By Shia Kapos
CHICAGO - When you're a fledgling in the corporate rat race, dressing with style, driving a high-powered car and eating at the trendiest restaurants sends a message that you've made it in the world — or are fast on your way.
But Chicago's young up-and-comers often have to get creative to portray a lifestyle of success on beans-and-potatoes starting salaries.
Hussain Arsiwalls is a management consultant at Accenture Ltd., working toward a promotion to senior manager. Hard work is a given, but he says image counts heavily, too.
"You always have to project an image that's a level above where you are. You have to put yourself in those shoes and not worry about the dollars," he says of the cost of dressing a little above his station. The 27-year-old sometimes pulls out a Mont Blanc pen for effect. (Who need know it was a graduation gift from his parents?) "It's not that I use it all the time," he says. "It depends on whom I'm talking to." And he buffs up his look by wearing a Cartier watch, a gift he splurged on for himself when he was last promoted. "A lot of my work is on the banking side, where people pay attention to what you wear," he says.
Stories of living beyond one's means are commonplace in public relations and advertising, where image is paramount but starting account executives can earn less than $40,000.
"Between layoffs and downsizing and the fact that you don't get employee benefits right away, it can be hard to keep up a professional presence," says Leah Baker, a 26-year-old ad exec who is between jobs. She invested in high-quality business cards that matched her résumé and aided her networking at parties and with colleagues.
But when it comes to interviews or attending events, she and her friends have an ace up their sleeves: They "shop each others' closets." Instead of buying new suits, they exchange clothes, bags, shoes and accessories to upgrade their look for only the cost of dry cleaning. "It's a great way to get a new outfit without paying $200," Ms. Baker says.
Sirmara Campbell is on her way to a future in broadcasting or business and attends night school to earn her degree in television production. But for now, she makes in the low-$40,000s in her day job managing the LaSalle Network office, a Chicago staffing and recruiting company. There, everyone from clients to interviewees are encouraged to dress for success.
"All these people come in looking sharp, so I have to present myself in a professional manner," says Ms. Campbell, a familiar face to clerks at Ann Taylor, Carson Pirie Scott and New York & Co. "I don't have much money to spend, but I want to look great."
This time of year Ms. Campbell is scoping out the winter clearance sales. "I buy next year's winter clothes now," she says, "and pray I don't gain weight."
Occasionally, a darker tactic prevails. Shoppers at Barney's, Nordstrom and other high-end stores have been known to wear a pricey piece of clothing — tag safely tucked away — and then return it. "It's not something I'm proud of, but I did it once," Ms. Campbell acknowledges. "It came down to paying for the jacket or paying my bills."
As Chicago director of New York-based Gen Art, an organization that promotes fashion and the arts, Kelly Ryan O'Brien needs to spend time at the best clubs and restaurants in town — difficult on a salary in the mid-$50,000s, she says.
"My job is very image-based, and our events are very cutting-edge. I've got to be on the scene and know who's who," says the 28-year-old. "I always go to nice places, but I sit at the bar and have wine and a few appetizers instead of a whole sit-down meal." One favorite seen-and-be-seen place is Japonais in River North, where appetizers top out at $24 and entrees reach $45; instead, she'll order "a glass of wine and a few (sushi) rolls."
Some image-conscious young employees look to make a statement with their choice of car.
Kory Kelly, director of marketing at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe, says he can't afford a Mercedes or other high-end vehicle but wanted something "that made a statement." He purchased a hip but reasonably priced Toyota Prius — the hybrid, around $21,000, is a favorite of celebrities. "It's not expensive, but it's nice, and it says I'm environmentally conscious," he says.
Other up-and-comers turn to pre-owned cars with stretched-out payment plans. "I see it all the time," says Sharon Gale, pre-owned sales representative at McGrath Lexus of Chicago. "They see people they want to emulate: colleagues, friends or their bosses, who drive a Lexus, BMW or Mercedes."
She says 2- and 3-year-old models of the Lexus GS 300 or GS 400 are popular among young people who want to make an impression. And the cost is right. Instead of paying $40,000 to $60,000 for a new model, a 3-year-old car with a warranty can cost as little as $20,000, to be paid over five years, affordable for someone who's moving up. "I see a lot of new accountants and people from marketing and business administration," Ms. Gale says. "They're all young, and they're all looking for that image."
Ironically, though, all this effort may not be impressing their bosses after all.
"In the Midwest, the more you try to look rich and successful, the more you're likely to get discounted," says Henry Feldman Jr., president of Chicago-based investment adviser Concord Asset Management LLC. "If you see a guy with a big gold watch or a custom-tailored men's shirt, it looks like you're showing off."
He and others say success comes from doing good work and integrating yourself into the workplace. "You don't want to look like the big shot with the fancy car," Mr. Feldman says. "It can work against you. You want your talent and merit to promote you."