Jess McCabe

I am a journalist and these are some of the stories I've been working on lately

House of style: fashion in housing

For our People special issue, I wrote a feature which is a little lighter than our usual Inside Housing fare. It has some housing people on Twitter incandescent with rage – what do you think? Is workplace outfitting too frivolous a topic?

(I also made the typical journalist’s mistake of become part of the story – to see a full analysis of my fashion mistakes and tattoos  – not just for prisoners! – see here.)

House of style

House of style, Fashion, Kate Davies, Notting Hill Housing, Fabrickated

Notting Hill Housing chief executive Kate Davies has started a fashion blog for workplace attire. Jess McCabe joins the office catwalk

House of style, Fashion, Kate Davies, Notting Hill Housing, Fabrickated

Preparing to meet Kate Davies, chief executive of Notting Hill Housing, I am uncharacteristically worried about what I’m wearing. In the end, I plump for a grey and blue dress that Inside Housing sub-editor Rebecca Christou describes as ‘the good dress’.

The reason for this sudden onset of fashion nerves is that Ms Davies, in addition to heading 30,000-home, north London landlord Notting Hill for 10 years, has a sideline – as a fashion blogger.

For the past two months, the chief executive has been blogging every morning about her adventures in making her own clothes and the fashion choices of powerful women.

She has also been grabbing members of her own staff, taking photos of them, and writing ‘street style’ commentaries on their choices of colour, fabric and, well, the cut of their jib.

Some of these posts have delved into such questions of workplace-appropriate clothing as ‘What is the best look for a job interview?’ and ‘Is it OK for men to wear shorts to the office?’ (The answer is yes, although when Ms Davies on her blog deconstructs the outfits of her colleague Andy Lord, who works in asset management, she points out that a tucked-in shirt and belt might smarten up the short-trousers look.)

Housing professionals are already well aware of some of these questions – help with outfitting yourself for a job interview is part of many a landlord-led programme to help tenants find work.

But the ‘What should I wear for work today?’ question is one that people working in housing ask themselves too. And, depending on whether you are a housing officer going to see tenants, in the development team going out on a muddy site, or off to meet financiers, the answer is going to be very different.

So, where better to come and find the answers than Notting Hill’s modern, spacious offices in King’s Cross?

Ms Davies, who is wearing a blue wrap dress, meets me in her office, which is an explosion of colour. The walls are covered in Rothko prints, paintings and a retro poster asking for people to donate clothes for homeless people, dating back from when Notting Hill used to run its own charity shops.

But soon we are on the move, as Ms Davies walks us through the Notting Hill offices for a quick-fire version of the fashion analyses that she does on her blog (see below). At first I’m a bit nervous about pulling out people for a style check, but Ms Davies says, for her blog at least, ‘most people are even flattered’ to be asked.

As might be expected, she has a lot of opinions on the topic of appropriate workplace attire, which is becoming increasingly difficult to judge. Notting Hill, in common with lots of modern workplaces, doesn’t have a formal dress code.

‘I think we have some words like “appropriate”,’ Ms Davies says.

‘We don’t want to have a totally conventional attitude to this, you don’t have to be a bloke in a pinstripe suit to work in the housing sector. We reject that. But on the other hand, we don’t believe entirely that everything goes.’

Some of this flexibility is important to ensure that social landlords attract and retain staff from a broad range of diverse backgrounds.

‘You can be yourself, you can express yourself. The housing world has got lots of room for creativity, it’s got lots of room for people from different cultural backgrounds, from different religions and so on,’ she says.

House of style, Fashion, Kate Davies, Notting Hill Housing, Fabrickated

 

‘I like to come into work and feel great and ready to go, and vibrant colours help me. The only time I see tenants is when they’re in reception – they do look at you.’
Ann Aberdeen, payments officer, Notting Hill Housing

‘You’ve clearly put a nice outfit together – you’ve got bracelets, a necklace, really nice colours.’
Kate’s verdict

House of style, Fashion, Kate Davies, Notting Hill Housing, Fabrickated

 

‘In our team, we often have to go out on site – and everyone on site is a man. I would never dream of wearing this. On site, I definitely androgynise myself. Especially if you want people to take you seriously.’
Emily Manero, client project manager, Notting Hill Housing

‘Emily does fingernails a lot – her nail art pictures have been picked up internationally on Twitter.’
Kate’s verdict

 

House of style, Fashion, Kate Davies, Notting Hill Housing, Fabrickated

 

‘You just need to be down to earth. If I go and see my GP, they really dress down. They don’t feel they need to have that imposing and professional air that they used to. We also need to dress down, so we can appeal to our customers and people can feel comfortable with you. And they can talk to you on that level.’
Adebola Adeniran, housing officer, Notting Hill Housing

‘You look really nice, really stylish. It’s a double-denim look.’
Kate’s verdict

 

House of style, Fashion, Kate Davies, Notting Hill Housing, Fabrickated

‘I don’t always walk around in a suit and a tie, but I do if I’m meeting tenants – that’s what they’d expect from a director. I think when they’ve got a day-to-day relationship with a housing officer, it’s completely different. For our customers to be relaxed day to day with our housing officers, I think wearing a suit would not make them feel that comfortable.’
Mark Vaughan, director, Notting Hill Housing

‘When Mark started growing a beard, I thought it was a bit much. But now it’s highly fashionable. He was fashion forward -a couple of years ago.’
Kate’s verdict

The downside is that there are still rules – but they are unspoken, meaning it can be easy to misjudge what is ‘appropriate’ for work and accidentally go astray. Ms Davies recalls a meeting with three senior women some time ago.

