One of my favorite podcasts is Pop Fashion, a show about “fashion news, trends, business, fashion crimes, and deep talks for creative types.” The show covers a wide variety of topics related to retail and fashion, and is a delightful way to keep abreast of trends, happenings, and quirks in the clothing industry. As a marketer who is eager to connect sustainable clothing brands with the people who want to buy from them, Kaarin* and Lisa’s show is invaluable. Besides which, the two women are from DC (Lisa is a recent transplant to Florida)! Their references to local streets and events are particularly enjoyable.
Episode 172, Consignment Fashion Woes, Shopping for Work Clothes, Nordstrom Going Private? Kaarin and Lisa have a frank discussion about a problem professional women are having: wtf do I wear to work? This resonates with me. From working in an office with a gym-shorts-clad CEO to working for myself but meeting clients and colleagues out in public, when I shop for “work” clothes I’m at a loss. Do you relate? Do you feel bewildered by how to convey the right blend of professional excellence and personality at work?
Why is women’s workwear changing?
The episode references the Quartz article Why it’s so hard for women to figure out what to wear to work in 2017, which posits that there are two reasons:
- Casual wear
Though workplaces are becoming less conservative, conventional clothing brands are not rising to the occasion. We need pieces that are professional and appropriate but also stylish and contemporary. As writer Marc Bain notes, plenty of brands are providing casual wear, or the “athleisure” that you see everywhere. Plenty are also providing trendy pieces (rompers! Shoulder cut-outs!). But these types of clothing clash in many workplaces. What to do?
Yes, casual clothes and fashion are eating workwear, and I think that’s a good thing. Traditional workwear isn’t comfortable and being comfortable is part of feeling good and feeling good is part of liking work. It’s also a good thing that workplaces are becoming more relaxed. It’s part of the trend toward virtual, flexible, and entrepreneurial work which is more humane in general.
Carefully curated, meaningful closets
The article relates to another point made in the episode about Marie Kondo. During the “listener letters” segment, Lisa reads a note from Rebecca, a “color, material and finish designer” in Chicago. (Yes, apparently this is a Real Job! She describes it as, “not just designing products but the context in which that product is used.”) She says, “we’re living in a post-Marie-Kondo world, where your possessions are supposed to be thoughtfully curated with love and meaning.” Though Rebecca was talking about furniture, it applies to clothing, too.
There’s a surge of capsule wardrobes, Project 333, and minimalism all over the Internet. Many people yearn for fewer choices because option paralysis exists. Socially conscious consumerism is blowing up as well. Not only do people want fewer clothes, they want their clothes to align with their values and for clothing brands to take a stand on contemporary issues.
But back to furniture for a minute: for the same reason that it’s impractical for many people to have a formal dining room table that seats eight (like when you’re in your 20s or 30s and paying off student loans), it’s impractical to have entirely different wardrobes for working, working out, hanging out, and going out.
Versatility is what makes this possible
The Quartz article makes the point that “there’s often no distinction between what a woman might wear during the week versus out for the evening or on the weekend.” For some, this might be frustrating because clothes are a helpful visual and psychological cue about your role. Work clothes put you in work mode, and leggings put you in hang out mode. But as more people work from home and start side hustles, the lines aren’t very clear anymore.
My vote is for versatile clothes. I don’t mean “versatile” as in reversible or one of those giant pieces of cloth that “can” be a dress, skirt, shawl, scarf, cape, sleeping sack, and who knows what else. Rather, I would like all my clothes to convey that I’m an adult professional while also looking appropriate on the weekend when I run errands.
Lots of skirts that are not shaped like a pencil can serve this purpose, as do fitted dark jeans, non-starchy button-downs, even some fitted t-shirts. There are some lines to avoid crossing: leggings and shirts with cut-outs that show your criss-cross strappy sports bra don’t look professional unless your profession is “pilates instructor.” But there are so many garments that look put together and can go between work and play and always make you look good. The difference between a professional outfit and a casual one can be a blazer and a statement necklace. I think that’s great.
What does this have to do with marketing?
I follow a lot of sustainable style brands, yet this is not a niche I see many companies claiming (besides MM.LaFleur, maybe). I see a lot of sustainable clothing brands going after the crunchy crowd, yoga-wear, or cute-and-trendy look. None of these are versatile enough to serve your personal and professional life well. Yet consciously-consuming, millennial professional women (like me!) are a huge market. And many of them live in small apartments and are striving to minimize and shop with more intention. And nearly all of them go to work. What are our options?**
To this end comes Cotton Canary. I met Jen Sigler, the founder, a few months ago. She lives in DC and started her clothing company because of exactly this women-and-professional-clothing issue. She was tired of the same-old same-old work attire and wanted to find clothes that were professional and fun, and could transition from the office to happy hour to date night. Her clothes are a great place to start. Other brands I recommend include:
- Bead & Reel – curates clothing from independent designers featuring different ethical options, such as vegan or USA-made. Many of their garments and accessories can be styled professionally or relaxed.
- Kirrin Finch – for women whose style tends toward androgynous, these button-downs are perfect.
- Maven Women – their unusual process starts with asking women what they want, offering designs that are voted on, then moving into presale and production.
- People Tree – lots of variety, with very ethical production. Many of their pieces can be styled up or down.
- Tradlands – one of my favorite clothing companies, this brand is based in California and specializes in button-downs that actually fit women (read: no boob gap!) as well as other versatile and timeless styles.
- Tonlé – a zero-waste (!) fashion brand based in Cambodia that provides jobs to local women. Their style hovers between professional and casual and can be dressed up or down accordingly.
As workplaces, jobs, and the very structure of our professional lives change, our clothing needs will change, too. Since you cannot predict the future, creating a wardrobe full of pieces that can transition from work to play and back is a smart strategy – and investment. I hope more sustainable brands step in to help fill the gap between the shoulder-padded suits of yore and the trendy or casual pieces we see every season in stores. I look forward to seeing how brands will market these garments: clothes that can be vibrant and playful but also have gravitas.
They say “style never goes out of fashion.” Beautifully-made, classic pieces of versatile clothing never go out of fashion, either.
*A few months ago when I started exploring the sustainable fashion niche, my friend and local businesswoman Amina Ahmad connected me with Kaarin. Kaarin had a lot of thoughtful suggestions for me, but my favorite was “go with your gut.” Thanks, Kaarin! It’s some of the best advice I’ve received.
**I always recommend to start by shopping second-hand. It’s the lowest-impact way to buy new clothes (or new anything).
(Image by JamesDeMers)