Fashion: Role models who mean business: Power dressing is about being discreet and classic

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SANDRA LAWSON is 33 and runs her own company, Lawson Leisure Marketing, providing consulting services to luxury hotel groups.

It makes me cringe to remember what I wore in my first job. I was almost entirely surrounded by men and my clothes were very serious - grim, frumpy suits with big shoulders and stiff fabrics. I was definitely using them to enhance my confidence. Starting at the bottom, I thought I should look conventional and cautious. I didn't want to scare people too much. When I left one of the directors said: 'You're a great girl, but it would help if you dressed in a more feminine way.'

My clothes are much softer now but since the people I come across in my line of work are quite conservative - the women wear lots of gold buttons, high heels and big shoulders - it's relative. I haven't gone into long skirts yet, for example. I like them but I don't want to look too fashionable.

Since this job is all about packaging, clothes are extremely important. How can I advise people on their hotels if I look a mess? That means I can't take many risks. I know leggings with jackets are fashionable but some of my clients might take it amiss, so I stick to skirts and occasionally very well-tailored trousers. I'm passionate about jackets; I don't think I've ever not worn one at work. Splitting up a suit is about as casual as I get. And I always wear court shoes. It's not exactly wild, is it? Once I went round Saks Fifth Avenue with an image consultant and was amazed to find that it was very useful because she introduced me to ranges I'd never have considered.

Things have improved clothes-wise for working women, but it's still hard to find inexpensive tailored things. The men in my business dress safely but in good quality clothes, so the women have to match. The concept of power dressing definitely still exists, but for me it's about being discreet and classic. Any eccentricity has to be confined to colour and the odd pair of ear-rings.

Sometimes I wonder who imposes the ground rules. At a professional dinner last year I wore catsuit under a tailored jacket. I thought it was quite a chancey thing to do but the only comments were positive. And recently I bought a great quilted beige Moschino raincoat that doubles up as a carry-all and that really breaks the ice at meetings. The problem is that you're constantly striving to look smart but not to draw attention to yourself, so advances in the way women dress at work happen very slowly.

SANDRA LAWSON: Red wool crepe single-breasted jacket, by Moschino, bought at Saks Fifth Avenue, New York, during the January sales (this season's jackets cost about pounds 400 full price); black skirt, by Rodney Vaughan Telford, New York; chocolate wool polo neck, by Adolfo Dominguez, a few years old; belt by Kenzo; necklace by Anne Klein; flat shoes by Maraolo from Italy

(Photograph omitted)

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