Naturally, makers of workwear are denying that workwear is a dying category — but Instagram feeds full of off-kilter #WFHFits and Zoom meetings tell a different story. Add to that the recent reports that stalwarts J.Crew and Brooks Brothers have declared bankruptcy and sought a buyer, respectively, and the category’s future is questionable, at best.
As days in quarantine grow, more large companies are announcing that their employees won’t be going back to the office this year. It’s a safety measure, but also many business leaders have realized that a work-from-home staff can be as productive as one in an office. When, in the months leading up to 2021, operations fail to crumble, it’s a safe bet that many owners will opt out of going back to investing in a costly office lease and declare the remote office the company’s new norm.
Currently, online searches for workwear styles are fast declining, while searches for loungewear continue to rise, according to retail analytics company Trendalytics From February to April, average weekly searches for “slim suit,” “casual suit” and “tailored suit,” fell by 41% each. Searches for “slim fit dress shirt” fell by 39%.
For a clear understanding of workwear’s potential, I circled back with many of the executives I talked to for a story in January about the state of the category, which resolved that workwear had evolved as the U.S. workforce had moved to an always-on state, enabled by technology. That included Sali Christeson, founder and CEO of Argent; Ray Li, CEO of Sene; Micky Onvural, CEO of Bonobos; Paul Trible, co-founder and CEO of Ledbury; and Sarah LaFleur, founder and CEO of MM.LaFleur. At the time, working consumers had largely moved on from having a separate work uniform to investing in pieces with ready-for-anything versatility, able to be worn from the plane to the meeting to, in some cases, the gym.
Over the course of the half-a-dozen or so conversations this week, several themes played out in regard to why these leaders feel confident in their companies’ futures and how they’re working now to ensure that success.
That’s despite that March and April sales were way down for all of them (Li said, at one point, daily sales were down 80%) — May sales are slightly better. They acknowledged the struggle and the long road ahead.
“Our business is making work clothes for people who are not working right now,” said Trible, from Ledbury.
“We were just hoping for this Z-curve, or U-curve this year,” said LaFleur. “We’re not betting on that anymore.”
For starters, they said, the nine weeks leading to now have been an anomaly or shock period, and aren’t a clear indicator of what’s to come. As such, given that fashion companies plan for seasons ahead, it’s been more challenging than ever to plan for future seasons.
Even so, there is enough evidence to warrant some product pivots. Some of the companies have already gone there, while others are working to lean into and out of styles and categories, depending on their potential.
“In eight weeks, we jammed in more learnings and more swift pivots and innovations than we probably did in the eight years prior,” said Onvural from Bonobos.
In terms of product, that included a ramping up focus on comfortable separates, like the brand’s existing stretch blazer and stretch chinos. “But our suiting business is going to end up changing pretty dramatically,” she said, noting that it’s been stagnant as weddings have been canceled and business formal offices are closed.
Along with the casualization of the workforce, Onvural said she expects that the coronavirus-accelerated trends of the digitization of the customer experience and supply chain will have great impacts on Bonobos.
Since the start of March, MM.LaFleur has come out with T-shirts. It’s also rebranded its Colby pants, formerly part of a Colby Origami suiting collection, as Colby joggers — no change in fabric or silhouette. Within a week of doing so, sales of the style increased five times, said LaFleur.
Likewise, Ledbury is getting set to launch T-shirts, and is planning for a smaller delivery of blazers for fall. Sene, for its part, is accelerating marketing for its denim. Argent put its spring 2020 collection on sale for pre-order last week. It’s heavy in elastic waistbands and stretch fabrics.
“Traditional workwear brands that are using traditional fabrics and marketing themselves as office attire are really going to struggle,” said Li from Sene.
In terms of marketing, these companies have realized it’s not their time to shine, so they’re somewhat biding their time, with a focus on engaging customers who will eventually need a blazer.
MM.LaFleur has launched a content series called Content for Quarantine. It features tips and entertaining bits not related to products, like explainers on what seeds to plant in a home flower pot. Bonobos launched a Friday email featuring things like “silly memes and fun videos of what people are doing in isolation,” said Onvural.
“People are looking for a happy distraction,” she said.
At the same time, many — including Argent and MM.LaFleur — are launching virtual styling tools to best service those customers who still do want to shop.
As these executives see it, dressing up for work, more so than for watching TV, will continue to be a thing — if only because of Zoom.
LaFleur said, unless you own the company, wearing whatever you want is not going to fly in the long term. “There will be a new degree of formality, sure,” she said. “But if unemployment is going to hit 25%, you’re not going to have the luxury of just being like, ‘This is me in my hoodie, take it or leave it.’” LaFleur said she’s recently made some hires, and she appreciated that all showed up to Zoom interviews wearing a collared shirt or blazer.
Onvural said Bonobos’ store associates have been clienteling since stores closed, reaching out to customers and answering their questions. Many are asking what they should wear to a remote job interview, she said.
“Most people are not going to want to speak to their bankers and lawyers and accountants while unshaven and in a T-shirt,” said Trible.
And, he noted, due to Zoom, people are now looking at co-workers and what they’re wearing even more so than in office meetings where most people are looking down at computer screens.
Christeson said Argent has no plans to deviate from its core concept, that dressing well helps you look and feel your best and boosts confidence.
“We will come back to some kind of normality where expression of yourself will be in the way you feel and how you dress and how you show up, even if it’s just at home,” said Daniel Andersson, executive creative director at consulting firm FutureBrand. “Technically, what’s happened is we have changed our location; instead of going to a desk at an office, you’re stuck at home. We should still be dressing in a way that respects our colleagues.”
The workwear brands are taking some comfort in that they have large customer bases residing in cities other than New York, where workplace dress codes are on the more casual side and office leases are among the most costly.
For example, Trible’s Ledbury headquarters is based in Richmond, Virginia. He plans to start opening the office in early June. “We’re lucky in that, unlike in New York, it’s not $100-per-square-foot for office space here.”
LaFleur said, despite MM.LaFleur’s roots as a dress brand, “the last thing” she wants to wear is an A-line dress.
“But I do have to be careful; there’s a tendency to make fashion businesses very New York-centric,” she said. “People in Texas and the South continue to be very strong customers of our suiting — it’s just more conservative. And in D.C., they’re still wearing skirt suits to court. We’re not going to lean into that, but we do have that customer.”
Finally, there was a shared agreement that we’ve reached or are approaching peak cozy and also peak flexibility, in terms of where one can work.
Trible noted that Ledbury launched in 2009, when — coming out of the Great Recession — the big menswear trends were suits and blazers. “It was a drab time, and then people wanted to dress up a bit,” he said. “And let’s not forget that fashion is cyclical.”
Onvural said, though it’s no doubt going to take time, “everyone’s very keen to get back to the office.”
All interviewed said they’ve realized that their businesses can thrive with a remote staff, but all plan to return to an office setting of some sort, especially for their designers, who benefit from more feel and touch, and close collaboration.