12 horrendous fashion mistakes to avoid in Asian banking

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How to avoid horrendous dress code mistakes when working in Asian banking

Keep control of your colours

In Singapore, where it's hot and humid every day, dressing for the beach can be more tempting than dressing for the office.

And even in supposedly more formal Hong Kong, bankers don't always dress as smartly as they should. Citi was so incensed by the fashion mistakes of its Hong Kong staff in late 2015 that it issued an edict banning causal clothes like strapless tops, sweatpants, bandannas, Birkenstocks and "fluffy bedroom slippers".

If you want to look the part in a bank in Asia, here are some fashion rules to follow.

1. Always wear a suit in Hong Kong

As a rule of thumb for men in Hong Kong, always wear a suit and tie – carry your jacket to work when it’s hot. In Singapore most male financial professionals can get away with suit trousers and a long-sleeved shirt in the office – keep a tie in your desk for external meetings. Suit jackets are a relatively rare site and wearing one can make you look like a visiting businessman. Job interviews are a critical exception, however. “Interviewees should always dress up – it shows respect for the interviewer. So men should wear a full suit – even in Singapore,” says Paul Heng, founder of NeXT Corporate Coaching Services in Singapore.

2. Don’t go too casual

Never go under Singapore’s (already low) fashion bar. Short-sleeved shirts are a particularly common male faux pas within the city state’s banks, for example. “Singapore is comparatively very casual for a financial centre –  Hong Kong and Tokyo experience more punishing summers but have a suit-wearing culture,” say former UBS staffer Jeremy Poh, now an associate director at recruiters Taylor Root in Singapore. “People aren’t minded to dress formally in Singapore society, even at weddings you’ll invariably spot an attendee in a football shirt. But being too casual in a traditional brick-and-mortar bank won’t give the right impression to management.”

3. You have plenty of options as a female banker

“For female bankers, it's more casual in Singapore compared to more temperate countries,” says Cynthia Siantar, an ex-HSBC banker, now co-founder of Singapore fintech firm Call Levels. “I stop wearing long-sleeved shirts when I'm in Singapore and choose to wear dresses. Sometimes the design of the business dresses and skirts is more casual here too – a flare skirt instead of a pencil skirt, for example – but I've not had any complaints.”

4. But don’t overdo it

Like their male counterparts, some female Singaporean financial professionals think the city state’s slightly informal dress code gives them licence to wear what they want at work. “In Singapore a minority of women dress like they’re going out clubbing later that night – Hong Kong is generally more professional,” says Kyle Blockley, managing partner of recruitment firm KS Consulting in Singapore.

5. For example, go for knee-length skirts

“I’ve seen quite a few younger female bankers turn up to work in skirts that were too high – sometimes the HR manager would have to remind them that their attire was inappropriate,” says Lyn Sia Rosmarin, a former Merrill Lynch director who now runs Singapore-based fashion company K.BLU. “Knee-length skirts are much better if you work in banking."

6. Take a blazer

“I would always highly recommend women taking a blazer to cope with freezing aircon in the office,” says Ada Lee, founder of Hong Kong career coaching firm Interview Hero. "And having one at hand also ensures you can easily get appropriately covered up if you've been in a rush in the morning and have put on a top that's too low," adds Rosmarin.

7. Accessorise

“Generally speaking many professionals in Asia wear expensive accessories to impress prospective clients and create common topics of interests,” says Lee.

8. But not too much

“An expensive watch, for example, can maintain a certain kudos, especially in Asian cities, which are more status-conscious than their Western counterparts – but it’s a very delicate balance to get right,” says Poh. “There are still inherent hierarchies within a bank and seeing an analyst sporting a more expensive timepiece than an MD is bound to raise eyebrows. It’s ultimately about being comfortable in your own skin. If you’re self-conscious about an item of clothing or accessory, it’ll show in your demeanour, so it’s probably not suitable.”

9. Keep your colours simple

Tropical weather in Asia isn’t an excuse to adorn yourself with tropical designs. “Stick to basic colour palettes and avoid quirky design details – you’re trying to look presentable and not detract from the business at hand, so rein in your flair for creativity. Banking is not a creative industry,” says Poh.

10. Don’t treat a bank like a start-up

IT staff are among the only exceptions to Hong Kong’s suited-and-booted rule – in summer especially, male techies can get by with formal shirts and trousers, says Vince Natteri, a director at search firm Pinpoint Asia. But banks in Asia won’t tolerate start-up-style dressing. “You still need to fit the banking mould. One IT guy showed up for an interview with really long hair and visible tattoos all over his arms. He said to maintain his individuality, he wouldn't change his appearance – he didn’t get the job.”

11. Stay conservative as an intern

“We wore smart shirts and pants, no ties,” says a Standard Chartered intern in Singapore who asked not to be named. “On Friday dress-downs we could wear dark coloured jeans and a casual shirt. But one guy wore boots and tight jeans each day – everyone thought it looked unprofessional. You always have to dress smart at a bank.”

12. Don’t enforce your own dress-down Fridays

Standard Chartered may have casual Fridays, but not all firms do – the concept is fairly new to Asia. “I placed a guy into an investment bank in Hong Kong recently – he didn't know that the firm didn't do casual Fridays, so he wore flashy casual clothes that day,” says Natteri. “His colleagues keep telling him – but he doesn’t take any notice, he’s still doing it.”

Image credit: amazingmikael, iStock,Thinkstock

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