What to Wear to Return to the Office? Retailers Have No Idea.

The shift isn’t just a matter of taste — it has ramifications for mass apparel, a significant segment of the economy, and the physical face of retail, which is the second-biggest private employer in the United States. Revenue from women’s apparel in the United States was $132.7 billion in 2021, up 7 percent from 2019, while sales of men’s apparel rose 11 percent from 2019 to $76.5 billion, according to data from the NPD Group, a market research firm.

As more of that revenue shifts into denim, sneakers and the like, particularly for women, retailers must keep pace. Already, NPD found that dress footwear sales declined 34 percent last year from 2019 while men’s tailored clothing for the 12 months that ended in February was down 20 percent from two years earlier. Mass chains like Banana Republic and J. Crew have been shrinking their store counts while adjusting their assortments.

Meanwhile, Lululemon now has annual sales that exceed the Gap and Banana Republic brands combined and aims to double that in the next five years. Lululemon and Athleta, which is owned by Gap Inc., both promote work clothes on their websites. Customers are willing to pay for comfort: Gap said on a September call that across its brands, the average unit retail price, a measure of what a garment sells for, was $12 at Old Navy, $40 at Banana Republic and $60 at Athleta.

How people dress for work can be a reflection of the labor market. Economic downturns, like the collapse of the dot-com boom or the 2008 financial crisis, have often prompted returns to dressier clothing as a form of risk aversion — people want to show the boss they’re making an effort. In the current climate, when the unemployment rate has fallen to the lowest level since the pandemic took hold, employees might think: My employer is lucky to have me, so why should I wear pants that zip?

Additionally, many have conflicted feelings around in-person work. Future Forum, a research group backed by Slack, recently found that 34 percent of office workers were physically back full time and that work-related stress and anxiety were at the worst level since the group began surveying 10,000 office workers in the summer of 2020.

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