Why Dressing Young Professionals Is A Lot Of Work

Dressing for work — with a few rare exceptions — just is not what it used to be. A fact that is obvious to anyone who has been in the workforce for more than 25 years or who has watched an episode of “Mad Men.”

In the time of Don Draper, stocking a full bar and drinking to celebrate such important events as noon, lunch and “the Internet has not been invented yet, and you’re bored at 3:15” were not considered unusual or signs that perhaps it was time to seek a program. Show up to work in a hoodie on the other hand — or with a tattoo, facial piercing, long hair or slightly less than clean shaven — and a long talk with the personnel department, followed by a leave of absence, would not be an unexpected result.

The changing design aesthetic of workplace culture gets discussed a lot and in some strange contexts. Last spring and summer, a staggering number of think pieces about misogynistic office cooling policies made the social media rounds, covering the sad tales of generations of female workers in light spring frocks slowly freezing to death in offices custom-cooled for men who were wearing three-piece suits.

But what doesn’t get written up enough is how changing workplace style choices are among the invisible forces killing a lot of big names in consumer retail, who once did a big sideline in dressing young professionals. J.Crew is in trouble, Banana Republic isn’t looking too much better these days, Ann Inc.’s (owner of Ann Taylor and Ann Taylor Loft) same-store sales have been in decline for some time, while Macy’s and Nordstrom have recently started to feel the churn.

Many things have been be blamed for all of their latter-day declines: the rise of the Web (and their slow digital response time), short attention span consumers constantly changing looks with the whims of Instagram, the rise of fast fashion, the insane proliferation of couture for rent/used/at a deep discount/sold in a limited edition down market version.

And the companies themselves have been responsible for some major fashion faux pas along the way. J.Crew developed a rather unfortunate love affair with short, fuzzy sweaters a year or two ago that really shook consumer confidence, while Banana Republic managed to bring a blazer to market with armholes improperly designed for human appendages. When one is in the business of selling attire, avoiding things widely considered “hideous” or “unwearable” are two rules of thumb that almost never fail to be true.

But a look at the changing dress habits of workers — and changing worker habits overall — might give one a minute to consider the problems of the mid-tier retailer focusing on young professionals. In a rather short amount of time, how younger consumers are dressing themselves for work has changed, deformalizing and increasingly becoming a portion of their wardrobe that isn’t segregated from the general category of “outside-of-the-house clothing.”

And that’s before you consider the at-home workers, whose categorization system isn’t even that complex.


The Changing Workplace Fashion Dynamic

Most relatively young workers, particularly those who work in tech, have an interview story with a common feature. They went out to buy an interview suit or outfit a day or two before their first big job interview. They then spent an hour or so at a job interview being distracted by the fact they were sitting across a table in a conference room from a guy wearing a hoodie, while the open office outside was full of people in cargo shorts and flip flops playing ping pong. If they got the job, they proceeded to never wear that outfit ever again.

Or, as New York writer Lisa Miller noted, maybe they decided to stick with the suit — maybe they doubled down, bought cuff links and a fedora and decided that was who they were going to be in the office: the dressy guy. Or the dressy girl — substitute pearls for cufflinks and designer shoes for the fedora, and you get the general idea.

“At startups, you see every outfit under the sun. Women wear Anthropologie and Lululemon and Patagonia hiking shorts and sundresses and thrift stuff. When photographed together, employees look like refugees from competing summer camps,” Miller noted.

“A young woman I know, who works in marketing at startups, describes her approach to her closet like this: ‘Yes. This. Today.’ But another friend who just changed jobs, moving from a corporate office culture to a high-tech one, says she is ‘having to learn to dress all over again.’ Pencil skirts and J.Crew don’t cut it anymore. She is experimenting with the cashmere hoodie, she says.”

And while startups are notorious for their far-out fashion sense, inspired by a generation of CEOs that favor Oakleys, barefootedness and designer t-shirts as their fashion statements of choice, retail analyst Hitha Prabahkar has noted that the drifting fashion sensibilities of workers can be seen pretty clearly across industry.

“What we wear to work is changing. If you look at ‘professional wear’ over the last 10 years, it has really meshed into clothing that most people wear on a usual day. The workplace has become more casual, and there isn’t a strong line of distinction between what we wear to work and what we may wear to a bridal shower or a nice dinner.”

Interestingly, in some quarters, all this choice has led to something of a customer backlash, with a minor sub-trend of women in the workplace designing themselves a uniform and sticking with it, day in and day out, to escape the outfitting choice paralysis.

“I have no clue how the idea of a work uniform came to me, but soon, the solution to my woes came in the form of 15 silk white shirts and a few black trousers,” art director Matilda Kahl wrote for Harper’s Bazaar.

And while most consumers aren’t quite ready to assign themselves a uniform and go with it, the writing on the wall is getting clear when it comes to young workers. They are less and less inclined to maintain and develop an extensive and expensive selection of work clothes, because the reality is the marketplace doesn’t really call for it anymore.

“Fast-fashion retailers have taken market share away from Ann Taylor and J.Crew when it comes to women’s suiting and professional wear,” Prabahkar noted. “And instead of fighting for that customer, they’ve decided to focus efforts more on everyday casual and formal wear, like bridal. Oddly, it’s less expensive to produce formal wear and bridal than it is suiting.”


And Then There Are Those Pajama-Wearers

Fashion trends shift, of course, and so the retailers might hope that the shift of the young and the fashionable away from business professional attire might be something that simply corrects itself as prevailing tastes swing back toward a more dapper culture.

A not-entirely-delusional belief, given that swings between formality and informality are actually somewhat common in the annals of America fashion.

But there is another — apparently unconnected but almost certainly related — trend on the rise with American workers, particularly American professionals. They are going to work less.

Which isn’t to say they aren’t working. They are, in fact, in many cases, working more hours than ever; they are just physically going to their office less. As of 2010, over 13 million Americans worked entirely at home or at least from home on occasion, up from 9.2 million in 1997. As of 2014, 25 percent of the workforce telework at least part of the time, and 50 percent of the workforce has a job compatible with working remotely. According to reporting in Fortune, the number of firms posting telecommuting positions was up 26 percent last year, and 83 percent of hiring managers believe that, within the next five years, workers that only commute into the office occasionally, if at all, will simply be a standard part of the workplace.

And, to add insult to injury for the retailer outfitting the up-and-coming professional, while, in the past, at-home workers have been largely self-employed, in 2010, for the first time, the majority of at-home employees were wage workers who would, in another time, be going into an office — most likely, a technical workplace or a financial services organization, since those were the two professional fields where at-home work was shown to be fastest on the rise.

This observation may seem too obvious to be worth mentioning, but workers who don’t go to an office will more likely than not become workers who get very familiar with a wide range of yoga pants, jeans and the set of occasional flannel pajamas for when things around the “office” get particularly stressful. Telecommuting workers, on the other hand, will have very little use for business professional clothing.

So, what’s the mid-tier retailer marketing to young professionals to do with an emerging generation of young professionals whose relationship to workplace fashion is different today and getting more different by the moment?

The favored approach at this point is creating a more broadly based “nice” clothes line that works for a variety of professional and personal contexts, though the challenges of this model are in matching consumer tastes and repeating that trick often since fast fashion is largely dependent on rapid rotation for a lot of looks.

But, it seems, the retailers behind the traditional looks of young professionals have some work to do, and quickly, before they find themselves unemployed and without any place to buy a decent interview suit.


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