Dressing for the part: Why clothes and style (should) matter to executive protection agents


July 2, 2019 - By George L. Grant

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It’s important for executive protection agents to know when to blend in and when to stand out.

If standing out becomes necessary to protect the client, we’re fine with standing up and getting noticed. In most cases, however, we’re happy to blend into the background. Rather than being perceived as something extra added to the equation, we prefer to look like a natural part of the context we’re in. Sometimes the context calls for suits and ties, other times it’s running gear. At other times, we need to dress in “business casual”, whatever that means.

But one thing’s for sure: we never want to stick out like a sore thumb because we didn’t engage in a little forward thinking – also concerning our wardrobe and style choices. We’re here to complement and enhance the client’s world – not to contrast or encumber it.

We’ve written about this a bit in previous blogs, for example about how you can get fired for wearing the wrong pair of shoes. In this blog, we’d like to get more tactical than we usually do and provide some practical tips that will let you dress for the part no matter what role you’re playing and wherever the job takes you – and make sure you’re not the one to get the ax for poor wardrobe choices.

Even when EP agents want to maintain a whisper-low profile, their clothes talk about them in a very loud voice

There’s much more to clothes than staying warm and dry. Whether we like it or not, our style choices send signals about who we are, our social status, our tastes, and who we identify with. This is true for the teenager who says that clothes don’t matter (but wouldn’t be caught dead in certain shoe or jeans brands), for the grandparents who “dress their age” or don’t, and for security professionals who think that the color of their Brazilian jiu-jitsu belt matters more than the color of their shoes.

Guard uniforms signal authority because they remind us of the police and the military; they have their place in some contexts – but rarely in executive protection. Clean-shaven faces and buttoned-down Brooks Brothers broadcast a more conservative appearance that works well in the Secret Service, but not at a startup’s Friday beer party. Baggy Dockers, your dad’s golf shirt, and those comfortable but worn Ecco loafers? We’ll let you figure out where that works.

As a general rule, it’s always better for EP agents to be slightly over-dressed than under-dressed. It’s OK to err on the safe side, but not by too much. The agents who really get it right are the ones who hone it in, plan well, and dress just a hair better than the event requires. Sorry, folks, but like so much else of what we do, the devil is in the details on this one, too.

“Fashion is about dressing according to what’s fashionable. Style is more about being yourself.” —Oscar de la Renta

What is style?  Why don’t we talk about fashion? Because fashion and style are not the same thing.

Fashion is essentially art, sometimes with a shelf life, made to be worn and interpreted. Some people love this fashion, others that one. Fashionable colors come and go.

Style, on the other hand, is how people present themselves. Good style never goes out of fashion because it’s personal and authentic. Good style just keeps on going.

As the saying goes, “how you do anything is how you do everything.” And like it or not, your personal style communicates how you do everything.

That your pants are ironed reflects your attention to detail. It also indicates that you will be more likely than not to care about the minutiae of executive protection – the little things that make a big difference. When your shirt fits properly and your two-year-old shoes still look pristine, you show that your understanding of “duty of care” starts with yourself.

We all have biases. It’s unavoidable. Remember that just as you make snap judgements and assumptions about people before they even have the opportunity to speak, so do others about you based on your appearance.

Executive protection agents often stand next to the most influential people in the world. Our appearance is a direct extension of our client’s image and brand. For better or worse, our principals and their onlookers make immediate decisions about if we look in or out of place based on nothing more than appearance. When it comes to our own executive protection look, it’s entirely possible to pull off a solid sense of individual style without becoming a focal point next to the principal.

4 basic style tips for EP professionals

How do you want to be perceived? Are you up to owning how you look and proactively managing the signals that your appearance sends?

If you’ve already got your look and your wardrobe completely squared away, you can stop reading right here. If you take your EP game seriously, you know that there is always room for improvement and these four practical tips are for you.

Tip 1: It’s not about you

In the executive protection world, everything counts and you’re only as good as your last detail. Our clients might not recall the agents who fit in perfectly, but you can bet they will remember the ones who didn’t.

All corporate campuses and events have their own unique cultures. So does every family. Clothing is an unspoken part of those cultures.  As EP agents, we need to understand that there is a spectrum of formality for everything and make sure that we navigate within the margins of error for that spectrum.

It’s not about us. It’s about the client. The client sets the spectrum and it’s our job to fit into it.

Take something as simple as a pair of jeans. There are jeans that are just as casual as chillin-at-home sweat pants, there are jeans that are as formal as wool dress slacks, and there are niche jeans for niche cultures. Maybe they’re all just “jeans” in your book, but chances are that folks in the client environment are wearing one kind, not the another. Some cuts of denim work fine in three-star Michelin restaurants, others are better reserved for changing your tires. It’s all denim, but it’s our job to know when to wear what.            

Another example: I personally feel most put together with a sports coat and a pocket square. This is how I travel, and this is how I like to look. But when I started going to tech clients’ offices, I quickly realized that I had to leave the blazer in the car – it just looked out of place for that environment.

