When the hand-delivered invite card arrives, encased in an oversized velvet envelope with embossed lettering, most people’s anticipation levels leap a notch or two. The personalised, dandily penned summons to a prestigious business gathering elicits further excitement. Only when the recipient’s eyes reach the bottom, however, spying the notorious tagline: “Strictly Black Tie Only,” does cold hard reality kick in.
No matter how many eveningwear-only events you have attended, each new one sends a nervous shiver down the spines of both men and women – and not just because it means scrambling through the wardrobe and dusting off an old dinner suit or ballgown, or hitting the high street to purchase something new. An invite to a formal business event signifies more than just a strict dress code. Most likely, it will involve an ambience of faux-regal cordiality, pre-event cocktails with conversations focused on what everyone is wearing, and after-dinner speeches by VIPs visibly discomfited by the stiffness of their collar or an unusually plunged neckline.
Black tie events tend to polarise delegate views – you either love the dramatic sense of style or hate their coded formality. There’s no middle ground. But for businesses seeking to add gravitas, grandeur and behavioural discipline to a gala, awards ceremony or partner dinner, it is a dress code that has been successfully adapted for more than a century.
The rules of etiquette relating to formal clothing have been developed over many years, through differing and evolving styles of fashion and modes of dress – yet one date stands out above all others. It was on 10 October 1886, at the inaugural Autumn Ball held at the members-only Tuxedo Club in New York, that the first purported appearance of the dinner jacket was noted. High-society doyen Griswold Lorillard and his socialite associates attended the Ball wearing dinner jackets with previously unseen tail-less, scarlet satin lapelled dinner jackets, while all other guests were attired in the traditional white-tie and tails. From that day, the ‘Tuxedo’ has been universally adapted as the de facto symbol of celebration, decorum and prestige.
In today’s hi-tech modern age of freelance executives, business process outsourcing, dress-down Fridays and laptop deal-making, however, some would argue that the starchy formality of a black-tie banquet echoes a distant, more deferential era. After all, pioneering entrepreneurs like Apple’s Steve Jobs publicly unveil much-awaited new products – to a salivating global news and Internet audience – while standing on a huge stage dressed in sweatshirt, jeans, and wireless microphone. Meanwhile, flamboyant tycoons like Richard Branson are admirably adaptable at dressing up or down – or donning fancy costume – to fit the demands of the brand launch or event.
The global business environment may have changed, but the power play of the Black-Tie event has largely endured. It is particularly popular for glamorous fundraisers, annual awards dinners and gala celebrations – but its appeal lies in its selective usage. Black-tie, just like other stylised dress themes, remains a trump card in the event manager’s hand. The savvy dealers know how to shuffle the right dress code for the right event – and the key driving factors are the intended outcome for the client allied to the event planner’s imaginative execution.
The most inspired corporate events deftly – and sometimes, overtly – combine the prosaic rigours and realities of business life with a stylised ambience of escapism, entertainment and exclusivity. Some added ‘wow’ factor is always welcome – especially for the marquee event that represents the culmination of an intensive few days of conferencing, teambuilding or incentives-based adventure. As always, however, the devil is in the detail.
Beyond the boardroom and conference hall, event planners increasingly are being asked to devise and deliver ever-more creative and spectacular branded corporate events – where dress style is a carefully considered complement the location, temperature, party theme – and desired outcome. While most female delegates at Fendi’s first-ever catwalk show on the Great Wall of China were clad in uber-expensive, status-conferring furs, the dress code for a gala dinner at the Great Barrier Reef, teambuilding weekend in Luang Prabang an Amazing Race through the streets of Taipai, film premiere in Hong Kong or corporate karting day in Subang Jaya must take account of different circumstantial and practical considerations.
For event planners, the relentless client quest for return on investment has required a careful adaptation of the timeless motto of “Dress to impress.”. Satisfying clients, entertaining delegates and achieving the event goals means the new reality is “Dress to caress the bottom line”.
Colourful, creative alternatives to the tried-and-trusted formal black-tie awards gala or lounge-suited corporate launch formula are the speciality of Hornsby, New South Wales-based Zanni Productions & Entertainment.
