Ties are out and stretchy pants are in: The office wardrobe might never be the same

Key Points
  • As Americans slowly return to the office, many are adopting a style that's been called "workleisure" — a more put-together version of the athleisure.
  • Companies like Lululemon and Athleta stand to benefit as consumers mix athletic-type clothing into their return-to-work wardrobes.
  • Brands and department store chains, such as Nordstrom, that are associated with pre-pandemic office wardrobes are pivoting fast to include more casual options among fall merchandise.
Commuters travel on the L train system in the Loop on July 27, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois.
Scott Olson | Getty Images

Johnny Reynolds has been spending a chunk of his paycheck at Lululemon lately. Not for the gym, but in preparation for his return to the office.

The 27-year-old public relations professional from the Philadelphia area expects to rejoin his colleagues after Labor Day. Instead of heading to the suit section of the closest department store, he's filling his new wardrobe with Lululemon garb.

"They have button-down shirts, blazers, polos – basically a full wardrobe of comfortable, professional-looking attire," Reynolds said. "I don't envision ever wearing a suit to a meeting again."

As Americans slowly return to the office, many are adopting a style similar to Reynolds' that's increasingly being called "workleisure" — a more put-together version of the athleisure apparel many already sport from the gym to the grocery store.

For women and men, that means pants — even denim — are stretching wider thanks to generous elastic waistbands. Tops aren't tucked in, and ties are optional. Women are gravitating toward skirts and dresses that feel more comfortable than a form-fitting pair of pants. And sneakers — not heels — are always in the mix.

That also means where people shop for clothes is evolving. Companies like Lululemon and Athleta stand to benefit as consumers mix athletic-type clothing into their return-to-work wardrobes. Paring Lululemon's iconic ABC Pant with a blazer is one common example for men. Brands and department store chains, such as Nordstrom, that are associated with pre-pandemic office wardrobes are pivoting fast to include more casual options among fall merchandise.

While categories of clothing including dresses and shirts, such as polos and tunics, are predicted to grow by double-digits this year over last year, business suits will only grow about 8%, according to the market research firm Euromonitor.

Last year, dozens of retail chains filed for bankruptcy protection and thousands of stores were shuttered — including a large number of apparel chains like J.Crew, Brooks Brothers, Men's Wearhouse owner Tailored Brands and Loft parent Ascena. The shakeout has left consumers with fewer options as they plan their back-to-office shopping hauls.

"The workwear category is diminishing," said Erin Schmidt, a senior analyst at Coresight Research, a global advisory and research firm specializing in retail and technology. "It's not really a category anymore. It used to be a suit Monday through Thursday, and then casual Friday, and these were clearly defined."

"The consumer today is reinventing what that means" Schmidt said. "The consumer is rewriting that definition of workwear. And it might be a little while for employers to figure this out."

Piled-on pounds are also pushing consumers back to the mall for new clothes. Those who gained weight during the pandemic, may also be gravitating toward flowy and more forgiving clothing. Levi Strauss CEO Chip Bergh recently said the denim maker estimates that about 35% of American waistlines have been altered over the past year.

Aaron Cutler, a partner at law firm Hogan Lovells in Washington, D.C., said he won't be buying any new clothes until he sheds his own "Covid pounds."

"It's still pretty casual in the office, but once client meetings pick up, then it may necessitate some wardrobe updates," said 41-year-old Cutler. "I'll probably venture out to some stores. The human interaction will be good for me."

Meantime, 47-year-old Rahim Adatia said he has lost about 25 pounds from last March until now. The Facebook product manager in San Francisco said he has been shopping at Fila and Ted Baker for outfits to fit his now slimmed-down size.

People enter the Goldman Sachs headquarters building in New York, U.S., on Monday, June 14, 2021.
Michael Nagle | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Whether it's the desire for new styles, or the need for new sizes, sales of apparel have been on the rise, month after month. Transactions at clothing and clothing accessory stores in the U.S. grew 47.1% in June from June 2020, according to the latest data from the Commerce Department. And from April 2021 through June of this year, clothing sales are up 162.9% compared with the same period a year ago, the department said.

But the dollars haven't been spread evenly around.

According to a separate analysis by Coresight Research and Euromonitor, dress wear's share of the total U.S. apparel market dropped to 24.8% last year from 31.5% in 2019, as casual clothing such as sweatpants and pajamas reigned supreme. Coresight defines dress wear as any formal accessories, clothing and footwear, including blazers and suits meant to be worn to work.

For the remainder of this year and into 2022, Coresight and Euromonitor predict the casual wear market will dominate total apparel spending. Even as people return to socializing and attending events like weddings and birthday parties.

