This past fall, Lululemon’s design team noticed something unusual. Wall Street bros were flocking to the Brookfield Place store in the Financial District to buy the On the Move trousers, which look like chinos but are made from the same soft, stretchy, moisture-wicking material used in the brand’s activewear. That’s right: Finance execs were finally ditching their suits.
Lululemon is far from alone in noticing that suits are no longer in vogue. After two years of living through the pandemic—spending long periods working in sweatpants from the comfort of the couch—the way we dress appears to have changed significantly, perhaps even permanently. Brands, retailers, and analysts have found that consumers are ditching suits, silk blouses, and other formal workwear, opting instead for clothes that look professional but feel like the loungewear they’ve grown accustomed to wearing.
A New Level of Casual
In some ways, this shift is part of a broader trend. For decades, Americans’ wardrobes have become increasingly casual. In the ’90s, progressive workplaces had “casual Fridays,” when employees could swap their suits for khakis. By the 2000s, it was normal for workers in tech or creative professions to wear jeans to work. Outside the office, many of us began wearing leggings and sweatpants for more than just gym workouts, inspiring a category that became known as athleisure.
This shift happened over the course of decades. But Juliana Prather, CMO of the retail analytics firm Edited, says the pandemic accelerated the trend toward casualization. The firm’s data shows that consumers were gobbling up sweatpants over the past two years, even as other categories of clothing, like suits and party outfits, declined in popularity. In 2021, despite the fact that lockdowns had largely ended, the market was flooded with 53% more sweatpants than in 2020, and 41% of them sold out.
“For years, the story has been that workers wanted to be comfortable at work,” Prather says. “But after living in loungewear for two years, most people can’t fathom going back to professional clothes that are remotely uncomfortable.”
This is something that Stitch Fix, a styling service that delivers boxes of clothes to 4.2 million clients, has also found. In October 2021, its clients were asking for “back to work” clothes at a rate 39% higher than the same period in 2020. But their idea of workwear had changed significantly. In a survey of 1,000 consumers, 45% wanted to ditch the business suit, while 31% never wanted to wear a button-down shirt or dress pants again. In fact, nearly a third of consumers said they would rather take a 10% pay cut than have to get dressed for work every day.
Loretta Choy, Stitch Fix’s GM for women’s clothing, says this has given rise to a new category of work clothes that prioritize comfort but also look more presentable than a hoodie and leggings. It’s such a new trend that there isn’t an agreed-upon term for it yet; some describe it as “business comfort” or “work leisure.”
“Brands are designing workwear with elastic waistbands and stretchy fabrics,” Choy says. “Men are wearing polo shirts to the office instead of oxford shirts, and there is a trend of blazers made from soft knit fabrics that feel like sweatshirts.”
How Suit Brands Are Adapting
Even brands focused on suiting are trying to adapt to this heightened demand for comfort. Take Argent, a women’s workwear brand founded in 2016. Sali Christeson, Argent’s founder, launched the brand fully aware that the workplace was becoming more casual, but she points out that there have always been different expectations around what men and women can wear to the office. “Women have always been held to a different standard in the workplace,” she says. “Many women feel the need to project professionalism in interviews and meetings, and a suit can convey that.”
Women have been hit particularly hard during the pandemic, with nearly 1.8 million of them dropping out of the workforce since March 2020, as they had to shoulder the burden of taking care of children when schools were shut down. Many women are now eager to return. Christeson says that after months of diminished sales, Argent has seen a spike in the demand for suits in the summer and fall of 2021 as women want to look their best as they go on interviews and start new jobs.
But Christeson recognizes that women are also looking for comfort, so Argent’s designers have been creating stretchy new garments. For instance, in the newest collection, Argent is selling knit sweaters with collars and turtlenecks that look good under a blazer or with trousers. In its imagery, Argent also styles blazers with jeans, T-shirts, and even overalls.
This has been true in the broader world of workwear. M.M.LaFleur, another startup focused on women’s professional clothing, has been rolling out lots of cardigans, woven blazers, and knit dresses along with suits and shift dresses. Men’s suiting companies like Brooks Brothers, Hugo Boss, and Mizzen+Main have been promoting casual collections that include plenty of hoodies and polo shirts. “It’s all about hybrid dressing,” says Edited’s Prather. “As people have increasingly hybrid lifestyles, moving back and forth between work and home, they are combining workwear and home wear.”
From Athleisure to Workleisure
Lululemon was on the front lines of the athleisure trend. When it launched two decades ago, its high-end yoga leggings developed a cult following, and many customers began wearing the brand’s activewear outside of the studio. Over the past decade, it’s become increasingly acceptable in some industries—particularly tech and creative professions—to don activewear in the office. Lululemon’s female customers have opted to wear yoga pants with a button-down shirt to work, while men have tended toward slim-fitting joggers instead of khakis.
Sun Choe, Lululemon’s chief product officer, says Lululemon began actively designing pieces for this segment of the market. It created button-down shirts made from the kind of materials you might expect in workout attire, rain jackets designed to look like trench coats, and, of course, the On the Move pants, which first came to market seven years ago. Choe says the garments were designed to look more professional than the brand’s activewear, but to still allow freedom of motion; all have done particularly well during the past two years.
“We designed these pieces for people who had active commutes, like those who biked to work and didn’t want to have to change when they got to the office,” she says. “The pants had been popular with guys in tech, but in the past they were too casual for people in finance who still wore suits to the office. But these pieces just flew off the shelves during the pandemic.”
Leland Drummond, who cofounded a new intimates brand called LDMA (“Life Deserves More Action”) with Michele Thomas, points out that the pandemic didn’t just increase consumers’ desire for comfort, it also blurred the lines between the various activities in our lives. “Working from home means squeezing in a workout before your Zoom call and then taking your kids to the playground,” she says. “Consumers are looking for garments designed for activity but that still allow you to look presentable.”
Drummond launched LDMA for women who wanted underwear that’s comfortable to exercise in but also breathable and moisture-wicking so it could be worn after a workout. (Her team also focused on making sure panty lines didn’t show through leggings and tights, since this is a sure breach of office professionalism.) Since launching in mid-November, Drummond says the brand has sold months’ worth of inventory in a matter of weeks, and has had to reorder products far sooner than expected.
Many retailers and clothing companies don’t expect suits to come back, even if the pandemic recedes and people return to the office. Stitch Fix’s Choy says brands are designing far fewer suits for the upcoming year, focusing instead on “work leisure” garments made from materials we’re used to seeing in loungewear and activewear.
Lululemon, for its part, is putting its R&D into creating garments that meet these demands. “We have a lot of expertise in creating clothes for sweating in,” Choe says. “Now we’re looking into how to embed these technologies into clothes that look perfect for a board meeting or a Zoom call.”