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Power Jackets: Nina McLemore's Designs Talk Softly But Convey Clout

Posted by ROBIN GIVHAN on

It's an unfair and brutal truth: "The more women talk, the more men turn off," says Nina McLemore. "One of the challenges for women is to learn to say fewer words in a lower voice."

To be clear, McLemore doesn't condone this prejudice. As a former executive at Liz Claiborne, she has always encouraged women to speak up. But she is a pragmatist. "We have unconscious biases we don't know we have and not a lot of control over. We have to accept it and work around it."

Nina (NINE-uh) McLemore is not a speech coach or life coach. She's a fashion designer who advises female clients on how to dress for work — to land the promotion, reel in a client, state her case, win the election.

And in particular, she has made a name for herself with her softly tailored jackets, which over the years have both shielded and celebrated women such as Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett — and yes, the self-described "pantsuit aficionado" herself, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

Armani and St. John Knits, as the uniform for a woman of a certain level of authority. They're not only designed to balance out a woman's proportions or distract from a problem area — but to communicate power.

Not power as sketched out by Hollywood and Seventh Avenue, which tend to merge sex and ambition with skirts that are short, dresses that are tight and jackets that fit like a vise — but the version of power that strides briskly through blue-chip law firms, investment banks, the halls of Congress and, perhaps, the Oval Office. Power accessorized with a pair of sensible pumps.

Her signature jackets are cut with a narrow shoulder but a full back. "Women are self-conscious about the shoulders being too big," she says. But a woman's got to be able to raise a gavel or gesture emphatically, so McLemore eschews the tight, high armholes favored by high-end designers.

Her sleeves run about an inch longer than average, and she crafts 2 1/2-inch-lined cuffs so a woman can turn them up in a get-to-work posture. This aesthetic quirk also allows women to buy them off the rack, without seeing a tailor to adjust the sleeve length. Women, McLemore says, don't like dealing with a tailor.

The collars stand up to frame the face and to elongate the body. And McLemore isn't going to mince words: Long-and-lean is good.

Condoleezza Rice, still offered exquisite tailoring, it had become more pricey than most women can bear. And frankly, many accomplished women in their 50s and 60s were simply not ready to embrace the new power uniform as flaunted by gym-buff 40-somethings like Michelle Obama and the entire female on-air staff of the "Today" show: the sleeveless, form-fitting sheath.

In other words, fashion had left a lucrative market in the lurch.

When other designers talk about their inspirations, they often drift into poetic reveries about an art exhibition that moved them, a film that haunted their dreams or a landscape that left them in awe.

McLemore, on the other hand, is more likely to explain her creative process with sentences that begin, "There's a very interesting study ..."

Our brains, she says, make snap assessments about people that can determine everything from who gets hired to who we talk to at a cocktail party. We remember how someone looked more often than we remember exactly what they said. So, look capable, look confident, look good.

In spring 2003, McLemore debuted her collection of jackets, trousers and shirts for the kind of women who live a good portion of their professional lives on C-SPAN, CNN and PBS. She offered them comfortable tailoring in TV-friendly colors, fabrics that don't wrinkle and at a cost — about $800 for a jacket — that's a good 40 percent less than the usual designer prices.


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