How To Find The Perfect Work Dress, Straight From A Design Pro

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60SecondsWith_PostopenerPhoto: Courtesy of Project Gravitas/Lisa Sun.
Plenty of us strive to be That Girl in the office — the one who always comes to work in an outfit that strikes the perfect balance between style and professionalism. And, although some might scoff at the notion of an ideal work wardrobe, the way you present yourself at your 9-to-5 can affect how you feel and carry yourself — and even where you land on the corporate ladder. That search for poise and confidence is what motivated Lisa Sun to start Project Gravitas, a dress company and online community of talented, professional women.

Splitting her time between New York and D.C., Sun has garnered tons of intel on the perfect LBD, personal style, and confidence. We caught up with the designer/entrepreneur to learn how to become your own "dress whisperer" and develop some gravitas of your own.

Project Gravitas sprung from your own quest to gain poise and confidence. How do you define the concept, especially for younger women?
"Project Gravitas is first and foremost a company about confidence. There's a moment we all have when we take that last look in the mirror right before walking out the door for the day — and we say, 'Damn! I look good. Bring on the day.' And, that moment is wrapped up in how you feel about yourself, and how what you're wearing prepares you for the day. We hope we're giving women the perfect dress that empowers them to own every moment. Some have called it the 'power suit meets the LBD.'

"For younger women, I like to think that I would have wanted to gift a Project Gravitas dress to my 22-year-old self, who received that very first professional review and was told she didn't have any gravitas and needed to go 'buy a new dress and wear big jewelry and great shoes!' Having gravitas is about how you see yourself, and if you see yourself in the best possible way, others have the opportunity to see you that way, too. Personal style has the power to transform how you take on the day."

Project Gravitas focuses on dresses right now. Do you plan on expanding the line at some point?
"I feel strongly that Project Gravitas should only create products that are new and needed, where innovations — like built-in shapewear — can make a difference. There are so many amazing products already out there from other incredible brands we admire, so we set a very high bar for ourselves on expanding the line. We've started with dresses because they're a versatile canvas that you can accessorize so many ways. I was a McKinsey consultant for 11 years, and I would travel around the world with two dresses and great accessories — and never have to check a bag. We only truly wear 20% of our closet, and [I] want our dresses to be in that 20%!

"At the same time, one of the ways we've started to expand is by listening to the women we serve. A customer suggested that we design a pencil skirt last year. Since we make everything in NYC, we were able to quickly design, wear-test, and launch our Rosalind Perfect Pencil Skirt, which has our signature Italian fabrics; luxury, made-in-NYC construction; and a high-waisted built-in shapewear secret. (No muffin-top and amazing hip and butt shaping!) It has quickly become a best seller and customer favorite."

You sell beautiful dresses, but you’ve also created a community of businesswomen. What was your motivation behind that?
"No one is born with gravitas. You learn it, often through role models and mentors. At the core of our beliefs is the idea that mentorship matters. This is why our dresses are named for women who have thoughtfully, creatively, or fearlessly owned their moment in history. And, this is why we created The Project, [highlighting] women leaders today who embody what it means to live with gravitas. These are inspiring women with powerful stories to share, and who also appreciate the beauty of great personal style. Further, we felt strongly about paying it forward to causes that these women are genuinely passionate about. So, that's why we ask them to showcase their favorite dress for the month; [then] we donate 10% of the purchase price of that dress to their favorite charity. For us, it's a virtuous cycle."

How do you go about choosing the women you feature on the site?
"The common thread that connects all of the women we feature is gravitas, a sense that who they are and what they're doing makes a difference in the world — women meaningfully [transforming] societies. As we plan out the year, we do our best to feature women in different life stages and stages of their career, from accomplished professionals to supermoms to up-and–coming women who will define the next decade of their industry. We also try to feature a variety of industries and charitable causes. Thus far, we've featured women in fashion, the arts, media, politics, venture capital, fitness, and beauty.

"In the coming months, I'm excited that we're going to feature prominent women writers (after all, women writers are some of the original feminists), women in digital, women in the culinary [world], and women in the music industry. Our team sits down once a week and talks about who we admire, and we actively use the power of our networks to reach out to them. One of my dream months is to feature comediennes with gravitas. Who doesn't love the unique blend of savvy and style that women in comedy — like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Mindy Kaling — have these days?"

You’ve created some amazing black dresses. What goes into the perfect LBD?
"The perfect LBD is timeless and should be an investment piece, so it comes down to fit, fabric, construction, [and] trend-right. First and foremost, it's about finding the fit that flatters. When I started the company, I was adamant that we needed to provide a full range of dress silhouettes across body types, so that every woman would be able to find at least two dresses that truly fit her. Second, fabric and great tailoring that feels luxe and is high-performing in the face of everyday wear and tear. Lastly, trend-right, but not necessarily trendy. The right LBD is a canvas that can constantly be updated and refreshed for years with jackets, shoes, jewelry, and handbags. Ultimately, the perfect LBD should not be wearing you, you should be wearing it. The dress should be doing the work to highlight your best features, and be a great backdrop for your personality and style! After all, the woman makes the dress."

What’s your secret to finding a balance between looking professional and fashionable in your outfits?
"This has been my personal passion for years, that being professional and being fashionable are not mutually exclusive! My secret is that I think of an outfit like a piece of art. I start with the dress as a blank canvas; this piece should be professional or appropriate for the occasion or setting (i.e., if you're in a traditional office, then the dress is more classic). But, with that as the foundation, then you can have fun layering on pieces that show off your personality or reflect the season's trends: jewelry, belts, shoes, jackets, etc. I love to accessorize — it is rare to find me without statement jewelry, fun heels, and a luxe handbag.

"This approach to looking professional and fashionable is what inspired the Style Your Dress section of our website. We feature style guides on 30 ways to wear each dress in our core collection for every occasion, and how to wear our dresses to tap into a seasonal trend."

We see you've branched out from black dresses into colorful versions. How do you choose the colors and cuts in your line?
"We think about colors in two ways. First, most of us will find something we love and buy it in multiple colors. So, we take our best sellers and offer them in other investment-worthy, staple colors (like navy and gray). If you love a particular silhouette, it gives you the option to own that dress in a few shades. Second, we'll get inspired by trends and offer a fresh, limited-edition pop color in season. For example, last September, our designer was walking around the city and snapped five pictures of different women on the street rocking a gorgeous electric blue color. We immediately worked on getting one of our favorite luxury fabrics dyed in that color and [put] into production for our first limited-edition collection. Small-batch, high-craftsmanship manufacturing in NYC has given us the flexibility to experiment with color each season while still delivering on luxury construction and quality.

"As for cuts, we do our best to have a range of silhouettes that cut across every body type. Nearly every woman will have at least two dresses that work for her body type. We take this quite seriously. During a Boston pop-up shop event early last year, we realized that there were three women who we hadn't quite gotten the right fit for yet. On the train ride back to NYC, our designer immediately started sketching styles for those women. This led to two new styles: the Ginger and the Eleanor."

Which styles of dresses work best on different body types?
"Wow, I could write a tome just on this topic. The simplest tip I can offer is to figure out what works best for you in terms of your body's best features and your sense of style on three important dimensions: neckline (boat, round, scoop, V-neck); waist-seam position (empire, natural, drop, no waist seam); and skirt shape (tapered, sheath, A-line). These three elements together create a sense of balance and proportion for a person's figure. So, it's about finding the right combination that works best for you. For example, I know that for me, all of the necklines will generally work, but I prefer empire and natural waists (drop waist doesn't work as well on my curvier hips!). I often joke that we all need a 'dress whisperer' who can help us figure out the best combos!"