Commuters, most of whom wear face masks, will loop on the L-Train system in Chicago, Illinois on July 27, 2021.
Scott Olson | Getty Images
Johnny Reynolds has been spending part of his paycheck at Lululemon lately. Not for the gym, but as preparation for his return to the office.
The 27-year-old public relations professional from the Philadelphia area is expecting to be back with his colleagues after Labor Day. Instead of going to the suit section of the nearest department store, he fills his new wardrobe with Lululemon robes.
“They have button-down shirts, blazers, polos – basically a full wardrobe of comfortable, professional-looking clothing,” Reynolds said. “I can’t imagine wearing a suit to a meeting ever again.”
As Americans slowly return to the office, many are adopting a style similar to Reynolds’ increasingly dubbed “work leisure,” a put together version of the athleisure apparel that many have worn from the gym to the grocery store.
For women and men, this means that pants – even denim – are stretched further thanks to generous elastic bands. Tops are not tucked in and ties are optional. Women prefer skirts and dresses that feel more comfortable than figure-hugging pants. And sneakers – no heels – are always part of the mix.
It also means that the place where people buy clothes is evolving. Companies like Lululemon and Athleta will benefit when consumers mix athletic apparel in their return to work wardrobes. Combining the iconic ABC pants from Lululemon with a blazer is a common example for men. Brands and department store chains like Nordstrom, associated with pre-pandemic office cabinets, are quickly turning to include more casual options in their fall merchandise.
While clothing categories, including dresses and shirts such as polos and tunics, are expected to grow double-digit this year compared to the previous year, business suits will only grow by around 8% according to the market research company Euromonitor.
Over the past year, dozens of retail chains filed for bankruptcy protection and closed thousands of stores – including a large number of clothing chains like J.Crew, Brooks Brothers, men’s wearhouse owner Tailored Brands, and Loft mom Ascena. The shakeout has left consumers with fewer options when planning their back-to-office purchases.
“The workwear category is on the decline,” said Erin Schmidt, senior analyst at Coresight Research, a global consulting and research firm specializing in retail and technology. “It’s no longer really a category. It used to be a suit Monday through Thursday and then casual on Friday, and those were clearly defined.”
“Today the consumer is reinventing what that means,” said Schmidt. “The consumer is rewriting that definition of workwear. And it may take employers a while to find out.”
The pounds piled up are also pushing consumers back to the mall to buy new clothes. Those who gained weight during the pandemic may also tend towards flowing and forgiving clothing. Chip Bergh, CEO of Levi Strauss, recently said the denim maker estimates that around 35% of American waists have changed in the last year.
Aaron Cutler, a partner at Hogan Lovells law firm in Washington, DC, said he won’t buy new clothes until he sheds his own “covid pounds”.
“It’s still pretty casual in the office, but once the customer meetings start some wardrobe updates may be needed,” said Cutler, 41. “I’ll probably venture into a few stores. The human interaction will be fine for me.”
Rahim Adatia, 47, said he has lost about 25 pounds from last March to now. The Facebook product manager in San Francisco said he was looking at Fila and Ted Baker for outfits that fit his now slimmed-down size.
People enter Goldman Sachs headquarters in New York, United States on Monday, June 14, 2021.
Michael Nagel | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Whether it is the desire for new styles or the need for new sizes, the sale of clothing is increasing month after month. According to the latest data from the Department of Commerce, transactions in clothing and apparel accessories stores in the United States increased 47.1% in June compared to June 2020. And from April 2021 to June this year, apparel sales rose 162.9% compared to the same period last year, the department said.
But the dollars were not evenly distributed.
According to a separate analysis by Coresight Research and Euromonitor, the apparel apparel share of the total US apparel market fell from 31.5% in 2019 to 24.8% last year as casual wear like sweatpants and pajamas gained the upper hand. Coresight defines apparel clothing as formal accessories, clothing and shoes, including blazers and suits, that are intended to be worn to work.
For the remainder of this year and through 2022, Coresight and Euromonitor anticipate that the leisurewear market will dominate total apparel spending. Even when people make contacts again and take part in events such as weddings and birthday parties.
Greg Shugar, owner of Beau Ties of Vermont and founder and former CEO of Tie Bar, is concerned about what the shift will mean for his company and others in the industry.
