Photo: Zaphs Zhang, Styling: Alice Chua
Sulian Tan-Wijaya is a local style icon who’s usually photographed in beautiful floor-length gowns or cocktail dresses. But the glamorous socialite dresses much more practically for her day job as executive director at property management company Savills, which requires her to be out and about. Loose-fitting dresses, athleisure and even jeans have become part of her work wardrobe.
Like most other women in the workplace, Sulian started her climb up the corporate ladder in punishing skyscraper heels and suffocating pencil skirts. Not that she minded. She enjoyed dressing up and relished every opportunity to showcase her sharp dress sense.
It was only five years ago that she traded her heels for comfortable flats and sports shoes. She swopped out her waist cinching skirts for shift dresses. “I dress for comfort now. Maybe it’s because of age,” she chuckles. But by no means has she compromised on her own personal style. She stole the show at the ICON Ball 2017 when she tastefully wore a floral playsuit meant for the beach.
“I am always conscious of how I present myself,” says Sulian. While there’s an easy confidence about her that’s both captivating and slightly intimidating, she explains that her sartorial choices can amplify or diminish the effect she has on others. People have told her that since she adopted a more casual ensemble, she seems more approachable, particularly to subordinates.
Companies keep it casual to attract young blood
Felicia Sun, brand and community manager at Lululemon. Photo: Zaphs Zhang, Styling: Alice Chua
On a wider scale, the Singapore corporate uniform has evolved to value comfort too, a shift driven largely by millennials who champion individual expression. Businesses that target the millennial market have taken notice.
“Work attire only began to change as recently as two to three years ago when the tech and startup scene exploded,” speculates Felicia Sun, brand and community manager at Lululemon. At her previous job with a cosmetics company, Felicia’s entire wardrobe had to be black. “Open-toed shoes were not allowed. And I had to spend two hours every day to get my makeup just right such that it would meet company standards,” she said. “It made me feel professional.”
To her, the strict dress code was a product of an epoch that emphasized the need to look “proper” at work.
Then, she moved to the ultra hip lifestyle brand Lululemon and things couldn’t be more different. “Lululemon allows me to be more authentic in the way I represent myself,” says Felicia, who loves trying new sports and working out. Her job literally necessitates that she dress in Lululemon’s yoga-inspired apparel all the time, because networking within the fitness industry translates into plenty of sweat sessions.
Ultimately, the clothing you put on for work reflects the company culture. “This industry naturally attracts people who are healthier and love working out, so there’s definitely a look when you work in fitness,” she adds.
Greater comfort = higher productivity
Sheena Siao, partner manager at a tech firm. Photo: Zaphs Zhang, Styling: Alice Chua
It isn’t just lifestyle and fitness brands. Many corporations endorse casual attire at the workplace, in part because of the belief that if employees are physically comfortable, they will be able to get more done.
As you’d expect in any cool office styled after its Silicon Valley counterparts, it’s hoodies and jeans galore where Sheena Siao works. The partner manager at an international tech company says that even though her job is a client-facing one, she doesn’t have to abide by any specific rules of attire.
“I would say that the culture here fosters respect regardless of what you wear, as long as you’re good at what you do,” Sheena says. The certified yoga instructor’s go-to outfit is technical wear, yoga pants and sneakers. This makes it all the more convenient for her to conduct yoga classes for her colleagues as part of a company initiative, yet another effort to improve employee wellbeing.
Comfortable outfits that provide mobility are essential to Sabrina Goh’s job as restaurant manager of VENUE By Sebastian. Her first stint in F&B was at Restaurant Ember, a semi-fine dining restaurant helmed by her husband Sebastian Ng.
"Even though I was the manager, I did all the operations myself – meaning I was on my feet from the start to end of service,” she says. Back in the mid 2000s, guests had a more rigid idea of what proper attire was so she reluctantly put on the waitress uniform.
Sabrina Goh, restaurant manager of VENUE By Sebastian. Photo: Zaphs Zhang, Styling: Alice Chua
Then, she became pregnant in 2007. “Getting into a suit was out of the question at that point,” Sabrina recalls. She switched to dark T-shirts, comfortable cotton button-ups and trainers in order to withstand those long hours in the dining room. Now, since Sebastian closed Restaurant Ember and opened his new restaurant with a new concept, but Sabrina continues to dress casually.
“My dressing gels more with the contemporary cuisine served at VENUE By Sebastian in the sense that it’s more free-style, versatile and laid back,” she says. “He cooks what he likes, and I wear what I’m comfortable in.”
Be casual but stylish
Mei Kimura, graphic designer at Rice Communications. Photo: Zaphs Zhang, Styling: Alice Chua
“At the end of the day, it is all about respect,” says Sulian. When picking your outfit, you must consider your bosses’ and clients’ expectations. Even when you go to social events, you don’t just wear whatever you like. Yes, you can wear something exciting to express your personal style, but you must also respect the host.
Mei Kimura, a graphic designer at Rice Communications, says that as the only designer in her company, clients expect her to dress in a less conventional way. “If my outfit is too corporate or conventional, it might worry them.”
While she jazzes up her outfit with statement earrings and interesting prints, she also makes it a point to choose more muted colours and sensible cuts like culottes or drapey dresses so as not to call too much attention to herself when clients are around.
“It’s very important what the client thinks, and first impressions matter a lot,” Mei explains. She may not be the one liaising with the client, but her presence in the office is enough to affect what they think about the company on a whole. If she could get away with it, she’d wear "baggy, flowy holiday wear" every day.
Feel free to experiment
Seah Yun Ting, creative designer at an ad agency. Photo: Zaphs Zhang, Styling: Alice Chua
In the Central Business District, more women are testing the waters with their corporate attire. Seah Yun Ting, a creative designer at an advertising firm, is one of them. Like Mei, she dresses differently from her colleagues. “I just wear what I like to work - quirky printed skirts or blazers. Sometimes I do get comments from colleagues who are surprised that I am able to pull it off,” says Yun Ting.
“Wearing what you like makes you feel good,” she continues. “Everyone should have that freedom.” But not everyone has a good eye for fashion like her to start off. For those aren’t ready for a full wardrobe makeover, Yun Ting suggests adding little details to change up a boring outfit - chunky necklaces, cat brooches and cheeky pins. “You can also play with fabrics. For example, instead of a black skirt made from the usual cotton or linen blends, wear a neoprene one,” she says.
Most importantly, have fun with your dressing and don’t expect to hit all the right notes every time. Everybody has their off days, Sulian admits, including herself. “And it’s impossible to please everyone.” With a little time and luck, your own personal style will emerge and shine through even at work.