The fashion of business

Umair Haque equates the poor investment Americans make in their personal fashion with the cultural emphasis on productivity. He argues that people who are “stylish” are perceived as frivolous and unproductive in America. In a comment on Umair’s post Russell Davies flags the style conscious eyes and ears of the English and Japanese:

“In an essay somewhere William Gibson talks about how the British and the Japanese are so naturally expert in branding because they’re brought up to instantly spot the status inference in the tiniest marginal signal – accent, appearance, language. This must apply to style too.”

Photo: pinkbelt

True, though a bit short-sighted. I think Americans are also more forgiving of misplaced style signals or even completely ambivalent to the overbranded constructs that English and Japanese cultures use to reinforce conformity.

On the other hand, I would never argue Americans favor substance over style. Umair is right. We’re often lacking both. But America is also more ready and willing to accept a new idea or to support radical innovation than any place more stylish.

This is particularly true in business.

Look at California where the Internet business, in particular, continues to boom on the shoulders of new business models. Business itself is a type of fashion where the catwalk is loaded with hot startups and cool prototypes. For example, every online media company has been browsing through all the social networking sites and working on plans to at least accessorize their online offerings with social media in some way now that social media is the model du jour.

The tech business fashion model gets built into product strategy, too. Upon returning to Apple in 1996, Steve Jobs’ first step toward turning around the once-hot now-not desktop computer company was to reinvent the Apple style with the iMac. His bet on fashion was a winner which gave him the confidence to reinvent the MP3 player as a new fashion accessory.

It wasn’t until the flickr acquisition did I think Yahoo! was much more than a fashion follower. I’m still not sure I fully understand how fashion fits into the Yahoo! culture, but it’s clear that style is a priority in the search business.

While talking with some colleagues once about how Jeff Weiner would view a really new approach to the search user experience the response from one of the more senior people at the company was, “Jeff has a great sense of style.”

I remember my first day here nearly a year ago. I expected to see black denim and long back action and was instead surprised to see that most everyone looked rather polished if not trendy. Even one of my Nebraska born and raised colleagues shops at H&M.

Again, a shirt or two from Hennes does not make one a fashionable dresser, but style can be about more than what you wear. It’s also a vantange point from where you choose to make decisions or an awareness that enables you to spot important trends. Americans may not be dressed as smartly as Europeans, but their business sense is acutely tuned to fashion in the markets in a way that is still unmatched around the world.