An Interview with Mike Mahaffey, co-owner of J. Michaels Clothiers
By Morgan Teller
In this day and age, professionals are simply dressing more casually for business. The professional look is no longer just that of the powerful executive. This is not to say that a man should not dress impressively, though.
J. Michaels Clothiers in Nashville is a specialist in men’s custom clothing and has been in the business of delivering highly specialized products and personal service to businessmen and professionals since 1989. Their highly trained staff’s ability to pull together colors, fabrics and accessories helps to create a personalized professional look for each client. Founder Mike Mahaffey and his business partner, Jim Brandon, operated the business for eleven years without having a store. They called on accomplished men in their offices to build a clientele and as business dress became more casual, eventually built a retail store to provide the best of both worlds for their clients.
“The whole premise of direct sales custom clothing is that most men do not like to shop and a lot of successful men don’t have the time,” says Mahaffey. “Busy, successful men are not shoppers; they are buyers. By going to them, it is less time consuming and they can pick out what they want.”
In many ways, the economic downturn that began in 2008 made us distrust the look of a “Wall Street CEO,” but a man can still look the part of a business leader without being so formal in dark suits or powerful stripes.
“An accomplished businessman should always look sharp,” says Mahaffey. “For those leading a company or getting big deals done, wearing a suit is the most effective way to make a positive business impression, regardless of anything one hears to the contrary. In conventional business realms, the suit is still the most authoritative item of clothing a man can wear. So business professionals are wearing more approachable mid-blue and mid-gray suits because the person in charge still ought to look like the person in charge.”
Business casual doesn’t have to equate to “business sloppy.” If you want to be viewed as a leader and professional in a business casual world, the most important clothing piece you should have – at the minimum – is some sort of blazer (solid color coat) or sport coat (pattern coat). “The jacket is the emblematic symbol of the position a man holds in life,” says Mahaffey. “If you do business in jeans – still wear a jacket.”
J. Michaels is a strong believer in congruity when it comes to men’s style. According to Mahaffey, there should be congruity in fit, styles, fabrics and color. Nowadays, many of the mistakes men make in that regard are from paying too much attention to the trends. “It is never good for men in conventional businesses to go to extremes when it comes to what ‘fashion’ says a person should do,” says Mahaffey. “Fashion, by nature, is designed for people to spend money and ‘style’ is for putting money in people’s pockets. A man should dress to indicate to the world that he is aware of the world changing around him without looking like he has just gone through an identity crisis.”
For example, an evolution of style at this point is a well tailored look that flatters the silhouette. However, some men go to the extreme and their suits are skin-tight because they see that look featured in men’s magazines or worn by celebrities. This gives the impression that they are trying to show off their physique and wanting to draw attention to themselves. “In the men’s business world, this type of person is just as suspect as the person who is unkempt, and he creates a non-verbal obstacle he has to overcome,” says Mahaffey. Wearing what is “trendy” may not be what is flattering to a man’s physique.
A man who has outgrown his clothes and interacting in the conventional business world with leaders and influencers over fifty will tend to look less mature, and therefore, less authoritative and formidable. What Mahaffey hears from contemporaries of his in other businesses is that they tend to take men who dress to those extremes less seriously. “Let’s face it, one day the guard will totally change and the baby boomers will be out of the corporate decision making process. But for now, they still hold a lot of the decision making power and investment dollars in their hands. It just doesn’t make sense for a younger person to not dress strategically when dealing with them,” states Mahaffey matter-of-factly.
“Another trend I see far too often is wearing pocket squares to match ties, or ties to match shirt colors, or, even worse, matching all three,” says Mahaffey. “It looks way too contrived and subliminally, it causes others to think that those men lack creativity, authority and individuality. The Italians have a highly regarded term, ‘sprezzatura,’ which refers to the nonchalant elegance of making a difficult endeavor appear unaffectedly and effortlessly perfect. Much of what we see trending today in men’s fashion is the unfortunate opposite of that.”
“From the seasonal aspect of congruity, guys who are wearing pastels or light colored, light weight fabrics in winter make other professionals think: ‘Is he not paying attention?’ Young professionals see that look on TV and, having not learned the nuances of dressing well, follow suit,” says Mahaffey. “Once again this makes them look less aware and less worldly. Here in the south, we like to believe that there are fabrics that can battle the elements year-round when, in fact, it is going to be cold at some point during the winter. Owning clothing that is congruous with the season shows that he is aware of his surroundings and adaptive to circumstances.”
These style mistakes lead us to the importance of custom made clothing. In a store, there might be ten or so suits to pick from in his size, but a man might already have something similar to five of them, or might not like three of them at all. Or he might not like the particular style the store has a fabric available in. Or he might not be cookie cutter fit. With custom tailoring, one can pick from hundreds of fabrics, different makers, different price points and styles, then have something made to flatter their body type. Mahaffey believes custom tailoring is not much more expensive than comparably made garments off the rack, especially when it is a private label brand.
The science of it all, is that the nerves from the eye to the brain are thirty-three times stronger than the nerves from the ear to the brain, so people remember what they see way more than what they hear. Psychologists tell us that the people we come in contact with draw conclusions about us in the first forty seconds of a sixty second first impression based solely on what they see, and don’t start making assessments based on verbal cues until the last twenty seconds.
“Our visual reputation is the result of the non-verbal messages we send to others through what we wear and how we comport ourselves,” says Mahaffey. “Therefore, we [men]should dress in a way that lets the world know – without us saying a word – that we are competent, confident, humble, accomplished, honest, aware, curious, dependable, pro-active, self-possessed and pleasant to be around. That’s a tall order not to be taken lightly, and those who approach it with intentionality will always have an edge over those who don’t.”