, 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m., www.hisshanghai.com
More on CNN: Insider Guide: Best of Shanghai
Business women in China's fashion capital are also borrowing from the boys this season.
“Boyfriend blazers and menswear looks will be big in Shanghai, as everywhere else in fashion-centric cities,” says Hong. “Brocade and jacquard pants with hints of metallic can be paired nicely with a simple black boyfriend blazer and printed silk sheer blouses for the workplace."
Suits will stay out of sight.
"With the exception of female lawyers and bankers, Shanghai office ladies tend not to wear suits but prefer colored blouses and skirts, as well as a cashmere sweater with skirts," says Lee, adding that accessories are always a must in Shanghai, even at the office.
Rather than focusing solely on the biggest names, Shanghai women are becoming more sophisticated in their selections of foreign brands.
“There are more and more high-end multi-brand boutiques and e-commerce sites that are focusing on introducing more niche foreign brands like Helmut Lang, Preen, Rag & Bone, Opening Ceremony, Altuzarra, Derek Lam, Jason Wu, Matthew Williamson, Theyskens' Theory, Twelfth Street by Cynthia Vincent, Current/Elliott and Alice and Olivia,” says Hong.
What about the hottest local brands of the moment?
“Dong Liang and Helen Lee," says Hong, who also recommends boutiques The Villa, Xinlelu Showroom and William the Beekeeper for fashion and accessories.
The Miss Mean pocket blazer is RMB 3,680 at Xinlelu Showroom.
Dong Liang, 184 Fumin Lu, Shanghai, China (富民路184号); +86 21 3469 6926; noon-9 p.m.
Helen Lee, 172-1 Fumin Lu, Shanghai, China (富民路172-1号); +86 21 5465 6618; 10:30 a.m.- 9 p.m.
For more boyfriend blazers and niche foreign brands, try William the Beekeeper, 87 Wuyuan Road, Shanghai, China; +86 21 6433 1789; Tuesday-Sunday noon-8 p.m.; closed Mondays
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