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Apparel sales soar as shoppers opt for cozy, stretchy ‘workleisure’

August 25, 2021, 11:30 AM UTC

After a year and a half of working remotely, some are returning to the office, but they aren’t quite ready to return to “hard pants.” That has driven apparel companies to embrace a new and growing category: workleisure, office-appropriate clothes that are made with stretchy, soft materials. 

Consumers are restocking their closets, and retailers and clothing brands are pivoting to meet the new demand for comfort. Nordstrom, known for its suits and business attire, reported a 136% increase in online searches for work clothes and has a category called “comfort work clothing” with cotton blend skirts and seersucker shift dresses. Women’s clothing company M.M.LaFleur designed its fall collection with softness in mind: “buttery, vegan-leather leggings,” and “suits that are sharp in silhouette but soft in touch.” And athletic brands Lululemon and Athleta have expanded into work attire.

“There’s a revulsion to having to dress uncomfortably again,” said Chris Lindland, CEO of Betabrand, a San Francisco company that makes 50 kinds of “dress-pant yoga pants” that are tailored but soft and stretchy. He’s anticipating “back to work” sales will be big for his $50 million company, as people reinvent their work wardrobes with comfort in mind. Plus, 40% of women and 37% of men say they’re a different size today than they were pre-pandemic, according to recent surveys by market research firm NPD.

M.M.LaFleur’s Woolf Jardigan
Courtesy of M.M.LaFleur

Casual attire at the office was already becoming more prevalent, but the pandemic accelerated the trend, said Maria Rugolo, an NPD apparel analyst. Today, just 6% of employees expect to dress up at work, wearing suits or tailored clothing, according to NPD surveys. That’s down from 10% of people who said that in 2019. In fact, people don’t really miss dressing up: Only 47% of people say they miss it, and most of those people are younger millennials. Seven out of 10 women NPD surveyed said that they wore pajamas or slippers for other activities beyond sleep. 

U.S. apparel sales plunged 19% in 2020 to $189.6 billion, though sales of pajamas, activewear, and sweatpants climbed during the pandemic, according to NPD. This year, active apparel is still going strong—up 39% compared with the first half of 2019, and overall apparel sales are on track to potentially beat pre-pandemic numbers, bringing in $9.5 billion more than in the first half of 2019. Both Macy’s and Kohl’s, which reported second-quarter earnings last week, saw big increases in sales over last year’s numbers—at 58.7% and 31.4%, respectively.

However, rising cases of COVID-19, driven by the Delta variant, have delayed offices reopening at many large companies, including Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Apple. And retailers worry that may persuade some shoppers to pause their wardrobe updates.

“Things keep evolving and changing, so there is uncertainty of when we’ll go back to work,” said Rugolo. “People want to be sure what they’re buying is what they’re going to wear.”

But so far, sales at M.M.LaFleur have edged far closer to the levels of 2019, said Maria Costa, M.M.LaFleur brand manager. “We invested heavily into ‘hybrid’ styles that can flex across different environments,” she said, such as comfortable knit pullovers, soft joggers, casual knit dresses, and “jardigans” (soft knit blazers).

Lindland, whose company, Betabrand, each week introduces new styles of its yoga pants for work as consumers vote for their favorites, said he’s following the hybrid-work sentiment on social media. On Twitter, the hashtag, #hardpants, is popping up in posts where people reject the idea of putting on clothes that aren’t forgiving or stretchy. One post referred to regular pants as “leg prisons.” 

“There really is a revolt,” said Lindland. “The world is comfortable.”

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