Office workers are rushing to refresh their wardrobes as companies start calling employees back to their cubicles. But after months at home in pajamas, the back-to-workers are looking to trade in traditional office attire for more comfortable clothing. Pencil skirts, suit pants and classic black are out. Today's office worker is brightly dressed, focusing on wide, loose-fitting clothing and softer fabrics, according to major U.S. retailers.
“We as a business evolved our merchandising to talk more about 'power casual,'” Sarah LaFleur, CEO of the women’s work wear company M.M.LaFleur, told NBC News. “Formality wise, it’s one step down from business casual. There is definitely something below that, that is still a dress code similar to how women who work in media or in the tech space might dress.”
The company’s new line, which includes a "jardigan," or blazer made out of soft cardigan material, has been booming. Before the country went into lockdown last spring, casual work wear made up about 25 percent of M.M.LaFleur sales; now, it’s 60 percent.
Retailers were among the first to be hammered by the pandemic, with dozens of retailers filing for bankruptcy, including iconic brands such as Lord & Taylor, J.Crew and Neiman Marcus. Other stores were forced to shutter thousands of locations.
But as vaccination rates increase and federal public health agencies relax masking rules, shoppers and workers are eager to get back to living life in person — and with that comes the urge to wear something new and bright, according to retail analysts and brands.
“We believe the world is back,” Morris Goldfarb, CEO of G-III Apparel, which owns brands such as DKNY, told investors this week. “People are going out, people are partying. They're not just wearing their fleece leisure wear. They're wearing denim, and they're wearing jeans, they're wearing stretch fabrics, and they're wearing sculptured products.”
Employed shoppers plan to spend more across all categories, including casual and dress wear in both men and women’s clothing, compared to last year, according to data from the retail analytics company Prosper Insights & Analytics. But consumers say they also plan to spend more on comfort style brands such as Levi’s rather than luxury brands such as Calvin Klein or Coach, according to the data.
“The ‘work-from-home’ consumer still has a preference for the ‘comfort’ brands versus the ‘dress to impress’ brands,” Phil Rist, executive vice president of Prosper Insights & Analytics, said in an email.
Retailers and brands are betting that comfort fits across the board are likely here to stay. Shea Jensen, Nordstrom's executive vice president and general merchandising manager, said that some of its brand partners have adjusted their products to be more comfortable.
“Loungewear and comfort is still important to the customer,” she said in an email. “Some of the season’s new pants have incorporated an elastic waist, a looser leg or very soft materials without sacrificing fashion and newness.”
Occasion dressing has also become more casual and comfortable, said Doug Howe, Kohl's chief merchandising officer.
“For example, in men’s, tuxedos have traded to suits, suits have traded to khakis and dress shirts, khakis have traded to denim and polos,” he said. “In women’s, we are seeing interest in jackets and third layers. Think, boyfriend blazers, cropped jackets and oversized cardigans to compliment new proportions in looser-fitting bottoms with denim a key complimenting component.”
But even denim has become more forgiving. As people get out and socialize, retailers including Gap, Abercrombie & Fitch and American Eagle are seeing increased interest in looser, baggier and more relaxed fits across men's and women's denim. Kohl's has also seen growth in high rise and curvy fits.
Even footwear is having a resurgence. Tapestry, which owns Coach, Kate Spade and Stuart Weitzman, told investors in May that outside of handbags it saw positive growth in footwear driven by an increase in demand for casual flats and sneakers.
“You can’t go back to the office in your slippers,” Rist said.
But shoppers aren’t just looking for comfort in their clothes. After a year in grey sweatpants, colors and prints are an opportunity to change up their attire. Gen Z is largely driving this maximalism trend, bucking the minimalism of their millennial counterparts. An April report from Pinterest found Gen Z led a 14-fold increase in searches for “zebra pants,” a 12-fold increase in “plaid pleated skirt” and a 133-fold increase in “'60s and '70s fashion” between the first quarter of last year and the same time this year.
“We’re back to school, back to work, going out to restaurants and traveling — and what will that mean to retailers?” said Brian Dodge, president of the retail trade group Retail Industry Leaders Association. “The answer is, it's a great opportunity, because maybe your clothing doesn’t fit anymore or your style changed, and retailers are in a great position to help customers to return to life.”
StitchFix, the personalized styling subscription company, reported Monday that it now has more than 4 million customers, which amounts to a 20 percent growth from the same time last year. The company’s female clients are asking stylists for more vacation-related items, jewelry and workwear, while loungewear requests are down 60 percent from last fall, the company reported.
The online clothing rental company Armoire said sales have surged as people need help finding clothes to wear as the country reopens, said Kristin McNelis, the company's chief marketing officer.
“You basically put your closet on pause for 18 months. Then, when you go back to wear what's in the closet, it's no longer stylish or it doesn't fit anymore or you’re just sick of it,” McNelis said. “So people are really thinking about where to discover new clothes but maybe not wanting to purchase new clothes.”
Casual Friday may have gone the way of the power suit.
“I’m much more aware of comfort,” said Martha Shaughnessy, who works in San Francisco. She recently polled her office of 20 people about what to call their day to wear comfortable clothing once they return to the office. Some contenders include “too tired Tuesday” and “mushy Monday.”
“It used to be we had a big meeting and I’d wear a pencil skirt blazer and all the rest,” Shaughnessy said. "Being aware of comfort has been a gift this year."
The company never had a dress code, but for client meetings or new hires she would wear formal workwear. But she plans to retire the skirts for a maxi dress, or heels for sneakers, setting the tone for the rest of the company that comfortable dress is OK.
“Not saying it out loud that expectations have changed can be confusing,” she said. “A lot of people are anxious about that stuff, about what are the expectations coming back out of their homes. It's already going to be hard.”