It’s Jeffrey Howard’s job to bring people together, but that isn’t always easy for him to do. The co-founder of Project Spaces, a co-working company with 18,000 square feet of office space in downtown Toronto, is a bit shy, he says. In initial meetings, where first impressions are so important, overcoming that shyness can be a challenge. “I tend to not say a lot until I get to know someone,” he explains.

Fortunately, he’s realized that words aren’t the only way to get people’s attention. Howard has been interested in fashion since he was 16 years old, and has, over the years, developed a personal style that has slowly evolved into what it is today: a mix of high-end and vintage fashions, an affinity for unique jackets and, for formal business meetings, suiting with fun accessories, like patterned ties and tie clips. “I let my clothing speak for itself,” he says. “Hopefully, it tells folks that I am put together, thoughtful, interesting, and if they want to do business with us, they can expect similar qualities.”

As Howard knows well – and what many other executives instinctively understand – phrases like “dress for success” and “the suit makes the man” aren’t empty clichés. Research shows that what you wear can have an impact on what people think of you – and the better impression someone has, the more likely they’ll want to work with you or buy your product.

Seconds to make a first impression

“The research is clear that first impressions absolutely matter,” says Kristi Hedges, a leadership coach and author of The Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage Others. “We evaluate people in, sometimes, the first seconds of meeting them.” Part of that evaluation, she says, includes appearance.

While most people come prepared to meetings with presentations and plenty to say, one study found that first impressions are made well before they get to that material. University of Toledo psychology student Tricia Prickett conducted a study that had people predict which candidates would be hired by a company after watching only the start of a 20-minute interview.

In nearly every case, they predicted the hiring decision correctly, even though they only saw the first 20 or 30 seconds of the interview, the time it took to knock on the door and sit down. Part of the reason for that is because of what’s called “thin-slicing,” a term that Malcolm Gladwell coined in his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.

Thin-slicing is the idea that we make fairly accurate impressions from seeing a fragment of an event, or a bit of someone’s personality or appearance. That small initial impression, as other researchers have noted, sticks with us even when we have a fuller picture of someone’s personality. “We thin-slice whenever we meet a new person or have to make sense of something quickly or encounter a novel situation,” writes Gladwell in his book.

The right clothes matter

Another study found that clothing, specifically, can contribute to someone’s initial impression of a person. A few years ago, Ben Fletcher, a professor at the University of Hertfordshire, gave 300 people three seconds to look at photos of a man in different outfits. In one photo, the man was wearing a made-to-measure suit, while in another he was wearing a similar looking, but off-the-rack suit. The man's facial expression was blurred out so any impressions wouldn't be influenced by other factors.

While differences between the suits were minor – they were all the same colour and fabric – people still viewed the man in the bespoke suit more favourably. What’s key, noted Fletcher, is that none of the comments were about clothing. “They rated him as more confident, successful, flexible and higher earning,” he wrote in a Psychology Today article. “Our clothes say a great deal about who we are and can signal a great deal of socially important things to others, even if the impression is actually unfounded.”

Go custom

Clearly, what we wear impacts how we’re perceived, but what clothing considerations should people take into account when interviewing for an executive position or trying to land a new client?

Start by understanding the culture of the company you may be meeting with, says Hedges. Is it formal? Is it fun and creative? These details matter. “If you are going into an organization that is very casual, you don’t want to be in your most conservative blue suit, you want to match the organization,” says Hedges. “That is a way of showing similarity and respect for the culture.”

In business settings, showing respect still means wearing some type of suit. However, as Fletcher found, not all suits give off the same impression. Marie Zydek, a personal wardrobe stylist based in Edmonton, thinks custom suits are the way to go. Not only do they fit perfectly – you don’t want to wear baggy clothing, she says – but they give the impression that you’re confident and ready to work. “Looking our best will increase our confidence, increase our productivity and give a good impression,” she notes.

Fortunately, getting a custom suit doesn’t have to be pricey or time-consuming. Online companies, such as Indochino, sell high-quality custom menswear for a fraction of the cost of traditional bespoke clothing. Buying a suit involves visiting the company’s website, picking a style, putting in your measurements and then hitting order. With Indochino, more hands-on customers can visit one of their many showrooms across Canada to get fitted by a professional.

Whether buying online or in-store, it’s also important to pay attention to fabric. Zydek recommends natural materials: wool, cotton, linen and silk, as they’re more durable and breathable than synthetics – important if you’re nervous and sweating – and they look better, too. If you’re just buying one suit, she says to go for blue or grey, as they’re more versatile than a black one, which can look too formal.

Also, accessories can be fun, but keep it to one or two. “You don’t want to wear a tie, a pocket square, a tie clip and crazy socks, because too many accessories can be overwhelming,” she says. “I won’t know where to look.”

Of course, as important as it is to look great, you’ll still need to wow that potential client with what you have to say. Once Howard gets over his initial shyness, he’s able to pull out all the stops. “Say hello, give a firm handshake, be present and ask intelligent questions,” he says. “And look people in the eye.”