Build a smart, flexible wardrobe with the Formality Equation

Match your outfit to the occasion, simplify your style decisions & influence others with your style.
By Abraham Co-Founder & CEO of FITTED July 29, 2019
Photo of FITTED CEO & Co-Founder, Abraham in a business casual outfit

Business casual, smart casual, semi-formal, creative black tie…what the heck do all of these formality “classifications” mean? Men’s attire used to be pretty darn straight forward, especially when it came to work: a few different suits, a lineup of dress shirts, and a handful of ties/accessories to mix and match…no more.

It’s important to think about what story your appearance tells about you when you walk into a room.

As a millennial, and one who enjoys the opportunity to be creative in my style, I appreciate the flexibility that the modern men’s style offers, but it comes at the cost of significant confusion for many guys. As frustrating as it may be though, it’s scientifically proven that your appearance has a significant impact on how you are perceived by others, and as a result, it’s important to think about what story you’re telling about yourself when you walk into a room.

This lead me to create my Formality Equation which has helped me and I hope that it helps you. Here’s my story…

The term “13 going on 30” had always been pretty relevant for me; from an early age I was highly driven, and couldn’t wait to be a grown-up. (note to my younger self, adulting is hard!) I had this vision of what “success” looked like, and somehow it involved flying to cities like New York, to have business meetings in skyscrapers, while dressed in a suit.

Well, when I was 23, my “vision of success” became tangible, and a bit sooner than I had expected. As a result of teaching a spin class, my friendly demeanour, and a mentor who saw something in me, I ended up being recruited to BlackBerry as an Account Manager only a year out of university. This was at the height of BlackBerry’s popularity, so the opportunity was sort of like being hand picked to work for Apple. The challenge though: I was walking into a role where most of my co-workers were 15-20 years my senior, and we had the significant task of ensuring the wellbeing of multiple Fortune 500 clients, and their investments in BlackBerry’s products.

On the phone with clients, I could pass quite easily for someone in his 30s; my deep voice and a conversational composure born of answering the phones in my parents’ real estate agency, was enough to persuade them. But in person…well that was a different story. A 23 year old kid walking into a meeting with the CIO of a major NYC financial firm would not inspire much confidence. It was at this point in time that I subconsciously created the Formality Equation.

I came up with an approach to my personal style, consciously making decisions about how I looked depending on my intended outcome. Some of these were fixed elements, but others would flex up and down each day as I needed them to.

Let me give you an example. In the scenario of walking into a client meeting, there was no room for them to question my abilities based on my youth. Mission #1 was to increase my perceived age from 23 to somewhere in my 30s.

A photo of a 23 year old Abraham, CEO & Co-Founder of FITTED
A 23 year old Abraham

The fixed elements, for me, were my beard and glasses- the moment either of them would go, I would look at least 3-5 years younger, and if both were missing…talk about #babyface. My hair style followed- this was a bit more flexible depending on the circumstance, but I tended toward classic cuts and played more with colour/accessories in my clothes to show creativity.

With the grooming elements down I moved onto clothes. For clients, I usually wore a 3-piece, tailored suit with a patterned shirt and tie. A properly tailored suit (not necessarily a crazy expensive suit) automatically created a sense of strength, while playing with patterns and textures in my shirts/ties gave me a creative and innovative edge expected from tech.

In the office though, I had a bit of a different problem. In a workplace where jeans and T-shirts were commonplace, showing up in a 3-piece suit was like being the kid in high school that had a briefcase…a bit too much. If I only had to worry about impressing my superiors, I may have been able to get away with a suit/dress shirt uniform, but my bigger challenge was actually getting my co-workers to accept me, while also not questioning my abilities based on my age. My unusual recruitment into the team created enough controversy, and if you added my youth into the mix…some people were outright hostile towards me. My age was harder to cover up with people I saw every day, so I needed to take a different approach in the office.

The solution…?

At the office, my goal was to be just formal enough to command respect, while not becoming the high school kid with the briefcase. I developed subconscious rules that looked like this:

Abraham's Formality Equation decision tree
Abraham’s office outfit decision tree

In the end, I gained respect in the office and I also started to be known for my sense of style, which was actually the best outcome. It allowed me to stand out and gave me an “excuse” for being a bit more dressed up on a daily basis. What they didn’t know was that under the surface, each element of my appearance was carefully crafted with an intended result.

Putting the Formality Equation into action

The formality equation has two foundational steps that then set you up to put the equation into action on an ongoing basis. It takes a bit of effort upfront, but in the end, you’ll be able to:

  • Control the story that you’re telling through your appearance
  • Easily match your style choices with confidence to any situation you may be walking into
  • Maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of your wardrobe, starting with core elements and building on them to flex the formality up and down as needed.

Building your foundation

Step 1 | Setting your intention

It may seem a bit cheesy, but the first question you need to ask yourself is: “what story do I want my appearance to tell?” Are you struggling to land a date, looking to get a promotion at the office, or trying to get your first job? Once you understand what you want to achieve, take a moment to look at that goal and what traits about style and appearance exemplify that goal. NOTE: Although I’m a strong proponent of individuality in style and valuing talent over appearance, the fact is your appearance impact how other perceive you. Consciously taking control of this is a tool you can choose to leverage as you see fit.

Watch a video where Abraham describes how you can influence others through your style choices.

Step 2 | Understand your fixed elements

The fixed elements are things that cannot be changed so easily, or at least require a longer period of time to adjust. They include:

  • Situational fixed elements
    • Your career & working environment
      • What do you do for work? Are there any specific restrictions?
    • Your social life & environment
      • What are your hobbies? How do you socialize? What type of style suits those situations?
  • Personal fixed elements
    • Your hair:
      • What type of hair do you have and what styles are achievable?
        • If you’re bald, you’re not off the hook, a cleanly shaved head is still noticeable vs. a scruffy one)
    • Your beard:
      • Do you currently have a beard? Are you able to grow a beard?
        • If so, what type? Patchy beards still have value if groomed in the right way
    • Additional accessories:
      • Do you wear glasses or contacts? Do you regularly need and/or want to wear some sort of other accessory?

Applying the Formality Equation

Now that you understand both your intention, and fixed elements, it’s time to apply them to the formality scale:

Your situational fixed elements define the range that you need to operate within on a regular basis. Most guys would fall somewhere between super casual and business formal, with different levels of frequency:

Understanding the formality of the situation you need to match, you then make your first choice in setting the base, or pants, of your outfit. Different choices have different ranges of formality:

Once you’ve chosen your base, you can flex the formality of the outfit up/down according to your needs: