Before women head back to their offices this summer and fall, they appear to be buying clothes to go out and start socializing again. Casual dresses, pretty, feminine tops and knits, flare- and straight-leg jeans, and shorts have been selling briskly at retail.
While many companies have been telling their employees they need to start coming back, retailers said buying clothes for work hasn’t been their customers’ main priority.
Instead, they are seeing a surge in buying clothes to wear immediately — to parties, celebrations, backyard barbecues, outdoor cafés, dinner with friends and for vacations. Vibrant prints and colors are paramount in lifting the consumers’ moods.
Updating their wardrobes for work will happen soon, though, and retailers gave some predictions for what the new office uniform might look like come fall.
WWD interviewed major retailers about what’s selling in the contemporary area and their thoughts on the new way of dressing for getting back into the world again.
“In terms of our business, we are not seeing that she is shopping for work. She is focused on her immediate wardrobe, her summer wardrobe. We’re not seeing that demand for traditional workwear come back yet,” said Divya Mathur, chief merchant of Intermix, which was sold this month by Gap Inc. to private equity firm Altamont Capital Partners.
She explained that since the pandemic hit in March 2020, the customer didn’t do any shopping for spring last year. “She basically hasn’t updated her seasonal wardrobe for almost two years. [Now] she has been 100 percent focused on spring,” she said She’s focused on leaving her bubble, going back out into the world and needs clothes, Mathur said.
She said the spotlight has been on denim, “and dresses have been wildly important.”
“She’s looking for easy summer day dresses. Things that are an easy poplin dress that she can throw on with a pair of sneakers. She’s also looking for clothing for vacations,” she said. Brands such as Staud, Veronica Beard, Jonathan Simkhai and Zimmermann, “which is a little bit dressier,” are some of the key brands that are selling, Mathur noted.
So are skinny jeans really over?
“It’s not what she’s looking to buy right now. She’s saying, ‘I’m not excited to buy things I already own,’” she said. Mathur said skinny will always be important to Intermix. “In terms of what’s blowing out right now, she’s really looking for the newest fit. And for us, that’s a high-rise straight through the leg, slightly relaxed ’90s fit denim. We’re doing well with brands like Re/done and AGoldE. AGoldE’s crossover front denim has been an incredible seller because it has that fun novelty detail. Re/done’s stovepipe jeans are blowing out. Also Moussy Vintage does great washes and interesting disruptive patterns,” she said.
Shorts are another hot category. Intermix started selling denim shorts in February and has sold hundreds of units. “We normally see denim shorts pick up in the southern regions, and in mid-March we start to see that pick up, but it was starting in February,” Mathur said. She said it’s all about a longer fit, and cut offs “are super hot.”
“But they’re a slightly longer relaxed fit. Destruction and cut-off feel. They’re also cleaner and elevated and have a paper-bag waist,” she said.
As for their work wardrobes, she said her customers are mostly remote or hybrid through the summer. “They’re planning a full return to their pre-pandemic life in the fall.” She’s seeing a lot of action in knitwear and woven blouses.
“The uniform for her right now is a great pair of jeans and a pretty blouse or a pretty knit.” Some of the blouses they’re selling are Ulla Johnson’s feminine blouses and Sea New York. “These brands are pretty printed woven tops, whether it’s a print or crochet detail, she said.
In jeans, her customer is gravitating toward interesting washes, and interesting fits, rather than saying, “I want a white jean.” Her number-one denim fit is high-rise and straight through the leg.
Mathur said she’s still selling novelty fashion sneakers. “We’ve really seen the sandal business pick up pretty dramatically,” she said.
“Our business is fantastic. It’s positive comping to 2019. We are going back to growing our business. We’re delivering better full-price business than 2019,” she said.
She also sees brisk sales in event dressing. Their customer is not looking for a ballgown. She’s going to weddings, birthday parties, bar mitzvahs and graduations. She’s looking for product that is dressy beyond a casual dress so she can be a guest of a wedding. Intermix is seeing demand for Zimmermann. “We’re blowing through everything we bring in from that brand,” Mathur said.
“People have events this summer and they don’t have a thing to wear. That’s coming back faster than we anticipated,” she said. When Intermix bought for the season back in September, they thought that would take the longest to come back. It started coming back in March and April. “We were a little tighter there, but we’ve been able to chase to get the product,” she said.
Overall, elevated day dressing is 50 percent of their business. “Our true ‘event business’ is 5 to 8 percent of our business,” she said.
For women going on vacation, they are buying LoveShackFancy and Agua by Agua Bendita, which does true resortwear, she added.
