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Why Sequins and Platform Heels Are Here to Stay

The resurgence of occasion wear initially signalled a desire for pandemic escapism, but designers and buyers say the strength of the category will remain strong well into 2023.
Woman in white satin suit wearing ostrich feather evening bag.
Mark Cross introduced a line of evening bags this year, and the category was an instant success. (Mark Cross)

As its customers returned to weddings and galas, luxury handbag brand Mark Cross wanted an invite to the party, too. Earlier this year, it introduced a line of feather- and pearl-embellished evening bags.

Until then, the small American label was known for its structured, trunk-like styles — most notably the boxy Grace bag, named after Grace Kelly, who donned an earlier version in the film “Rear Window.”

“When we went into this category, it was very instinctual because the year prior, I was bored to death and I just wanted fun,” said creative director Rebeca Mendoza, who joined the brand in 2021. “It wasn’t because we sat down and looked at data.”

That instinct turned out to be on point. In a matter of months, the new assortment of ostrich-feather satchels and shearling fur clutches became top-selling products.

“It was quite shocking to see,” Mendoza added. “Typically when we have wild pieces, they’re loved by the press and we love them as designers. It’s very rare when that excitement carries over to wholesale and our own channel too.”

That excitement, in fact, has pervaded the whole industry. Dozens of brands and retailers have noted the strength of the occasion wear category that ranges from dressy going-out tops and work-friendly suits to sparkly party dresses and equally blinged out accessories. In the second half of 2022, US and UK retailers introduced nearly twice as many dresses embellished with sequins, beads, jewels and more compared with the same period in 2019, according to the retail intelligence firm Edited.

Those styles are selling well. Sequinned dresses sold out 52 percent more in that period compared with 2019, while high-heeled shoes sold out 121 percent more. Rent the Runway doubled its occasion wear assortment in recent months, contributing to an 8 percent increase in active users compared to its previous quarter, the company said earlier this month. SIR., an Australian womenswear label known for summer daytime dresses, has also leaned into its occasion-wear offering, releasing a full collection of evening pieces to hit stores next year.

The onslaught of occasion wear started as a reaction to the boom in weddings and galas that started in 2021 as Covid-19 fears eased. But buyers, editors and analysts say it’s grown to be more than that. The pandemic has stoked a new fervour for flashy fashion not seen since the rise of streetwear and athleisure in the late 2010s.

It’s definitely a shift in mindset.

“Occasion dressing has become a more normalised behaviour, whether it’s out to lunch or for a bridal shower,” said Jodi Kahn, vice president, luxury fashion, at Neiman Marcus Group. “You’re a little bit more dressed up than in 2019 … it’s definitely a shift in mindset.”

The Pendulum Swings Back

Even before 2020, fashion had become more casual. Sneakers, leggings and loungewear were levers of growth for mass and luxury brands alike. When Covid-19 struck, they became practically the only clothes people purchased. The headline of a New York Times Magazine article published in August 2020 proclaimed “Sweatpants Forever.”

That summer proved to be a high water mark for casual fashion. “Revenge shopping” became the new phrase of the moment as soon as vaccines were rolled out. By spring 2021, dresses and embellished sandals were making a comeback. (In an ironic turn months later, Entireworld, the main subject of the Times’ piece, announced it would shut down operations after running out of cash.)

At the height of the pandemic, womenswear brand Tanya Taylor, known for its bright printed dresses, contemplated selling a sweatsuit.

“I remember there was an email thread going around of us contemplating this printed sweat suit that we had designed,” said Tanya Taylor, the designer. “I’m so glad we never crossed that line.”

By winter of last year, retailers had trouble keeping their trendiest stilettos in stock. For Taylor, dresses will become her brand’s most popular wholesale category next year, even more so than in 2019, when tops were three times as popular in department store assortments, she said.

The pandemic probably killed streetwear in a faster and more finite way.

Today, what resonates is a “fun, flirty aesthetic,” said Sam Lobban, executive vice president, general merchandising manager of apparel and designer at Nordstrom. That means print fabrications, brands like Zimmermann that specialise in traditionally feminine dresses, sparkly shoemaker Mach & Mach, Disney princess bows, embellished blazers, sequins, ruffles and ‘a lot of play in colour,’” he said.

“The pandemic probably killed streetwear in a faster and more finite way,” said Kate Hundley, a womenswear designer whose latest collection she said reimagines occasion wear for an edgier, post-pandemic consumer. It includes sequinned dresses and a cinched waist blazer. “Everyone had 100 sets of sweatpants in 100 colours and now it’s the last thing I want to reach for.”

The Return of Heels

Last year, fashion editor Kerry Pieri’s shoe of choice was her shearling Birkenstock slides. This year, she ditched them for tall boots and even taller heels. Most recently, she bought a pair of Amina Muaddi pumps and Larroude platform heels.

“It’s hard to step away from the comfort shoe, but you still need heels and boots to perk up your life,” said Pieri, the former digital fashion director for Harper’s Bazaar and a freelance editor.

Formal footwear presents a particularly ripe opportunity for brands looking to capitalise on the prevailing occasion wear boom. The designer footwear market is slated to reach $40 billion in global sales by 2027, up 5 percent from 2022 estimates, according to a recent BoF Insights report.

In the US, 37 percent of surveyed high-net-worth individuals say they are most likely to buy tall/knee-high boots, followed by 33 percent who said they are most likely to buy stilettos/high heels. In China, 52 percent of respondents said their most coveted category is stiletto/high heels. And regardless of shoe type, the top reason for purchasing a new pair of designer shoes is a specific occasion, 54 percent of respondents in the report said.

Casual fashion has made its mark in the changing definition of what’s considered “formal.” Although more than half say they’re looking for a statement piece when shopping for shoes, 72 percent of the surveyed consumers said they’re also looking for comfort. What does this look like? Embellished flats, kitten heels and loafers of all shapes.

Kahn said Neiman Marcus has seen rising demand for ballet flats, loafers and flats in general. “[The customer] wants to be comfortable but still elevated, and it goes back to this sentiment that she wants to be dressed up,” she said.

Dolled Up With a Caveat

It’s not all stilettos and sequinned gowns. As with shoes, comfort and versatility are now prerequisites for even the most formal of attires, designers and buyers say.

“The mindset is exuberant but the actual details are not as restrictive as before,” said Hundley. “In shoes, maybe it’s a lower heel that’s beautifully detailed. In the going-out concept, it’s not a corset but maybe a cool, draped halter.”

Pieri agrees. " I’m less likely to be a full dress person,” She said. “I have been loving the bustier look … because you can wear them with jeans and earrings for a party and then put a jacket over it later for dinner with your husband.”

What passes as “dressing up” now encompasses a wider range of products. Edited retail analyst Kayla Marci noted that while certain occasion wear products — heels and sequinned dresses — are trending today, consumers have more choices in general than ever before.

Everyone is investing in an attitude of joy in a different way.

“There’s sexy with sheer and satin and there is more traditional cocktail attire and there is a return to minimalism with suiting,” Marci said. To stand out as a brand or retailer, “it all comes down to what works well with your base.”

Ultimately, consumers today are more intentional and emotional about dressing up. While this sentiment might fade as the world moves closer to a new post-pandemic normal, the moment is far from over.

“Everyone is investing in an attitude of joy in a different way,” said Tanya Taylor. “That’s what I’ve been seeing, from what people buy from us but also what I’ve been buying as a customer. I’ve reverted back to buying more kooky or quirky pieces. I love being a little bolder now than before.”

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