TAMPA — Olga Pina laughs at the memory of her first business trip to Mexico two decades ago.
She ran out to grab a sandwich for lunch one day, only to return to find the office building locked for the afternoon siesta. Another time, when she joined her mostly male colleagues for dinner, her straight-from-work suit felt frumpy next to the cocktail attire worn by their spouses.
Lesson learned: Do as the locals do. For future trips, Pina made sure to have a shawl and brooch handy to transform her business look for nighttime functions.
That may not seem like a big deal, but knowing and following a country's dress code is an important, and often overlooked, aspect of doing business abroad, Pina said. What you wear is about more than just looking good.
You want "to present yourself as someone who commands respect but also shows respect," she said.
This Thursday at Saks Fifth Avenue, Pina and fellow Fowler White Boggs lawyer Jennifer Roeper will share tips on clothing etiquette for men and women who travel overseas for work. Roeper is president of the Tampa Bay Organization of Women in International Trade. Pina is on the organization's board and on the style council at Saks.
Their presentation — the second they've given on the topic this fall — covers which color schemes are safe, where designer labels matter and when to leave the high heels at home.
In Asia, they said, it's best to wear low heels or flats. "You don't want to be towering over your male counterpart," Roeper said.
"You want to be a member of the group," Pina added. "Abandon the idea of the individualistic style."
Not so in France, however, where fashionable attire and high-quality accessories are admired. Pina's advice: "Save your money on the Louis Vuitton for France, but in Japan, no flashy handbag."
In general, conservative dress is best, the lawyers said. Dark colors connote wealth and authority, and don't show as many wrinkles.
Dark, neutral clothing also sidesteps the color palette minefields that could send a business trip awry. Green, yellow and red are considered lucky in India. But red is associated with death in some African countries, and Brazilians don't look kindly on foreigners wearing green and yellow — the colors of their flag — together.
The wardrobe gurus suggest sticking with understated jewelry, high necklines and clean, quality shoes. Go easy on the makeup. Avoid business casual attire.
"Casual Friday," said Roeper, "is pretty much a no-no everywhere else."
Mixing fashion with business is somewhat lighter fare for the Organization of Women in International Trade's local chapter. Past meetings have explored heady subjects like export regulation compliance and letter of credit financing.
But considering that the United States spent $261 billion on domestic and international travel last year, it makes sense for the workers taking those trips to get schooled in global customs.
"It's such a practical aspect in business that people don't always pay attention to," said Carolyn Cotney, a lawyer who attended the original seminar in September. "I can just see myself getting over there and fumbling it all up."
Colleen Jenkins can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or firstname.lastname@example.org.