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The New Rules and Expectations for Workwear

Will older millennials be the final cohort to experience buying their first suit for job interviews? Under current circumstances that see corporations adapting long-term work-from-home policies, new careers that call for untraditional workspaces and traditional workwear purveyors like Men’s Wearhouse, Brooks Brothers and Ann Taylor going bust by the week, the sartorial milestone into adulthood feels lightyears away from reality.

A new code of workwear, however, is emerging, according to a new report by retail market intelligence company Edited.

Though the casualization of fashion is arguably in its third decade, the shutdown of workplaces due to the pandemic has turbocharged the evolution making loungewear, sweats and T-shirts acceptable work-week attire. The categories have been bright spots in otherwise dismal sales reports during the coronavirus crisis, and brands are responding by shifting gears to focus on comfort and versatile pieces.

Overall workwear offerings are down 40 percent year-over-year, according to Edited.

Even companies like rental service Rent the Runway, which has been women’s quick fix for elevated designer workwear, now touts a “work from home” category that includes rocker tees, track pants, tie-dye sweaters and heaps of stretch denim.

It’s a far cry from the masses of blazers and other “power dressing” regalia that was filtering into the women’s category prior to the pandemic. Blazers, Edited reports, made up a larger portion of the workwear assortment this year compared to last, up 5 percent. The uptick was mainly due to retailers like Ann Taylor, Aritzia and Wallis, which significantly increased their blazer collections when women began to pair the proper jacket with everything from trousers and jeans to bike shorts.

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Though sales for trousers remain flat, Edited said the sellout rate for skirts plunged 8 percent year-over-year. “This is likely due to the ‘dress up from the waist up’ mentality during lockdown,” the firm stated. The same mentality, however, helped sales for women’s tops remain steady.

The lack of demand for workwear puts at risk the Fall/Winter 20-21 return to men’s tailoring that so many designers from Louis Vuitton to MSGM pitched on their runways earlier this year.

Traditional men’s workwear styles saw a 38 percent decrease in investment year-over-year with the largest drop coming from dress shirts, Edited reports. Though dress shirts accounted for the majority of sell-outs, the category dipped 6 percent. More casual polo shirts are swooping in to gain share. Data shows that new arrivals of the top increased 3 percent compared to last year, and they continue to top bestseller lists.

Edited also sees men stepping away from traditional workwear bottoms. Chinos are on the rise, specifically slim fit and linen, which resonates with the casual fashion consumer. In contrast, suits were “significantly less bought into by shoppers.”

New opportunities

It isn’t all doom and gloom for the workwear category. Edited says there are pockets of opportunity as consumers, brands and retailers settle into this new normal.

While many consumers are still hesitant of in-store shopping, retailers can do more to meet their needs online, starting with offering a broader range of sizes for both men and women. “A wide range of size offerings on ecommerce is essential and mitigates the risk of a slow sell through in brick-and-mortar,” Edited stated.

And with many companies giving employees the choice to not return to the office until 2021, those who do make the commute again may see a more relaxed and casual environment with fewer colleagues. Here, transitional outfits that combine casual items like broken-in jeans with more traditional workwear blouses will be key, Edited said.

Neutral and minimalistic separates also serve as a versatile foundation for dressing up or down. This back-to-basics approach to dressing will be important going forward as consumers may have less disposable income.

Face masks, as well as garments made with fabrics that have performance properties like antibacterial, breathability and stretch will likely resonate with commuters who are still on guard about their health and safety as well. Edited noted garments that are easy to clean will take precedence, which will result in a dwindling interest in dry-clean only purchases.