Julia Dreyfus in ‘Veep.’ Photo: Courtesy
On the season three premiere of “Veep,” vice president Selina Meyer (played by Julia Louis Dreyfus) wears a sleeveless red Valentino dress and carries Céline’s “Edge” handbag. For many professional women who watch the show, it was certainly an aspirational look. The red dress, which features a high-but-round neckline and tiny-but-not-too-tiny rosettes, was for sale on Net-a-Porter in an even-more-work-appropriate long-sleeved version. The bag, of course, can be purchased at Céline boutiques and select retailers across the globe.
Looks like these make the idea of dressing for a professional environment sound fun. And indeed, there are great suits and chic dresses to be found everywhere, from designer boutiques to the high street. Brands like Stella McCartney and Céline, which have made workwear a core part of their seasonal offerings, have inspired more affordable lines like Whistles and Hobbs to step up their office-appropriate offerings. And market leader Theory, which is chicer than ever under the watch of creative director Olivier Theyskens, is still delivering great pieces that fly in the most conservative offices.
Dreyfus in another work-appropriate red dress. Photo: Courtesy
Yet the consensus among those in the trenches is that workwear isn’t what it used to be. “Readers are constantly talking about the declining quality in various big stores,” says Kat Griffin, founder and editor of the popular workwear blog Corporette. “They complain about the fact that suits and dresses are no longer lined.” Lizzy Bowring, womenswear editor at trend-forecasting firm Stylesight, agrees.”The quality of clothing has definitely slipped, and that has a lot to do with retailers needing to maintain a certain margin,” she says. “Things like lining and button-quality suffer.”
And while suits may be hot on the runway, retailers are less and less likely to show them styled together. Instead, they take a suit jacket and pair it with jeans, or trousers with a sparkly top. “You have to click around a website 15 times to find the two pieces that make up the actual suit,” Griffen says.
That has a lot to do with retailers reacting to the changes in corporate dress codes. While there are still law firms that don’t allow open-toe shoes and banks that require dresses with sleeves, most office policies have loosened up over the past 15 years. “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,” says Hitha Prabahkar, a retail analyst and author of Black Market Billions: How Organized Retail Crime Funds Global Terrorists. “The work place 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.”
Fast fashion has played a role as well. With stores like Zara and H&M offering full, on-trend suiting for under $200 — and sometimes less than $50 — it’s made it harder for traditional players to compete. “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 says. “And instead of fighting for that customer, they’ve decided to focus efforts more on every day casual and formal wear like bridal. Oddly, it’s less expensive to produce formal wear and bridal than it is suiting.”
Not everyone is shying away from promoting their wear-to-work options. Prabahkar cites Express, whose “work wear business has consistently done well over the past three quarters.” And Corporette’s Griffin says that her readers are very impressed with The Limited’s latest offerings.
But nothing can underplay the fact that people are just buying less suiting. In a recent survey conducted by the NPD Group, women were asked what they planned to buy this spring. While 47 percent said tops and 37 percent said jeans, only 18 percent intended to buy dresses. Suits? 7 percent. Blazers? 5 percent.
But Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD, says that while offices have certainly gotten more casual, there are economic factors at play, too. “We have more part-time workers than ever before,” he says. “Jobs are hard to come by, and apparel has become a very low-priority purchase. Who the heck wants to buy a suit anyway unless you absolutely have to?”
The good news for those who have to? There are great options out there. Click through for seven stores that are doing workwear right.
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