As much of the American workforce began working from home in mid-Match because of the unfolding coronavirus pandemic, people stopped getting dressed up to go to work. From the comfort of one’s home, behind conference calls and Zoom meetings, putting on work attire seemed unnecessary, and at a time with so much anxiety and uncertainty, wearing pajamas and loungewear could basically be seen as a form of self-care. But this transition to a remote workforce has hit dress clothing retailers, like Lord & Taylor and Men’s Wearhouse, below the belt.
By April, overall clothing sales fell 79%, which is the steepest decline in the history of industry recordkeeping. Interestingly enough, tracksuit purchases shot up 70%, sweatpants increased by 80%, and pajamas sales skyrocketed a whopping 143%.
Several dress clothing retailers, in particular, have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in recent weeks and months.
Stores declaring bankruptcy include Lord & Taylor and Men’s Wearhouse
Even the most recognizable names in the dress clothing retail industry have been hit hard and declared bankruptcy, including Men’s Wearhouse, Jos. A. Bank, J. Crew, Brooks Brothers, Lord & Taylor, Ann Taylor, Loft, and Neiman Marcus. Much of that is due to a bigger-picture trend that industry leaders are calling “casualization.”
Jessica Cadmus, a New York-based stylist who worked for Brooks Brothers earlier in her career, told CNN that she finds the chain’s bankruptcy filing as “really quite incredible.”
“The reality is that workwear trends have been shifting for a while now and sadly the pandemic was the final nail in the coffin,” explained Cadmus, who now serves clients working primarily in the finance industry. Even before the national shutdown, Cadmus noted that there had been “an enormous shift taking place toward business casual” and that her clients had been gravitating to a more relaxed look.
“When COVID-19 hit and people were forced to work from home, there was an absolute halt in buying formal workwear,” she said. “The emphasis from my clients now is on polished loungewear, where the fit is not as tailored and comfort is key.”
“Instead of having casual Fridays, it’s become the casual workweek,” Ray Wimer, an assistant professor of retail practice at Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management, told USA Today.
However, some retailers that had already begun to pivot to casual wear, such as women’s apparel chain Chico’s, haven’t been hit quite as hard as others. “You really can’t define what workwear is anymore,” Chico’s CEO Molly Langenstein said in a June conference call.
The reality is that many people aren’t even changing out of their pajamas throughout the day.
The NPD Group, a market research firm that analyzes consumer trends, found in a June poll that 47% of consumers admit to wearing the same clothes throughout most of their day while working from home, and nearly a quarter said their preferred attire was activewear, sleepwear, or loungewear.
“People clearly do not want to change into multiple outfits throughout the day, especially under these circumstances,” Maria Rugolo, NPD’s apparel industry analyst, told CNN. “It is about blending and maximizing one’s wardrobe. They still want to look presentable for work but also want to feel comfortable.”
Weddings and events are also taking a toll on the dress clothing industry
A remote workforce isn’t the only thing impacting dress clothing retailers. The pandemic also caused hundreds of thousands of couples to cancel or postpone weddings. In addition, countless other black-tie events, cocktail parties, and even business trips that would have fueled the spring and summer dress-up seasons have also been canceled or moved to virtual events.
For companies such as Men’s Wearhouse and Jos. A. Bank, which drew substantial revenue from tuxedo rentals, the effects have been devastating.
“Think of all the junior high or senior high proms that got canceled,” said Wimer. “A good portion of their business dried up. For the foreseeable future, maybe you can have a wedding, but I don’t see schools having proms or other formal events where you get a good portion of your revenue from.”
As for the future of the dress clothing industry, plenty will depend on whether retailers will have enough time to adjust their strategies before closing doors for good. But another big question is what fashion is going to look like on the other side of the pandemic. Will people revert to pre-pandemic style and shopping habits, or will the shift to casualwear be here to stay?
For now, industry executives are remaining optimistic. Several executives said in recent conference calls with analysts that they believe Americans will have a return to form. “We expect a clear and strong rebound once social life starts to normalize,” said Yves Müller, the chief financial officer for Hugo Boss.
But that remains to be seen. Will it be a year before we see weddings and other formal events resume, or will it be five years, or even more? And when can we anticipate that the American workforce return to the office? Sadly, these are all still big unknowns—and fashion may still look starkly different in post-pandemic times.