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19 December 2009

The Case of the Vanishing Necktie

Tag(s): Languages & Culture, Leadership & Management

In the days before blogging I used to write for Marketing Magazine and I still read it regularly. The other week it ran a feature on the Mobile Phone industry based on a group discussion between current luminaries in the field. The Mobile Phone industry in which I helped to play a part in driving it from solely professional use to consumer ubiquity has gone from start up to global maturity in just 25 years. However, it is characterised still by innovation in products and services and so as you might expect its marketing managers are all up to the minute guys.

So I was struck by their uniformity in the photo accompanying the article. All were dressed identically in dark suits with plain open necked shirts. They may have been wearing exotic socks but they were not on view. The tie is disappearing fast and despite the picture of me at the top of this blog which is designed to show that I am also an up to the minute guy as well as friendly and approachable, I think this is a shame.

Neck ties allow men to express their personality through at least one item of clothing having some colour and distinctivity. The neck tie is descended from the cravat which originated in 16th century Croatia as I found out when my wife and I holidayed there last year. Like most men’s fashions right up until World War One it was of military origin.

In the reign of Louis XIII of France Croatian mercenaries were enlisted into a regiment supporting the King and Cardinal Richelieu against the Duc de Guise and the Queen Mother, Marie de Medici. Parisians became curious about the unusual, picturesque scarves distinctively knotted at the Croats' necks; the cloths that were used ranged from the coarse cloths of enlisted soldiers, to the fine linens and silks of the officers. The sartorial word "cravat" derives from the French "cravat," a corrupt French pronunciation of "Croat" — in Croatian, "Hrvat". Croatians call their homeland Hrvat.

 It is possible that cravats were initially worn to hide shirts which were not immaculately clean.

When I started my career at Procter & Gamble it was still required for everyone in sales and marketing to wear suits and ties even though we Sales Representatives were also required to do our fair share of merchandising the products instore filling shelves and building displays so that we could argue that the storeroom was low in stock and needed replenishing. Older guys told stories of when they were required to wear black homburg hats.

Brand Managers at Mars worked in or close to the manufacturing plants so wore the same coats as the Production management. In my case this was a natty blue number but collar and tie was still de rigueur underneath.

My first Managing Director at Sony, Nobu Watanabe, was a dapper Japanese who was always dressed immaculately in pressed suits, collar and tie with just the right amount of sleeve showing with elegant pearl cuff links. Some years later he was succeeded by another Japanese, Shin Takagi of whom I have written before in one of these Blogs. Shin had spent some time in the USA where he had picked up some of the dress down habits that were then beginning to spread. He liked the British but found us a bit stuffy and so wanted to introduce some informality into our dress code.

The subject was fully discussed at one of our Board meetings. Shin proposed Dress Down Friday. Various objections were raised. I pointed out the difficulty of distinguishing those who were customer facing from those who were not because anyone going out to see a customer would still be expected to look smart in collar and tie. And what about customers visiting our offices? All of this was water off a duck’s back to Shin. He had no doubt seen all this go quite smoothly in the States. Then his Deputy, Malcolm Willings, a thoroughly decent man who looked after finance and many of the administrative functions, floored Shin.

“Shin, “he said. “What exactly do you mean by casual clothes? At home when I want to wear casual clothes I wear my gardening clothes. Those I wear for mowing the lawn and pruning the roses. Are those the sort of clothes you want me to wear to the office?”

Shin had no answer to Malcolm’s genuine concern.

I am sure that today much of those traditions have been swept aside although ironically the tie is till indispensable in Japan.

 My CEO at Pentland also wanted to introduce   Dress Down Friday if not a Dress Down every day. After all the Company marketed leisure wear. What could be more natural? But here he encountered another difficulty. He could not condone the wearing of competitive logos. We were competing with Adidas and Nike and so on. So a code of behaviour designed to make people feel more relaxed actually did the opposite as it involved even more rules.

At NXT we let people find their own level. We were selling to global customers. We needed to adapt to our market. One of our licensees in California had a pretty relaxed attitude. There were three guys running the business and we would always meet them at the big Electronics Shows in Las Vegas. One was known simply as Big Rich. He had been a Pro Football player and then a bodyguard to the film stars, so he had an excellent contacts book. He showed why he never wore a tie by demonstrating what he could do with the one round my neck!

But at the University of Bedfordshire where I am a Governor the excellent Vice Chancellor, Professor Les Ebdon CBE always wears flamboyant ties. It is part of his personality and goes down well with staff and students alike. Graduation Ceremonies are particularly colourful and when I am asked to preside over one they have a gorgeous gold gown for the President to wear. It demands an equally gorgeous tie and if you go to the Education page of this website you will see what I mean.

So come on, Ladies! Buy the man in your life a nice tie this Christmas and let’s keep at least part of the tradition going. (Message to wife. I have enough ties. The sock drawer is a bit low though.)

 

Copyright David C Pearson 2009 All rights reserved

 




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