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Women Need Work Clothes. These Brands Want to Give Them More Options.

Despite the ‘casualisation’ of office culture, savvy players like MM.LaFleur and Rent the Runway are betting on the market for smart women's workwear.
A look from MM.LaFleur's fall collection | Photo: Courtesy
  • Lauren Sherman

For this editorial feature, The Business of Fashion has partnered with Thrive Global, the media and technology company founded by Arianna Huffington to help end the stress and burnout epidemic, to survey 2,700 professionals about how — in the wake of changing office dress codes and attitudes — the way people dress for work affects their creativity, productivity and confidence.

NEW YORK, United States — When analyst-turned-entrepreneur Sarah Miyazawa LaFleur launched MM.LaFleur in 2013, she and designer Miyako Nakamura dreamed up "Samantha," a 35-year-old human rights lawyer modelled on Samantha Power, the diplomat who went on to serve as the US Ambassador to the United Nations during President Barack Obama's second term.

By 2017, MM.LaFleur was generating north of $70 million in sales, up from $30 million a year earlier. However, it wasn’t just Samantha shopping.

“Initially, when I launched the business, I thought the target customer would be someone in her late-20s, early-30s, a lawyer-banker type working in a traditionally corporate environment. One of the things that has caught me by surprise is just how different she turned out to be,” LaFleur said. “When we look at our customer, we actually have equal distribution from age 25 all the way up to 55.”

And it’s not just age that varies. As the way people dress in their everyday lives has become increasingly casual, the wardrobe needs of working professionals have become increasingly disparate. While wearing jeans on days other than Fridays may be more accepted now than it was 10 years ago in some workplaces, there are certain professions where one must always wear a suit.

But what does "wear to work" mean in 2018? BoF partnered with Arianna Huffington's Thrive Global — a media platform focused on wellness — to survey 2,700 women from more than 20 countries about their work-clothes habits. The women represented a broad swath of the population. While over 60 percent were between 25 and 44 years old, over 10 percent were over 55.

In terms of annual salary, they’re making anywhere from under $50,000 to over $200,000. More than 28 percent are working in “management, business and finance,” nearly 12 percent in “technology” and 18 percent in “sales and marketing.” About two-thirds define their roles as mid or senior-level.

There is an opportunity for companies to offer simplified solutions for busy working women seeking to build a professional wardrobe.

While some of the findings were expected — nearly 60 percent of respondents said that their workplace dress code is “informal” and a little more than that say they wear “business casual” attire to work — more than 44 percent still do not wear sleeveless clothing to the office. Nearly 37 percent wear “flat but professional” shoes to work, while sneakers or high heels were each the choice of about 15 percent.

In the beginning, MM.LaFleur was squarely focused on business-casual attire: sharp trousers, pretty blouses and sleek shift dresses. This year, LaFleur launched two new categories — creative casual and formal suiting — in order to meet the needs of a broader spectrum of professionals. For instance, female lawyers living in conservative cities or towns may be required to wear a skirt suit — not a pant suit — to court. And for women who work in industries where dress codes are loose, there’s a confusion around what work clothes should look like.

“We were meeting a lot of women in tech who were saying, ‘I don’t want to go to work in jeans and a hoodie, but if I dress up too formally, people think that I’m interviewing somewhere,’” LaFleur said. (San Francisco is the company’s third-biggest market after New York and Washington, D.C.) “At the same time, we had a fervent fanbase asking for suiting because these women can’t show up in court without a proper suit. That’s a story that doesn’t get told because it’s not a sexy story...but the need is definitely there.”

LaFleur is not the only one looking to capitalise on that need, but to what end? Women’s work clothes have long been the domain of a certain set of brands: for the budget-conscious, there’s Ann Taylor, which helped define shoulder-padded power-suiting in the 1980s. (The brand, along with sister brand Loft, generated $2.3 billion in sales for parent company Ascena in the fiscal year ending in August.)

The middle's dominant player is Theory, the brand beloved by minimalist lawyers the world over and generates nearly a billion dollars a year, according to market reports. Recently, it was revamped by Italian designer Francesco Fucci, whose penchant for luxurious fabrications has given it an upscale edge.

In luxury, suit-makers including Akris, The Row and, more traditionally, Hugo Boss and Giorgio Armani, lead the way.

Yet all of these companies are battling the same reality: the global market for women’s suits is beginning to shrink, projected to hit $25.9 billion in 2022, down from $26.1 billion in 2017, according to Euromonitor International, which defines a women’s suit as a jacket sold with a pair of matching trousers or skirt. Suit separates are also included, as long as there is a matching item available.

And yet, new entrants believe the audience remains underserved. Perhaps she’s not wearing a full suit, but she still needs work clothes. And according to the BoF-Thrive survey, over 62 percent of women still believe the idiom "dress for the job you want, not the one you have," still holds true in most industries.

“There is still an opportunity for business attire in womenswear,” said Ayako Homma, senior analyst at Euromonitor International. “As offerings from brands and retailers alike become increasingly casual, there is an opportunity for companies to offer simplified solutions for busy working women seeking to build a professional wardrobe.”

Consumers continue to spend real money on their professional wardrobes.

J.Crew, for instance, is putting a new emphasis on its "wear to work" offerings, starting with a capsule collection set to launch in the summer of 2019. At Ralph Lauren, women's "wear to work" is one of five categories that the company is focusing on expanding in order to increase relevance with a younger audience, alongside outerwear, footwear and accessories. "These are all margin-rich businesses," global brands president Valérie Hermann told investors in June 2018.

And last year, fashion rental service Rent the Runway got into the workwear game by launching a subscription plan that allows users to rent 4 items at a time, with an unlimited number of swaps, for a monthly fee of $159. The service now accounts for 50 percent of the platform's revenue. What's more, "athleisure brands such Lululemon and Athleta have expanded their product lines to include more office-appropriate pieces like blouses and blazers that are made from the same technical fabrics as their athletic staples, marketing them as perfect wear for the office, travel, and commute," Homma added.

If the BoF-Thrive survey is any indication, consumers continue to spend real money on their professional wardrobes. Over 29 percent of respondents said they’ve spent $500 or more on work clothes over the past six months, with 19 percent claiming $300-$499 and 20 percent estimating $200-$299. Only 14 percent said they spent less than $99. Over half said they believe they spend an appropriate amount.

Where they buy work clothes was perhaps less surprising. Fast-fashion players Zara and H&M, which sell suiting and shift dresses that are trendier than their specialty retailer counterparts, were the clear winners. Zara resonated with nearly 20 percent of respondents. They were closely followed by Banana Republic, Ann Taylor, Loft and J.Crew. Macy's, Target and Amazon were also favourites, as were Nordstrom and Nordstrom Rack.

Direct-to-consumer upstarts Everlane and Stitch Fix also earned some votes, but a notable 60 percent of respondents said they have never used clothing delivery services like Stitch Fix, Rent the Runway or Gwynnie Bee and are “not considering it.” MM.LaFleur was chosen by just 2 percent of respondents, but that was more than Rent the Runway, which is available at brick-and-mortar stores as well.

So, what does this mean for brands that want to enter the market? “There are also still many companies, especially in banking, finance, law and other power business sectors, that require professional business attire in the office,” Homma said.

LaFleur believes there is room for customer-centric brands that listen first, act second: “What will never go away, regardless of what happens in the workspace, is a lot of the angst and anxiety over what to wear to work.”

This week, BoF is running a week-long editorial series focused on fashion's workplace, analysing the trends that matter most to the industry workforce. Discover fashion job opportunities with BoF Careers here.

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