Roopal Patel, senior vice president and fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue, said, “Right now, women are definitely shopping. Women are dressing not specifically for returning to the office, but to their life. They’re shopping to buy dresses to go to restaurants, or brunch or lunch or sit in an outdoor café for dinner.” She said they’re buying “beautiful, easy, breezy dresses in happy, punchy colors to run around and to lift their mood.” Among some of the brands selling well in the contemporary space are Zimmermann, Tove, Jonathan Simkhai and ALC.
As far as jeans, Patel always considered the skinny jean like a white T-shirt. “If anything, she’s building out her denim wardrobe. She’s looking at high-waisted, ’70s flare, straight-leg, different washes, boyfriend cut. Whether it’s white denim or black denim, or ripped at the knee, and matching ensembles like matching jackets and jeans combos,” she said.
She thinks that denim has become part of her staple, whether she’s going out at night or on a call these days. During COVID-19, women are wearing denim and a beautiful sweater and a polished shoe.
Does she believe women will continue to wear jeans once offices open up?
“I think women will respect the casual element of denim, but I actually think women will use the opportunity to get dressed. Nobody wants to wear jeans if they have been wearing them every single day. Offices actually give us an opportunity to put on our best dress, our highest heels and favorite shoe and get dressed up,” Patel said.
With the weather shifting, the customer doesn’t want to wear a jacket, she said. “She wants to look beautiful and she wants to have fun. We’re selling happy colors, we’re selling sparkly shoes. We’re selling fun flats,” she said. “Women who love fashion are using this as a celebration to reflect their own personal style. It’s really about feeling good,” she said.
She said knit dressing from Staud, Simon Miller, Altuzarra and Khaite have been strong sellers.
Arielle Siboni, director of women’s ready-to-wear at Bloomingdale’s, said, “Right now, we’re seeing the customer is responding to more ‘buy now, wear now’ items,” which consist of summer and resortwear. “For us, that means a lot of easy maxidresses, denim shorts and poplin dresses. Swim and cover-ups have been really strong for us.”
“In dresses, styles that have been more bohemian, crochet and poplin, and printed midis have been doing well for us,” she said. Dresses by ALC, Bash, Maje and Sandro are selling particularly well. She said the customer has been missing that since she’s been wearing a lot of sweatpants and more comfortable clothing while at home. “Now she has a reason to buy,” she added.
Another strong category has been shorts. “Denim shorts have been phenomenal, especially from AGoldE,” she said. “People want to remain casual and a lot of people are still working from home and on Zoom, you can’t necessarily see what’s on the bottoms,” she said. She said a variety of shorts are selling; some have longer inseams and some are short shorts.
As for clothing to return to the office, Siboni said she’s seen an uptick in blazers “for sure, and that’s exciting.” She said people are starting to return to the office, but she expects that will be full-fledged come fall. Fall merchandise at Bloomingdale’s arrives in early August.
She said the flagship’s been busy and there’s a lot of energy at the store.
Skinny jeans are still selling, and it’s a large part of their business. She’s seeing denim shift to straight-leg, which started happening before 2020. Mom jeans and more vintage-inspired silhouettes are selling. “TikTok reinforced that shift to a looser style,” she said. She noted Rag & Bone’s Miramar jeans are screen-printed to look like a jean but feel like a sweat pant.
Among the denim brands doing well are Mother, AGoldE and AG. Joggers have been selling from Paige Mayslie in a variety of colors.
In the tops area, because bottoms are more casual, T-shirts have been strong. In addition, easy bohemian blouses, prairie blouses and those with embroidery lace and eyelet have sold well.
She said her customers have also been buying swimwear and resort clothing.
Siboni said they’re also selling a lot of eveningwear in fun, bright colors, white dresses for the bride and dressy eveningwear for prom. For summer weddings, some of the dresses doing well for guests are by Alice + Olivia, Cinq à Sept, Aqua and Nookie. LoveShackFancy, which is definitely dress heavy, “has been phenomenal,” she said. They also have a lot of bohemian resort dresses and dresses that can be worn to a bridal shower.
Siboni noted that the retailer’s registry business has been very strong, which indicates couples are setting their wedding dates again and there’s demand for clothing for the guests and brides.
Yumi Shin, chief merchant of Bergdorf Goodman, said that over the past year, their customers have been resilient, buying special pieces that distinguish themselves on Zoom calls and personal luxury splurges.
“We’re sensing optimism as we’re getting back to normalcy. There’s definitely a renewed excitement to shop. It’s not only for the return back to the office, but it’s the long-awaited reunion with friends and family, and they’re thinking about travel plans. There’s definitely optimism,” Shin said.