Takeaway:

If you can do an advance that reveals security vulnerabilities, you can also figure out how to show up for work without looking out of place.

Tip 2: Understand the basics of fit, function, and form

Everything you put on your body should fit, be functional, and look good.

Let’s start with fit. Objectively, most people, including people in security, simply dress in the wrong size. Their clothes are either too big or too small, too short or too long, too tight or too baggy. It’s an epidemic, really. EP agents, no matter what kind of body they bring to the job, can at least try to dress in clothes that match their shape. We’ll dig into some tips on fit in later posts.

Function is particularly important for EP professionals. In our line of work, 15-hour days in multiple locations and types of environments is not unusual. In addition to carrying ourselves well, we often have to schlep piles of gear without looking like we’re through-hikers on the Appalachian Trail.  That’s why we need to choose clothes and accessories that are comfortable and well-designed. Flexibility and durability are also key.

Finally, let’s consider form – or how things work in terms of color, decoration, pattern, visual branding, and more. There are the obvious things like not wearing striped pants with a plaid shirt. – or plaid pants at all. There is the noble art of mixing and matching colors and textures. And then there are the customer-sensitive things like not flashing competitor logos or brands or wearing jeans with distracting stitching on the back pockets.

Takeaway:

Tip 3: Set up a capsule wardrobe

Whether shopping for clothes or packing for their next trip, EP professionals have to plan for a world tour with a small suitcase.

Since agents will sometimes be on the road for a week or more at a time, it’s important that the wardrobe choices that make the cut never hinder operations. Clothes should be interchangeable across different formality levels and color combinations.

Not everyone can be the CEO who wears the exact same outfit every day, but we can all develop a personal uniform. Something that personifies our own style that has just enough variation that doesn’t look like you only packed one shirt for the trip.

Think logically about your attire and how you pack. Remember that spectrum of jeans I mentioned?  You can reasonably make two pairs of versatile trousers work on a week-long trip, and elevate them for a board meeting dinner, and dress them down for a national aquarium tour. It’s all about context and making sure you look the part for the event you’re attending.

Takeaway:

Investing in your capsule wardrobe will save you time, energy, money, and embarrassment down the road.

Tip 4: Fine-tune your repertoire of on-the-road style and maintenance hacks

Everyone has his or her own hacks, and we all keep adding to and tweaking our lists of personal favorites.

My top-line recommendation, without question, is to re-visit the function tip mentioned above. Before buying or packing anything, make sure that all your clothes are super functional for the job we do.

  • Functional trouser hack: I recommend all your “work pants” have at least 1-2% elastane in them. If you do the research, you can easily find high-quality denim or chinos with a little stretch in them that don’t look like jeggings or yoga pants.
  • Jackets: Make sure your jackets have functional internal and external pockets. Just because we carry everything and the kitchen sink, doesn’t mean we need to look like a Sherpa doing it.
  • Accessories: Many of the cool-guy accessories we love come at the price of appearing too tactical. MOLLE medical bags work great and look fine on folks jumping out of helicopters, but other options that are also functional and not as visible to the onlooker should be considered.

It’s easy to look good on your home turf where you have your whole wardrobe at your disposal. But when you are traveling or with a client over 150 days per year, it’s important to have a tight road game as well.

Of all the tips and tricks that I can give you, one valuable thing I learned the hard way is to always check the iron and ironing board as soon as you check into a hotel. I can’t tell you how many times the iron in my hotel room has been missing or dirty. Had I not planned ahead, I would have been stuck rolling out on detail with luggage creases in my suit.

Forward thinking also extends to including things like Shout Wipes, a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser, and a simple sewing kit in your go bag. Never let a leaky coffee cup, a popped button, or a splash of spilled marinara sauce cramp your style.

Takeaway:

If you want to up your EP style game, learn from your own experience and learn from the experience of others. Develop your own hacks and share them. Ask others about theirs. The collective wisdom that is available can help all of us.

We’ll be following up with more posts on executive protection style. Join the conversation, let me know what you think, and what your favorite EP wardrobe hacks are by connecting via Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn.

 

Photo by Brandon Mowinkel on Unsplash
George Grant

George L. Grant

Deputy Director of Operations

George is a former U.S. Marine and Operation Iraqi Freedom Veteran, who has worked with some of the most reputable security organizations in the world, including U.S. Federal Agencies, military, and Fortune 100 companies. He is a Certified Protection Professional through ASIS International, received his Bachelor’s Degree in Security Management/Information Security, and his MBA through Western Washington University.

George has been with AS Solution for over five years, spending time in several capacities within the company. For several years he conducted close protection on one of the company’s largest accounts, later transitioning in the Operational Headquarters where he managed the company’s recruitment strategy and implementation. George is currently the Embedded Division Deputy Director of Operations, overseeing and managing AS Solution’s fulltime protection teams.