After months of working from home, many men are getting ready to go back to their offices — at least a few days a week. But after spending so much of their time in front of their computer screens wearing comfortable sweatpants, shorts and golf shirts, what will their return-to-work wardrobe look like?
While tailored clothing proponents believe there will be pent-up demand for guys to present a professional demeanor by donning suits, others believe the months of dressing casually will have a lasting impact. And updated essentials are expected to lead the way.
Direct-to-consumer brands that showcase sophisticated essentials have been doing a bang-up business since the start of the pandemic. And they’re expected to continue to outperform other categories in the future. That’s one reason big players such as H&M are throwing their muscle behind elevated essentials. Today, H&M will introduce Blank Staple, a collection of men’s basics in partnership with Highsnobiety that will include T-shirts, sweatshirts, hoodies and joggers it describes as “men’s essentials that elevate streetwear every day.”
According to Ross Lydon, head of men’s wear design for H&M: “It’s about creating something meaningful, both as core essentials for the way men live today and as a blank canvas for future collaborations.”
Lydon said he believes “essential products that are versatile and work in more than one setting will grow in importance” in the future. He predicted: “We will see a more minimalist approach to classic men’s wear, ongoing outdoor and utility themes within the casual segment and technical/functional inspiration growing within product categories. Silhouettes continue to be more relaxed and we can expect to see that grow in the coming seasons.”
While he said it’s difficult to predict the long-term impact of the pandemic on consumer behavior, he believes it “might change the workplace wardrobe. The shift to home working may well mean rigid tailoring will be less relevant. This would result in an increase in smart-casual looks. Comfort, practicality and function will also be important to consider.”
Lydon said the trend toward comfort in men’s wear had been increasing in importance even before the pandemic, and that will continue. “I’m of the opinion that traditional definitions and rules within men’s wear will continue to disappear as styles and influences merge into one another. With that being said, there will always be occasions to dress up. Essentials are the building blocks of a great wardrobe. I don’t see that changing in the future.”
Takafumi Yamaguchi, vice president of North America digital commerce for Uniqlo, said since the pandemic began, the company has seen “an increase of sales of essentials and our sports utility wear categories across the board. This is a clear indication of how our customers’ needs have changed.”
He said Uniqlo has a history of providing products that are “everyday essentials designed to make life better for our customers — that is at the core of our brand identity and LifeWear offering. We are continuing to respond to our customers’ needs by offering items such as easy-care shirts and our recently launched AIRism masks.”
When men do return to the office, Yamaguchi said Uniqlo is seeking to fulfill their wardrobe needs with “great workwear basics” such as EZY ankle pants that have stretch in them “as many people are now taking advantage of different modes of transportation.” He said Uniqlo sees a “collective new normal” where customers are in search of “not only comfortable, but functional, essentials. Clothing must serve the purpose of its wearers’ intent.”
Erik Allen Ford, chief executive officer of Buck Mason, a Los Angeles-based men’s brand that sells modern American classics, said it’s been “a wild ride” for the company since mid-March when it braced for what was expected to be a 70 percent decrease in revenue from the prior year in the second and third quarters. “Luckily, we were wrong,” he said. “Business has been up beyond anything we could have ever expected. Our e-commerce channel has nearly doubled, which was already about 60 percent of total revenue, tremendously outperforming last year. The retail stores closed for a bit, but slowly reopened and have shown solid resilience.”
He said top sellers have been the company’s T-shirts, knitwear such as French terry hoodies and sweatpants, as well as jersey polos. “We’re seeing the existing trend of the casualization of American men’s wear accelerated. For Buck Mason, that doesn’t mean ath-leisure, it means long-lasting modern American classics that can be worn in and out of the office.”
To address the need, Buck Mason is expanding its assortment of “novelty and nuanced fabrics aggressively,” he said. “We’re trying to dream up products that can accommodate a guest who might be working from home, running errands throughout the day, spontaneously dropping the phone in the desk drawer and taking his kids to the park in the middle of the day. One can live in this strange time and still have effortless style.”
Greg Petro, ceo of First Insight, agrees. He said the number of people working from home has more than doubled since the start of the pandemic. “There’s a whole host of reasons not to go back,” he said, but many people will return — at least part-time — in their quest for “social interaction — but in a less restrictive way.”
But because fabrics have improved so much in the past several years, with stretch, moisture-management, antiwicking and other properties borrowed from activewear becoming commonplace across all categories of men’s wear, “you can get the best of both worlds. As men return to work, they’ll want to dress up a bit, but still feel the same degree of comfort,” Petro added.
In addition, consumers have made clear that they’re reluctant to return to public transportation, which has led to record sales of bicycles along with cars. But whether people opt to ride bikes or walk to work, “they don’t want to get hot and sweaty,” he said. “They still want to look good.”
Scott Sternberg, founder of the basics line Entireworld who also created Band of Outsiders, has seen his business skyrocket since the pandemic started. Sweatshirts, a T-shirt and boxer set, which he described more as “lounge shorts” than underwear, corduroy board shorts and recycled cotton socks have been the most popular with men.
“Our guy wants comfy, cozy clothes,” he said. He expects this to continue into the fall and beyond. He said Entireworld’s single-pleat trouser in Japanese fabrics that retails for $125 has also been a bestseller. “They’re oversized and relaxed, but you can also wear them to work,” he said. “And we see a pickup on those types of things post-pandemic: they’re dressy enough for the office but have a work from home attitude.”
Sternberg said that when guys go back to the office, there’s a chance they’ll be a return to the Roaring Twenties with everyone dressing to the nines — but that’s probably unlikely. “We’re not out of the woods yet. But are men going to wear sweatpants to work in a post-pandemic world? Probably not. The attitude will be more relaxed and it’s hard to be constrained by the office and also constrained by your clothes.”