Most recently, they’ve seen an interest in romantic silhouettes, with full sleeves or ruffled details. Ulla Johnson is performing well, she said. “She’s such a great brand and speaks to so many different customers,” said Shin, adding everything is selling well from the brand. “She’s [Johnson] been pandemic proof, I have to say. We sell maxidresses, midi dresses and we’re starting to see shorter hemlines, too. She’s quite known for her prints, we’re also selling her solid jumpsuit, a navy ruched jumpsuit is performing for us.”
Dresses for occasions are another hot category. “We’ve definitely seen dresses pick up again. As our customers are starting to plan for occasions such as weddings, graduations and reunions with friends and family, we’ve seen dresses selling across the board from casual to more occasion dresses, even bridal gowns have started to pick up again,” Shin said.
As far as the skinny jean, she said, “The skinny jeans will always be a wardrobe staple, but we love the new offerings that we’ve seen. The ’90s fit denim, and the straight-leg and the high-waisted wide-leg have been picking up, and we’re really loving it.” She said an exclusive brand, Still Here, is Brooklyn-based and produces small batch denim, has hand-painting and patch work and is doing well. Also, Totême is doing well, and “we’re selling white denim as well.” Totême has lots of great knitwear and dresses, which are more relaxed.
Asked to describe the new uniform when the consumer does return to the office, she said, “I definitely think the new dress code will be more relaxed and versatile. Comfort will still be important, but I think it will transition into everyday luxury silhouettes. There’s a lot of chic knitwear ensemble dressing that we saw that we loved.” She said for pre-fall, they launched an exclusive knitwear brand, Lisa Yang, which is all about knitwear ensemble dressing. It is Stockholm-based and uses natural cashmere. “It’s super chic, and it’s performing and we expect it to continue to perform. It’s comfort but chic.”
She added that she’s seeing jackets perform, but it’s more relaxed. She said that versatility and tailoring are going to be key. “Women are going to want to take their outfit from home to the office to going out to meet friends; it’s going to have to be versatile and work for her. That’s going to be the new dress code,” she said.
Libby Page, senior market editor of Net-a-porter, said, “We are seeing a transition from loungewear to more elevated styles as our customers look ahead to returning to the office. In terms of trends, we have seen an increase in feminine dresses in prints and florals from Chloé, Zimmermann and Isabel Marant — the perfect pieces for spring workwear, which are also versatile for warm days and nights. As part of our HS21 campaign, we will be launching ‘Chic in the Heat’ on June 21 highlighting warm weather and back-to-work dressing.”
She said when it comes to denim trends, they are seeing a rise in slouchier, more oversize styles, as well as balloon styles, especially over the last year, as their customer seeks comfort in all areas of her wardrobe. She said a classic straight-leg jean has become a versatile wardrobe shape and their brands have adapted to this by adding the shape to their core range.
Asked if sneakers are the shoe of choice, she said that for summer Net-a-porter is backing box fresh white hues in retro shapes and styles like Loewe and the Maison Margiela x Reebok collaboration.
As for what she anticipates the new office uniform to be and what’s the new chic for social attire, Page said, “Bright colors that evoke joy will be the tone for spring. Our latest Dries Van Noten exclusive capsule collection embodies an androgynous, relaxed and joyful aesthetic through relaxed silhouettes and fabrics that complement any day-to-day look. We have also seen popularity for denim continue to rise, especially with our recent launch of the Valentino x Levi’s collaboration. We expect to see our customers pairing back their office attire with denim, for an easy look that perfect transitions for an evening dinner,” she said.
Among the pieces trending on Net-a-porter are Frankie Shop’s cult items such as the quilted padded jacket and their exclusive Net-a-porter sweat sets; Jacquemus’ designs such as the crop top and skirts, as well as maxidresses with scrappy details, and Doen’s floral and feminine dresses and Totême’s easy, elevated wardrobe staples for spring/summer.
Marie Ivanoff-Smith, women’s apparel fashion director at Nordstrom, said the contemporary customer is thinking about going back to work and is starting to dive into wovens, and a lot of shirtings. “They’re versatile, she can dress it up or down and she can wear them now, as well as in the fall when she will be fully back in the office.
“We see a return to wovens, not only for going back to work but a night out, which she’s starting to explore.” She said Nordstrom is doing well with Rag & Bone and Nili Lotan, which she said “has impeccable shirting.” She said there’s a big focus on print and color. “Farm Rio is killing it. We cannot keep up. It’s been phenomenal,” she said.
The customer is leaning toward body-hugging silhouettes with more skin showing as well, she said. “Social occasion is happening,” she said. She cited vendors such as Ulla Johnson doing well in that zone. She also noted Alice + Olivia is coming back with more social occasion dresses. Nordstrom is doing well with brands such as Ted Baker, Ganni, Staud and Cinq à Sept. The retailer is doing well with summer dresses overall.
