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Corporate Apparel Gets Comfy

It's out with stuffy suits and in with relaxed, yet well-put-together style in the office.

By Jennifer Morrell, Contributing Writer

March 13, 2018

Ah, the office. Suits, ties, pressed shirts and business meetings in stuffy boardrooms.

“Dressing for success” traditionally didn’t mean wearing a placket or comfortable woven shirt, paired with denim pants or khakis. In some office environments, such attire would become acceptable only during the phenomenon known as “Casual Friday.”

Today, a new wave of corporate apparel is giving the office landscape a relaxed, yet professional look. Style is everything, but comfort is even more important. Relaxed clothing — hopefully enabling a more productive office environment — is in demand from consumers and, thus, will be an emphasis for suppliers in 2018. In fact, for corporations with no work-from-home policy in place, dress codes have mellowed tremendously in the last decade, according to industry experts.

Why So Relaxed?
No, you aren’t imagining things: Corporate apparel has become much more relaxed in today’s professional environment. What does “relaxed” really mean?

Taraynn Lloyd, vice president of marketing for Edwards Garment, explains it as an employee wearing dress pants with a woven shirt and sweater vest, instead of dress pants, a woven shirt, tie and suit coat.

“The new trend says ‘relaxed,’ but it is definitely well put together,” she says.

James Andres, marketing coordinator, S&S Activewear, says corporations are starting to connect the dots between employee comfort and production.

“I think businesses are starting to buy into the idea that a relaxed work environment can often lead to getting better production out of their staff, and that starts with their wardrobe,” he says. “Having to wear a shirt and tie every day is becoming less and less the norm.”

As it turns out, this shift in apparel options is for good reason. “In 2017, many scientific studies were published showing the positive effects of movement on the human body, and corporate America has taken note,” says Vicki Ostrom, trend editor, SanMar. “Wellness concepts have been adopted by corporations in significant ways that are changing the way we exist within the corporate environment.”

Ostrom points to the popularity of “walking meetings,” as well as desks that allow employees to stand and sit. “With the mobility allowed by technology to do much of our work remotely, the entire concept of ‘working at the office’ has expanded to include anywhere that has Wi-Fi,” she says. “With all of these changes, our clothing has had to adapt as well. Ease of movement and performance qualities are now top priorities when considering what to wear to work.”

Wovens have widened the playing field, Andres says, for one simple reason: variety. “With all the options available in the wovens department, like plaid, gingham, mini-check, solid and textured, employees have a lot more freedom to express their fashion sensibilities and still maintain a professional appearance,” he says. “This is why wovens might be a more desirable option than wearing a polo or plain T-shirt in the workplace.”

At Edwards Garment, trend watchers are seeing an increased demand for woven dress shirts, particularly those with patterns.

“Woven shirts in the corporate environment allow branding to be a key component,” Lloyd says. “Not only are the shirts comfortable, stylish and easy to care for, but the decoration to showcase the company brand is essential. Woven shirts take all types of decoration, such as embroidery, heat seal and heat transfer, exceptionally well.”

Ostrom says the structure of a woven garment projects a professional image, but expectations have changed regarding how such apparel should perform. “Easy care and technical performance matters for woven shirts and knit polos alike, as discerning consumers are evaluating purchases based on function as much as fashion,” she says.

What Workers Want
Andres says companies that are trying to attract a new generation of employees may, in part, drive the relaxed corporate-apparel trend.

“I think with every passing generation, we’ve gotten more relaxed and less uptight about rules and regulations in general, so it’s natural that business attire has loosened up as well,” Andres says. “A relaxed business appearance is perceived as being ‘cool,’ and companies that are trying to attract the younger generation to the workforce — or even places like restaurants trying to attract a younger crowd — will have a more laid-back dress code to fit in with today’s culture.”

A definitive conclusion regarding corporate fashion can be drawn in relation to color and cut. Lloyd says to watch for more stretchy fabrics. She also notes that styles will trend toward a modified point or spread collar, and shirts will be worn tucked or untucked. Popular colors will include lavender and ultraviolet shades.

Andres adds that vintage colors are becoming more popular with casual woven styles, but notes that traditional wovens still are playing it safe, with mostly neutral color options being purchased more frequently.

“Slim-fitting woven options, like the Calvin Klein slim-fit stretch shirt, are slowly creeping their way into our industry, but haven’t been widely sought after just yet,” he says.

We can’t talk fashion in any sense without including women, whose needs and wants align with those of their male counterparts. Lloyd says ladies crave stylish looks, stretchy fabrics and comfort.

“Ladies who wear Edwards’ woven blouses often tell me that the fit of the garment is critical,” she says. “For example, they may want a longer-length sweater to flatter their silhouette. That is why Edwards offers a variety of ladies’ styles that fit their unique needs.”

Other Trend Drivers
The main driver of the relaxed corporate apparel trend may simply be versatility. Garments need to be appealing, yet offer comfort with fabric that stretches.

“Clearly, athleisure retailers are driving this trend, especially for adults in their 20s and early 30s,” Lloyd says.

In marketplaces where image apparel makes a brand statement, you’ll see wovens, knit shirts and sweaters. In many end-user markets, including restaurants, hotels, lodging, security, gaming, banks, healthcare and transportation, you’ll see both wovens and knits blended together.

The term to know is “smart casual,” Ostrom says. “Whether you are in the ‘gig economy’ or work in a traditional, corporate setting, it’s likely you travel frequently to do your work,” she says. “With this mobile workforce, smart casual has been coined. Professional, smart styling is critical, as important meetings may occur directly after a long commute or plane ride without the luxury of changing into a refreshed outfit.”

A more relaxed corporate attitude indicates companies have acknowledged a shift in the way people work today. As such, Ostrom says, performance outerwear is considered the new casual sport coat, worn with a travel friendly woven shirt underneath.

This year, she adds that there will be a continued exploration of transitional and trans-seasonal styling, especially for women. “This means wardrobe items that can easily go from the weekend to weekday, and from spring to winter and back again,” Ostrom says. “A narrow color palette, such as ivory, gray and black are in demand, relieved with the addition of popular Millennial pinks to add variety.”

Jennifer Morrell is an award-winning writer who has written for a number of national consumer and trade publications. For more information or to comment on this article, email Jennifer at