For investment banker Bob Howard, wearing a quiet business suit to work is a requirement of the job.

"No gold lam & #233;," said Howard, who buys a custom-made suit every six months from Tom James Co. in Dallas. "You can't be too flamboyant or look like you have been smoking something. And you cannot look intimidating."

All of a sudden, men in Los Angeles are getting serious about what they wear to the office. Gone are the days when a businessman bought a few suits, some shirts and a batch of ties and hoped they all matched.

"For the past six months, the suit sales have improved dramatically," said John Carroll of Beverly Hills-based Carroll & Co. "March and April of this year is up 44 percent over the same period last year."

At the Beverly Hills store for designer Ermenegildo Zegna, whose conservative styles are catching fire even in the traditionally laid-back entertainment industry, sales are up 10 percent over last year.

"It's a return to elegance," said Don Gray, a personal shopper at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills. "The dark power suit is back. First impressions are extremely important in Los Angeles, whether you are theatrical agent or an auto salesman.

Gray said he noticed the change about five years ago.

"It used to be that guys didn't care or bother," said Gray, whose customers include Mayor Richard Riordan. "They would buy whatever was on sale at the local department store or when the wife was shopping with them. Guys have a lot more confidence in themselves now."

There may be other factors. One is the upsurge in the Los Angeles economy and the soaring stock market nationally. Money is flowing.

Richard Reeves, a syndicated columnist and a professor at USC, said the dressing-up trend has even extended to the Hollywood community more accustomed to an ultra-casual look.

"More and more show biz people are spending more and more time in New York, where they make fun of the California ethos," Reeves said.

Reeves, a former New York Times correspondent, said he is delighted to see that most of his colleagues at USC now wear suits or sport coats to work.

"I think it is sensible and symbolic," he said. "We are the grown ups."

Djordje Stefanovic, fashion director for Zegna, U.S., said the trend toward more conservative fashions not only shows the maturation of Los Angeles, but also men themselves. Gone, he said, are clothes that scream a designer's name. "Your suit should not dominate your profession," he said. "You don't have to overdress, which is why men feel comfortable in Zegna suits. They don't need other people to know it is a Zegna."

Styles of business dress for men still vary greatly according to profession in Los Angeles, and there are still plenty of entertainment, advertising and new-media executives wearing T-shirts and jeans to work. Still, professionals across the city say they are noticing a trend toward more business-like apparel.

"Men are in a very competitive climate where they are more and more the peacock and appearance is everything," said KABC radio talk show host Michael Jackson.

Lou Pitt, an agent at International Creative Management, likes Armani for some people. "Everybody should wear clothes that make them feel comfortable doing business in," he said. "If you are a banker, you have to feel comfortable in the financial world. If you are in the rock 'n' roll business, you have to dress differently. You don't dress to impress, but to fit in."

But to blend into the city's diverse business culture, many men change clothes the way a chameleon changes colors. Architect Gary Gilbar, for example, would look foolish at a job site in a suit. But if he is trying to get a loan from a bank, work clothes would make him look down-and-out. He has to remain flexible.

"Dress is important because first impressions stay with people," he said. "Luckily, I am in a creative field, so I have a little more leeway with colorful shirts and ties."

Trying to be a modern-day Beau Brummell doesn't come cheap in Los Angeles.

Black-label Armani clothing, the company's top of the line, costs about $2,500 for a suit and $1,800 for a sport jacket. The line below starts at $1,400 for a suit and $900 for a sport jacket.

Quietly tailored Zegna suits, which recently have become a hot item within the entertainment industry, start at $1,400 and about $1,000 for a sport jacket.

Marshall Blonsky, a professor of semiotics the study of non-verbal communication at New York University, said L.A. men have finally discovered what women have known all along about the impact of fashion.

"For years, men have been hicks about clothes," Blonsky said. "They used to say that 'men are' and 'women appear.' Men thought they are not objects, but successful women have always known they appear under men's gaze. They grow up knowing this. Men think they can get away with being slobs. But now men are realizing that it is no longer acceptable to do business this way at the end of the millennium."

But Richard Rosenzweig, executive vice president of Playboy Enterprises, cautioned that men should avoid becoming trapped in the seasonal cycle of changing fashion trends.

"Men have to be careful not to be conned into what has happened to women," he said. "You don't have to go out and buy new suits every season just because three-button suits are in and two buttons are out."

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