She said last year she saw versatile dresses doing well, because they are cozy. “Now we’re seeing the bells and whistles coming back in beautiful prints. There’s joy and emotion and being out of the house,” she said.
As far as what jeans are selling, she said that’s the $10 billion question. She’s seeing both straight-leg and wide-leg doing well, as well as flare, citing strong performers as AGoldE, Mother and Moussy. Shorts are also clicking with customers.
She said the big question is that women wear shorts at home to buy coffee and walk her dog, but will she wear them to the office? “We predicted shorts coming and it’s panning out, in all areas around the country…from activewear to better to best, it’s definitely happening,” she said.
Asked what she predicts is the new uniform for the office, she replied, “Style has become very personal. If you’re into comfort, you’ll look for an elasticized waist…and a more head to toe. The common denominator is people want to shop but they’ll have a personal style of dressing.” So the customer will buy an artisan sweater and build an outfit around that. She said the retailer saw a lot of leather in the market in beautiful colors. There’s the wide-leg leather pant that she’ll wear with a body suit with skin showing, and a sexy sandal and a cardigan.
“There are no more rules. Because now, depending on where you work, everyday could be Friday casual,” she said.
She believes the blazer is here to stay and has become a staple, rather than a statement. She thinks the customer might invest in a statement cardigan, with textures as well as the blazer vest, which one can layer up.
Asked whether she’s finding her customer buying clothes to return to the office, and what’s the new uniform, Liane Wiggins, head of women’s wear at Matchesfashion, said, “With lockdown restrictions easing and returning to the office in sight, we see our customer embracing soft tailoring. We know women still want to feel empowered for work and feel their best, however, comfort will still be a key factor. Great wardrobing items such as a tailored blazer from The Row or Blaze Milano, relaxed shirts from Raey, smart T-shirts from Bottega Veneta and ballet flats from Mansur Gavriel are perfect building blocks to base an office appropriate outfit around.”
Wiggins said she’s seen a lot of denim coming through in ready-to-wear, and dark denim allows the customer to feel elevated and smart, whether that is a clean-cut pair of Totême jeans or a denim shirtdress from Gabriela Hearst or Emilia Wickstead. “Jeans in particular were up 80 percent in April versus last year, and while skinny and slim-fit jeans continue to be popular, we have seen our customer engage with flared and wide-leg styles.”
Right now on the site, Wiggins said vacation pieces are checking. “Vacation pieces are performing well with our customer engaging with summer wardrobing items as they start thinking about staycations, and hopefully vacations where possible. One-piece swimwear sales were up more than 45 percent in April versus last year with bright colorful pieces from Hunza G and Cossie + Co being highlights. Sales of colorful printed cover-ups have also seen an uptick, driven by Missoni Mare and Emilio Pucci, along with based bags from Loewe x Paula’s Ibiza and Dragon Diffusion,” she said.
Wiggins said women are excited to shop again. “The excitement for dressing up again is really clear. Joyful, bright occasion dresses are seeing an uplift, as customers return to planning for events/weddings. In April, occasion dresses were up more than 35 percent versus last year and evening gowns nearly 45 percent — Emilia Wickstead, Alexander McQueen and Giambattista Valli being highlights,” she noted.
“We are noticing really strong sales on new uploads with customers quick to engage with newness in particular on the day dress/house dresses from Julie Dunn, Raey, Thierry Colson and Wiggy Kit,” she said.
Lori Friedman, owner of Great Stuff, which has five stores in the tri-state area, said, “Things are definitely improving. Mostly they’re buying casual; a lot of people are still working virtually, and a lot of people are not intending to go back to their office.” But she did say women are buying clothes for events. “People are looking for clothes for events; we were not as prepared as we usually are. We didn’t know when it would happen,” she said.
One of their bestsellers has been a mesh dress and jumpsuit from Fuzzi, designed by Jean Paul Gaultier. She said it packs easily and is great for travel. “You can dress it up or down and it’s forgiving.” She’s also done well with dressier tops from Iro, as well as Ulla Johnson’s tops, which are for going out at night.
She’s still selling skinny jeans, despite rumors of their death. Friedman’s also selling baggier jeans and straight-leg jeans.
Asked what the new chic is for going out, she said that’s hard to tell because vendors played it safe. Shorts seem to be the hot item of the season. Great Stuff is also doing well with T-shirts that have graphics on them, such as those by Sundry and Kerri Rosenthal.
Colorful tote bags have been selling well. They are made in Bangladesh of straw, and people are buying three at a time, Friedman said. They sell for $100 and part of the profits go toward helping charities in Bangladesh.
She noted that Nili Lotan’s entire collection has done well, including pants, tops, dressy and casual looks.