‘They were all a bit on the plump side, and they all had cleavages on show on a hot day,’ she says. ‘It was very distracting. I found listening to these three, in the context that there were three cleavages on show, was quite distracting.’

Especially when interviewing for a new job, Ms Davies says: ‘The ideal is to glide in and not make your clothes an issue at all. Like diving into the water without a splash – the Tom Daley approach.’ But at the same time, you want to stand out from the other candidates.

Even if you think clothes are superficial, people are still judging.

‘If someone is dressed inappropriately, it’s usually part of an inappropriate attitude to work,’ Ms Davies notes. ‘So it’s a bigger thing. It needs bringing up in context.’ And, of course, the flipside to that is that dressing in certain ways can project messages which can help your career glide along, or even assist in doing the day job.

Approachable image
It is true for chief executives, too.

Ms Davies says: ‘If I’m having a meeting with tenants, approachability is more important than authority. But when I’m going to raise £300m [from investors], I want to look more authoritative than approachable. There are ways to achieve that through clothes.’ She keeps a cardigan and a more formal jacket on hand.

When I suggest that this is true in different roles throughout housing, such as a frontline housing role, Ms Davies agrees.

‘You don’t want to be in a three-piece suit, brogues and red braces. But equally, you don’t want to go looking scruffy, like you don’t give a sh*t, because that tells tenants you don’t care about them.’

Kate Davies analyses our features editor’s look

House of style, Fashion, Kate Davies, Notting Hill Housing, Fabrickated

In walked a smiley young woman, flat shoes, clear tights, Prada glasses, tattoos. Natural, reddish-brown hair and sparkly eyes, no make-up. As a journalist, Jess needs to gain the trust of a wide range of people very quickly. Her warm and friendly manner helps, but what she wears helps build an image of someone who is approachable.

Pic for use in House of style, 22 August 2014

The navy tailored collar on the upper part of her dress, and the grey marl of the bodice and skirt, both reference work clothes, and give her sufficient authority to hold her own with those she interviews. The dress is pleated and semi-tailored but in a soft fabric which clings a little. Jess wears nude tights, and navy round-toed shoes with elasticated straps. If Jess wants to increaseher authority she could wear a jacket and maybe a more ‘grown-up’ shoe – navy or tan leather would go with everything.

Jess has amazing, naturally reddish brown, curly hair, which she keeps tied up. Why not let it out and celebrate it? I would like to see Jess’s natural beauty emphasised through a more colourful wardrobe. She would look amazing in reddish browns with a coral blouse, or mustard with cream or teal, or a pea green jumper with jeans. She might try some patterns too, and gold jewellery would enhance her natural sparkle.

Visit Kate Davies’s fashion blog at fabrickated.com

Dressing well in housing

House of style, Fashion, Kate Davies, Notting Hill Housing, Fabrickated

Tom Murtha, chair of HACT

‘When I started, we all wore jeans and long hair, and it seemed to be less important. But I found if I dressed well – in a smart suit and tie – I appeared to gain more respect and, eventually, more senior positions.

‘Obviously it’s not the most important method of judging someone, but it my case it seemed to help.

‘I hope I have never judged someone by their clothes or appearance, but I would always advise someone to dress smartly and be well presented. It also depends on what job you are doing. Anything that has an external profile and involves representing the organisation requires, in my view, a certain professionalism, and being well dressed is part of this.’

House of style, Fashion, Kate Davies, Notting Hill Housing, Fabrickated

Geeta Nanda, chief executive, Thames Valley Housing

‘I don’t think you need to have a set style to enhance your career, but you do need to know what is acceptable in different situations and dress appropriately.

‘My advice would be dress comfortably, think about how you will be perceived in your work environment and don’t worry about adding a bit of individuality in your style – you will be remembered for it. Think about what makes you feel good and what you get complimented on.’

House of style, Fashion, Kate Davies, Notting Hill Housing, Fabrickated

Mike Wilkins, chief executive, Ducane Housing Association

‘If you are brilliant at your job, nobody really cares what you wear. But it pays to give the right subliminal messages. Dressing sloppily or investing inordinately in sketchy Primark kit may be fine, but what subtle message does it send about you?

‘Go for good styling on a budget if necessary. Good-quality clothes (second hand) always look good, particularly if you can source something 1960s. I know a colleague who only wears Biba, however, she is the boss of her organisation.

Similarly for blokes, a mod look can work. A retro look will really work well.’

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