“Our numbers are extremely wrong for bespoke clothing,” said Shugar. “Our very loyal customers have told us, ‘I just don’t go to work anymore’ or ‘I’m just done with ties.’ And that across all generations. “
During the pandemic, Shugar actually shifted production to making face masks, which helped his company get through some of the toughest months. Recently, he said, sales of masks had started again as the Delta variant posed an increased risk for the spread of Covid across the country.
Greg Shugar, owner of Vermont-based Beau Ties and founder and former CEO of Tie Bar, began selling masks to make up for lost sales during the pandemic.
Source: Greg Shugar
“The bespoke clothing industry has suffered enough and is now in even greater trouble,” said Shugar. “And it doesn’t come back the way some people think.”
Some companies, including suit maker Brooks Brothers, have already started turning. After the bankruptcy, the brand was taken over by Sparc, a joint venture between Authentic Brands Group and mall owner Simon Property Group. Brooks Brothers launched its first sportswear and casualwear collection last year. Banana Republic, which is owned by Gap, also recently launched an athleisure liner called the BR Sport.
“The assortment side has a huge impact on retailers and manufacturers,” said Kristin Kohler Burrows, senior director of Alvarez & Marsal Consumer and Retail Group, a global consultancy specializing in business transformation.
“Retailers definitely need to have more recreational items,” she said. “What customers don’t want to sacrifice is to feel comfortable in their clothes.”
MMLaFleur, a professional clothing brand for women, describes the new office wardrobe as a kind of “hybrid dressing”.
The retailer now offers a weekly outfit options guide on its website as its customers prepare for the “new normal”. “It can be difficult to dress for the office and work from home at times,” the blog post said.
On Monday, a more casual look was suggested – a “jardigan” (half jacket, half cardigan) and trainers – for work from home after the weekend. Tuesday requires an upscale look for a day in the office, according to MMLaFleur. But on Wednesday you’re back home in your cozy sweater.
“The more you are in the office and the more office work you have, the more business items you will have in your closet,” said Burrows. “But not as much as before the pandemic.”
MMLaFleur envisions a world where many office workers split their time between home and office. The proliferation of the highly contagious Delta variant, which is causing an increase in new Covid cases, also increases the possibility of a delayed return to work schedules or a situation where employees work from the office when the number of cases is low and home when the number is increasing withdraw.
Apparel company Lands’ End has seen higher demand for its activewear and swimsuits this summer. According to CEO Jerome Griffith, sales of sleepwear and shirts made with knit and stretch fabrics are also strong compared to other categories.
“People are a little more comfortable in their work environment, be it at home or in the office, and you won’t see these trends change,” Griffith said in an interview. “People won’t feel any less well again.”
Here’s what people say they buy when they go back to the office or are thinking of going back.
Liza Amlani, 46, Canada Retail Strategist:
Leggings never go away. I see a lot of this, for myself and when meeting with customers because I’ve started meeting people as the terraces are open.
People aren’t really on their heels yet. I wore wedges the other day, so I’m going for that.
Jason Press, 48, general manager of a Chicago auto repair shop:
We’re back to normal. At Murgado Automotive, everything is business wear.
I just bought the Nordstrom anniversary sale, one of the few stores that still has real business clothes, suits and ties. Your inventory went quickly. … I bought Ferragamo shoes. I have tightest casual and business casual attire, and I now need additional real business attire, so that was the focus. My wife and children also went shopping.
Sean Long, 34, a research fellow at an investment management firm in St. Louis, Missouri:
From May we will be business casual again from Monday to Thursday and will then be able to wear jeans on Fridays – provided we do not have any business or customer meetings where a different dress code is justified.
For the most part, I didn’t notice any connections at business meetings. I suspect as soon as face-to-face meetings and more presentations take place, connections will come back.
My wife and I didn’t do much window shopping; We were going to two stores and they either had it or they didn’t and we left.
Gene Miller, 48, a public relations professional in Indianapolis, Indiana:
First day back to the office after Covid-19 restrictions and parental leave, and I’m wearing a new dress.
We have a business casual dress code. I also lost 50 pounds. I bought the J.Crew, Banana Republic, Gap, and Nordstrom offerings.
Manjul Gupta, 38, Associate Professor at Florida International University:
When I realized that I had to teach MBAs in a business class, the first thing I did was open my closet and look for my jacket-blazer.
I like Express, Banana Republic, and now and then Macy’s. I hate to say it, but Amazon has it all too. I’ve used Amazon Wardrobe in the past.