Jardigans and zebra pants: Welcome to the new office dress code

June 14, 2021

Casual Friday may have gone the way of the power suit. Office workers are rushing to refresh their wardrobes as companies start calling employees back to their cubicles. But after months at home in pajamas, the back-to-workers are looking to trade in traditional business attire for more comfortable clothing, NBC News reports.

Pencil skirts, suit pants, and classic black are out. Today’s office worker is brightly dressed—focusing on wide, loose-fitting clothing and softer fabrics, according to major U.S. retailers.

“We as a business evolved our merchandising to talk more about ‘power casual,’” Sarah LaFleur, CEO of the women’s work wear company M.M.LaFleur, told NBC News. “Formality wise, it’s one step down from business casual. There is definitely something below that, that is still a dress code similar to how women who work in media or in the tech space might dress.”

The company’s new line, which includes a “jardigan,” or blazer made out of soft cardigan material, has been booming. Before the country went into lockdown last spring, casual work wear made up about 25% of M.M.LaFleur sales; now, it’s 60%.

Retailers were among the first to be hammered by the pandemic, with dozens of retailers filing for bankruptcy, including iconic brands such as Lord & Taylor, J.Crew, and Neiman Marcus. Other stores were forced to shutter thousands of locations.

But as vaccination rates increase and federal public health agencies relax masking rules, shoppers and workers are eager to get back to living life in person — and with that comes the urge to wear something new and bright, according to retail analysts and brands.

“We believe the world is back,” Morris Goldfarb, CEO of G-III Apparel, which owns brands such as DKNY, told investors this week. “People are going out, people are partying. They’re not just wearing their fleece leisure wear. They’re wearing denim, and they’re wearing jeans, they’re wearing stretch fabrics, and they’re wearing sculptured products.”

Employed shoppers plan to spend more across all categories, including casual and dress wear in both men and women’s clothing, compared to last year, according to data from the retail analytics company Prosper Insights & Analytics. But consumers say they also plan to spend more on comfort style brands such as Levi’s rather than luxury brands such as Calvin Klein or Coach, according to the data.

“The ‘work-from-home’ consumer still has a preference for the ‘comfort’ brands versus the ‘dress to impress’ brands,” Phil Rist, executive vice president of Prosper Insights & Analytics, told NBC News in an email.

Retailers and brands are betting that comfort fits across the board are likely here to stay. Shea Jensen, Nordstrom’s executive vice president and general merchandising manager, said that some of its brand partners have adjusted their products to be more comfortable.

“Loungewear and comfort is still important to the customer. Some of the season’s new pants have incorporated an elastic waist or looser leg.”

“Loungewear and comfort is still important to the customer,” she said in an email. “Some of the season’s new pants have incorporated an elastic waist, a looser leg or very soft materials without sacrificing fashion and newness.”

But shoppers aren’t just looking for comfort in their clothes. After a year in grey sweatpants, colors and prints are an opportunity to change up their attire. Gen Z is largely driving this maximalism trend, bucking the minimalism of their millennial counterparts.

Indeed, an April report from Pinterest found Gen Z led a 14-fold increase in searches for “zebra pants,” a 12-fold increase in “plaid pleated skirt” and a 133-fold increase in “’60s and ’70s fashion” between the first quarter of last year and the same time this year.

“We’re back to school, back to work, going out to restaurants and traveling — and what will that mean to retailers?” said Brian Dodge, president of the retail trade group Retail Industry Leaders Association. “The answer is, it’s a great opportunity, because maybe your clothing doesn’t fit anymore or your style changed, and retailers are in a great position to help customers to return to life.”

Research contact: @NBCNews

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