In work-from-home year, workplace wardrobes shift to ‘biz-leisure’

Nov. 9, 2020

Believe it or not, it’s a good time to be an image consultant.

At least, it is if you’re Sheila Anderson, the Sioux Falls-based owner of Return on Image, whose business started picking up as more people quit going out.

“People are at home, looking at their wardrobe and at their closets and cleaning out their closets, so they’re willing to get some feedback or ideas,” Anderson said.

“It’s been booming. It’s been wonderful. I literally was set up to do my business virtually anyway, so it hasn’t slowed anything down.”

She estimates 40 percent of her business is local, the rest from out of state. Through online consultations and photo exchanges, she has helped create online closets for clients trying to hone wardrobes during a time when many aren’t physically going into work.

“We all have that Zoom outfit,” Anderson said. “Business on top. And then, what do you wear on the bottom? So it’s created this new look called biz-leisure.”

Think track pants or joggers, paired with a stretchy blazer and fun T-shirt, she explained.

“They’re being more creative in trying to stretch their wardrobe more, It’s about being comfortable and having flexibility and versatility to take you from dropping off the kids to running to the office – whether it’s at home or in a workplace – so it’s fabrics and clothing that can take you through the day. But I feel like COVID has accelerated that work-from-home mentality and look.”

She recommends clients pick about 30 basic pieces to mix and match, allowing decluttered closets and quick decisions for what to wear.

“With that capsule wardrobe, it’s about picking three colors – a dark, a light neutral and a pop of color – and mix and match with fun pieces,” she said.

As for that Zoom outfit?

“Solid colors are always better, and then just pops of color – navy or blues, purples, red can sometimes be hard on camera – but something that’s going to stand out and look a little more vibrant if that’s your personality,” she advised.

“Stripes can have a hard time on camera and look like they’re bouncing and dancing, so I try to steer people away from patterns and clanging jewelry. And pay attention to your hair, especially for women. Still throw on some makeup, and make sure you have good lighting.”

Employers scrambling to adjust policies and procedures with their shift to remote work haven’t necessarily made reinforcing or adapting the dress code a priority.

In the case of Eide Bailly LLP, some adjustments had already been made. The firm overhauled its dress code last year and has incorporated reminders into its overall training around expectations for remote work.

“The majority of our firm does ‘dress for your day.’ It’s always saying be prepared for matching your clients’ dress code and their expectations if you see them,” HR business adviser Christina Moteelall said.

“If you’re in Eide Bailly, our expectations are a little more flexible. If you have a low-key day, you can do jeans and a nice polo or sweater, or on a big day maybe it’s a suit or dressy jeans and a blazer.”

Employees appreciate the flexibility, she added.

“People will joke, ‘I’m wearing sweatpants, but I look really nice on top,’ but as long as they’re being cognizant of how they look in a video call, that’s the key thing.”

The dress code already addressed remote, or telecommuting, work because some already worked that way, she said.

“So we kind of got lucky without realizing it,” she said. “One thing that’s a little more unique about our policy is we’ve tried to be really supportive of people being their authentic selves. So when you’re in an Eide Bailly office, if you have piercings or tattoos, as long as they’re not considered harassing to other people, we want you to be yourself here at work. So we have guidelines around protecting self-expression, and we haven’t had trouble.”

At Marsh & McLennan Agency, where employees are still working from outside the office, there’s similar understanding granted, chief innovation officer Kira Kimball said.

“People might show up from their cabin, their campsite, their patio, directly after working out, like I did this morning with a colleague, no makeup, a towel to dab my forehead. We’re not necessarily always that comfortable with everyone, every call, but there are times colleagues show up with baseball hats on and T-shirts,” she said, adding that with school starting, more work outside typical hours happens.

“I anticipate we’ll continue like this for some time to come — really trying to lead generously to keep our colleagues first and to honor the continued challenges in living.”

Workers also should pay attention to their industry, image consultant Anderson said.

“If you’re in the tech industry, what does that look like for a dress code? If you’re a banker, what does that look like? Does your company culture have something to do with it? Are you a C-level executive or supervisor? Look at your customer base, who are the clients and what do they expect someone in your industry to look like,” she said.

“We’re way more casual in the Midwest than on the coast, and generational views are something people don’t think about as much. A baby boomer grew up with dressing up, it was a suit and tie, so they have different views.”

Workers should remember that “you are still going to work, number one, and it’s a visual representation of that company,” Anderson said. “What you wear becomes this visual data people use to create an impression of what company culture is like, what their values are. You can gain that insight by your interactions with that company’s employees and by what they’re wearing. It’s visual data, and it ties back to the visual brand.”

The pandemic has accelerated “the huge shift to casual” in retail, added Barrie Scardina, executive managing director for retail at New York-based commercial brokerage Cushman & Wakefield.

Gap Inc. reported a 52 percent drop in net sales in its Banana Republic brand in its most recent earnings report in late August. The chain, which closed its Sioux Falls store this year, “continues to focus on taking action to adjust to consumer preferences and improve inventory mix as the shift to casual fashion during the stay-at-home requirements has left the brand’s workwear assortment disadvantaged,” the company said, while noting sales were up in its more casual brand Athleta.

Macy’s shared similar insight when it reported earnings in early September.

“Within the Macy’s brand, we saw strength in many of the categories that are in demand: home, particularly housewares and textiles, as well as fine jewelry, fragrances, activewear and sleepwear,” interim CFO Felicia Williams said during a a call with analysts.

“We also continue to see softness in men’s tailored and dresses, which is indicative of the work-from-home world in which we now live, as well as slowness in luggage due to greatly reduced travel.”

Sales of dresses and men’s tailored apparel fell 70 percent at Macy’s in the spring, CEO Jeff Gennette said.

“While I believe these categories will come back over time, we don’t expect that business to return to growth anytime soon,” he said, adding the company believes growth is more likely to be driven by fine jewelry, beauty, furniture, mattresses and Backstage off-price.

A look at fall apparel inventory at many national retailers reveals lots of soft fabrics, comfortable pieces and plenty of casual pants.

Scardina predicts it’s a point-in-time shift, though.

“I think we’ll see trends toward being more interested in wearing fashionable clothing and engaging with brands beyond sweatpants and sweatshirts. I really do,” she said.

“The consumer moves quickly and embraces things and gets tired of them. As everything, this will be a cyclical moment.”

Anderson agrees.

“It’s like after you’re pregnant, the nine months of living in sweats, you’re saying, ‘I can’t wait to get some new clothes.’ And I feel like that’s going to come into play as well. After being so casual, it might be a treat to dress up a little bit more.”

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In work-from-home year, workplace wardrobes shift to ‘biz-leisure’

Call it the “biz-leisure” look. COVID-19 has changed the meaning of “workplace casual” and caused shifts both for employers and retailers.

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