In the buttoned-up business world, what does a punchy yellow tie or a pair of leopard-print Jimmy Choos say? You’d be surprised.
It turns out people who choose to be fashionably bold are rewarded in the workplace with more respect, according to a Harvard Business School study published earlier this year.
In what the study has dubbed the “Red Sneakers Effect,” bosses who break the black-suit rule were perceived as risk-takers and leaders.
“It suggests you’re autonomous,” said Silvia Bellezza, a doctoral student and one of the authors of the study. “In Western society, independence, autonomy, is a trait that is highly valued and liked.”
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, for example, even wears his trademark hoodie to meetings with investment bankers.
But, Bellezza warns, there is a fine line between being fashion-forward and fashion-flawed. If you ditch the tie, it has to be obvious that you’re unleashing your personal style, and not that you’re clueless or can’t afford it. “This signal of status comes at a risk,” she said. “That’s why not everybody is willing to do it.”
With this research in mind, we found a few local fearless fashionistas willing to stretch the boundaries of the corporate dress code.
Painted pants, poodle skirts
Leah McCormack likes bold colors, vintage clothes, and statement necklaces. But she knows that the workplace isn’t always the easiest place to express your tastes, especially when you’re new to the job.
When McCormack, 23, started working as a merchandising analyst for the home decor website Wayfair.com early this summer, she initially just offered hints about her style. She would dress conventionally, but decorate her desk with unexpected accessories, such as a stiletto cellphone holder.
As she became more comfortable with her co-workers, McCormack brought out her painted pants and a blazer adorned at the shoulder with chains.
McCormack has always had a flair for the unusual, even at her New Hampshire high school, where one of her favorite outfits was a poodle skirt. Her mother passed on her love of thrift shopping, and many of McCormack’s most treasured items are secondhand: “It’s not about having tons of money and buying things at Barneys and Bergdorf.”
Leading with his socks
Standing out at Foundation Medicine, a Cambridge biotech firm, is no simple task.
The company’s technology, which matches cancer patients with treatments for their specific diagnosis, is cutting edge. The firm’s office furniture, white curved chairs and clear stairs, looks ready for a space launch. Even the walls are a bold tangerine.
But Kevin Krenitsky, the company’s chief commercial officer, manages to shine — with a little help from his sunny yellow shirt, coral pants, or aqua-and-green paisley socks.
“I thought we’re extremely creative in the jobs we do,” he said. “Why not be creative in the way we look?”
Krenitsky, 48, and father of three, was in a rock band before he went to medical school and hasn’t lost his edge. Soon after he tries out a new look, he’ll spot other employees at the company following suit, whether it’s a bold pocket square or flashy socks.
“If people see that you’re willing to step outside the box,” he said, “it can potentially be a sign of leadership.”
Sneakers behind the velvet rope
Randy Greenstein developed his sneaker passion in Las Vegas.
Greenstein, 38, a principal in Big Night Entertainment Group, which runs Boston restaurants and nightclubs, such as Empire Asian Restaurant and Lounge, noticed several guys waiting outside a hot club wearing lace-ups with expensive suits.
Now, five years later, he has shelves in his closet devoted to his sneakers.
These aren’t your everyday running shoes. We’re talking supple whiskey-brown high-tops, a black pair ringed with gold lame, and brands such as Louis Vuitton and Alexander McQueen, names more familiar on the runways than the sidewalk.
“We’re in a young business, our customers are in their 20s and 30s,” he said. “We’re always trying to stay relevant. While doing that, why not be you?”
Still, Greenstein has his limits. When he’s meeting with city officials or visiting clubs on busy Saturday nights, Greenstein wants to convey a more polished vibe, so the sneakers come off and the dress shoes go on.
He has one other rule: no sneakers with suits.
That might work in Vegas, he said, but, “I’m too old for that.”
The girl with the travel tattoos
Brittney Lee’s life is in her hands.
Tattoos that trace her journey from Germany (a flag) to New Mexico (a skull) to Alabama (chicken wings and a biscuit) stretch from her fingers to her elbows.
Lee, 25, is the assistant pastry chef at Flour Bakery + Cafe in Cambridge, whipping up the sweet confections that have made the restaurant the go-to breakfast and lunch spot in the neighborhood. She started out serving coffee, and knows that not every customer will appreciate her pink-tinged hair or tattoos. But Lee aims to prove that no matter how fierce she looks, she can still provide great service.
“I wanted a hand tattoo to prove that I could be successful and look the way I do,” she said. “We function best when we can talk about our lives, and if people can be themselves.”
Spreading joy through legwear
In the world of mental illness and substance abuse counseling, levity is in short supply. But Katharine Thomas, assistant director at the Institute for Health and Recovery, tries to do her part.
The otherwise serious 60-year-old, who dresses in solid colors, adds a dash of surprise with her hosiery, a “visual wink,” as she calls it.
Co-workers at the Cambridge-based nonprofit have said that Thomas brings “joy to the world through legwear.”
Her hosiery, a collection of about 30 pairs, includes stained-glass floral patterns that burst with blues and oranges. There are turquoise lace tights, paisleys, and pop-art pairs, some simple solids for meetings with state agency officials, and the requisite hearts for Valentine’s Day and skulls for Halloween.
When she trains employees to work with addicts and their families, the tights are a conversation starter, she said.
“It reminds people that people are resilient,” Thomas said. “That’s what it turned into for me. . . . It’s a technique for engaging people.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect name for Empire Asian Restaurant and Lounge.