For more than 12 years, Zanni has worked with Australia’s largest companies, both at home and – increasingly – overseas, to create innovative concepts based around costume theming and performance for corporate events, product launches and special occasions.
We spoke to Nareeda Maitland, Zanni’s director of operations, about the company’s creative costuming and on-site delivery strategies.
Q How does Zanni collaborate with corporate clients to develop a costume and performance theme?
A We have a list of questions for each client to garner specific information, such as “type of event”, whether it be an Awards night, trade show, product launch or promotion. We also ask about the desired outcome. We then look at the location, venue, number of guests, date and time of the event, as well as the backgrounds, ages, demographics and careers of the guests. All these things help us gain an extensive understanding of the event. At this point, we also discuss the client’s budget.
We will then go away and brainstorm ideas that would give the client the outcome they are looking for – including the possible themes, costuming, entertainment, workable schedules and venue fit out.
Q How do you approach the costume design to complement the performance and event atmosphere?
A Zanni Productions believes that the costume design element of any performance is of the utmost value to making the performance complete and successful. We pride ourselves on the quality of our costuming down to the tiniest of details.
Along the way, we collaborate with the client to ensure that we both have a clear understanding of how the event will eventually look. If the venue has been engaged to create the desired environment, we will work together with the venue to achieve a complete aesthetic result. We believe that from the red carpet entrance the scene must be set, and that this will provide a complete experience for the client and their every guest.
Q Can you give an example of an imaginative costume theme created for a corporate event?
A Our client needed a theme for an event to complement the introduction of their new general manager. The theme needed to be congruent with their pitch line “Into the Future,” and allow guests to participate in “handing over the reins” to the new GM. It also needed to enhance the ethos of moving forward, and highlight their position as the largest non-banking financial lender in the country.
Our creative team transformed the venue into the Carrier Interstar, in which all guests were invited to embark on a journey into the future. Greeted by costumed Interstar Cabin Crew, the guests were delighted when their “Commander in Chief” (the current GM) appeared via a pre-recorded message. Not until the Carrier Interstar came under attack from their main competitors – the ‘Big Four’ – did the new GM get “Beamed Up” into the space to save the day.
The production satisfied the client’s objectives in every way. It not only allowed the GMs to “arrive” in a fun and exciting way, it also enabled the entire company to experience a sense of victory – arriving into the future as triumphant winners over their competitors.
Q How often do you perform at corporate events where delegates are also dressed in themed costumes?
A It depends on the client’s desired outcome – but we believe that one of the most powerful forms of communication is interactive The Carrier Interstar is a good example. We also recently organised an awards ceremony event for Vodafone in New South Wales and Tasmania. The award recipients were unaware that they had won prizes – which were trips to Hawaii. The winners would be crowned “Legends” in their field.
We were asked to come up with an idea of enhancing the “surprise factor” of these awards. We felt that the senior management, who were presenting the awards, should become an integral part of the presentation. So, we created a Hawaiian atmosphere in the company offices.
In New South Wales, there were 13 floors, and no one from the others floor could be alerted to the award presentation until management actually arrived. So floor-by-floor Hula Girls and an Elvis Presley impersonator arrived at a specific time, and were accompanied by a Hawaiian banquet along with the management who were costumed as if on the Hawaiian vacation that they were presenting to each of their “legend” prize winners. The presentation was a great success and the award recipients had a taste of Hawaii to put them in the mood to enjoy the fruits of their labours.
Q Do you provide corporate event services across Australia?
A We are passionate about creating new experiences – and provide services locally, nationally and internationally for individual private clients, community groups through to shopping centres, small, medium and large corporate clients, as well as agents and event managers. We also work with government departments nationally and internationally.
Q Can you give an example of an overseas costume theming?
A Zanni’s Sydney Harbour ICONS recently performed in Guangzhou, China, and our Pink Emus have also performed in Asia on several events promoting Australian Tourism. These events are very successful and, of course, the costuming is especially spectacular.
Our ICONS and Characters Australia are often booked to perform internationally. We have invested a lot of time researching and putting together costuming that fits the international market, and are always keen to have these acts perform anywhere in the world.