Greg Shugar, owner of Beau Ties of Vermont and the founder and former CEO of Tie Bar, is anxious about what the shift will mean for his business and for others in the industry.

"Our numbers are extremely off in tailored clothing," Shugar said. "Our customers who are very loyal have told us, 'I'm just not going back to work,' or, 'I'm just done wearing ties.' And that spans all generations."

During the pandemic, Shugar actually shifted manufacturing to make face masks, which helped his company make it through some of the hardest months. Recently, he said, mask sales have started ticking back up, as the delta variant poses a heightened risk for Covid spread across the country.

Greg Shugar, owner of Beau Ties of Vermont and the founder and former CEO of Tie Bar, started selling masks during the pandemic to try to make up for lost sales.
Source: Greg Shugar

"The tailored clothing industry has already suffered enough and is now in even worse trouble," Shugar said. "And it's not coming back the way some people think it is."

Already some businesses, including the suit maker Brooks Brothers, have started to pivot. When it emerged from bankruptcy, the brand was acquired by Sparc, a joint-venture between Authentic Brands Group and mall owner Simon Property Group. Last year, Brooks Brothers debuted its first sportswear and casual wear collection. Banana Republic, which is owned by Gap, also recently launched an athleisure lined called BR Sport.

"There are big implications for retailers and manufacturers on the assortment side," said Kristin Kohler Burrows, a senior director of Alvarez & Marsal Consumer and Retail Group, a global consultancy specializing in business transformation.

"Retailers definitely need to have more casual items," she said. "What customers aren't going to want to sacrifice is feeling comfortable in their clothes."

M.M.LaFleur, a professional clothing brand for women, is calling the new office wardrobe a form of "hybrid dressing."

The retailer now offers a weekly guide on its website for outfit options, as its customers are preparing for the "new normal." "It can sometimes be difficult trying to dress for the office, and working from home," the blog post reads.

On Monday, it suggested a more casual look — a "jardigan" (half jacket, half cardigan) and sneakers — for working from home after the weekend. Tuesday requires a more elevated look for a day in the office, according to M.M.LaFleur. But come Wednesday, you're back at home in a cozy sweater.

"The more you are in the office, and the more white-collar office work that you have, you're going to have more business items in your wardrobe mix," Burrows said. "But not as much as you had prior to the pandemic."

M.M.LaFleur is envisioning a world where many office workers split their time between the home and the office. The spread of the highly contagious delta variant, which is causing a surge in new Covid cases, also raises the possibility of delayed return to work plans, or a situation where employees work from the office when cases are low and retreat home when cases rise.

Clothing company Lands' End has seen higher demand for its activewear and swimsuits this summer. Sales of sleepwear and shirts with knit and stretchy fabrics are also strong relative to other categories, according to CEO Jerome Griffith.

"People are a bit more comfortable in their work environments, whether it be at home or in office, and you're not going to see those trends change," Griffith said in an interview. "People won't go back to being less comfortable."

Here's what people are saying they're buy as they head back, or think about heading back, to the office.

Liza Amlani, 46, a retail strategist in Canada:

Leggings are never going away. I'm seeing a lot of that, for myself and when I'm meeting with clients, because I've started to meet with people as patios are open.

People are not really back into their heels, yet. I did wear wedges the other day, so I'm easing myself into it.

Jason Press, 48, a general manager at an auto shop in Chicago:

We are back to normal. It's all business attire at Murgado Automotive.

I just shopped the Nordstrom Anniversary sale, one of the few stores that still has real business attire, suits and ties. Their inventory went quickly. ... I bought Ferragamo shoes. I have a closest full of casual and business casual, and I now need additional real business attire, so that was the focus. My wife and kids shopped, too.

Sean Long, 34, a research associate at an investment management firm in St. Louis, Missouri:

As of May, we are back to business casual from Monday to Thursday, and then can wear jeans on Fridays — assuming we don't have business or client meeting where a different dress code is warranted.

Business meetings, for the most part, I have noticed no ties. I suspect once in-person meetings and more presentations occur, ties will come back.

My wife and I haven't been doing much window shopping; we just went to two stores, and they either had it or 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 dress code that is business casual. I also lost 15 pounds. I've been shopping the J.Crew, Banana Republic, Gap and Nordstrom sales.

Manjul Gupta, 38, an associate professor at Florida International University:

When I realized I had to go teach a business course to MBAs, the first thing I opened my closet to look for was my jacket blazer.

I like Express, Banana Republic, and once in a while Macy's. I hate to say it, but Amazon also has everything. I've used Amazon Wardrobe in the past.

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