If history has taught us anything about the cycle of fashion, it’s that, after a difficult period, women like to peacock. For many retailers, bright colors, flashy designers, and swimwear are what’s selling.
By Leah Bourne
In March 2020, Stephanie Worthy, who works on the video activation team at Facebook in New York, closed the closet door on her work wardrobe when the company announced it was going temporarily remote due to the novel coronavirus. The act of shopping after COVID became different for her too. “It felt too presumptive to buy something formal because I didn’t have anywhere to wear it,” she said. Instead, she stocked up on tank tops in every color from Everlane—more practical for her new work-from-home life—along with fitness clothes and new sneakers. While she kept her Rent the Runway subscription, her selections changed. “Even if I was just renting a pajama top, it was nice to get something new every once in a while,” said Worthy.
In recent weeks, though, her feelings toward fashion and shopping has started to shift despite the fact that Facebook won’t be going back to the office until at least January 2022 and employees can request to work from home permanently. Worthy, 41, is now on the hunt for silk pants and tailored shorts. She’s thinking about dressing up again.
“I’m not ready to buy officewear yet, but there’s a lot of optimism right now, and I want to express that with my clothes,” she says. “I want color. I want my leisure clothes to look more pulled together. I want to look nice when I’m walking around the neighborhood.
It’s been over a year since COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing became the norm and, along with it, sweatpants and athleisure became the de facto weekday uniform for millions of Americans. The New York Times in 2020 declared that the “fashion industry has started to unravel.” Women wondered if they’d ever go back to wearing dresses and high heels. Style websites started to focus on dressing from the waist up for Zoom calls. The question of whether women would ever return to shopping at the same prepandemic levels loomed large.
Now, with the vaccine rollout heavily underway in the U.S., this speculation appears to be overblown, according to searches on e-commerce and social media sites and data about what people are currently buying. By all accounts, we’re eager to start shopping again—and we’re going for it.
“Women are ‘planning to purchase’ in nearly every apparel category more than this time last year,” Sidney Morgan-Petro, head of retail and buying at trend forecasting firm WGSN, told Glamour, based on an analysis of the company’s consumer data. Per Morgan-Petro, demand is there for items we would have worn pre-COVID, including shorts, blouses, dresses, and swimwear. “This is good news for many categories that have felt the pressures of the pandemic,” she said.
According to market research company The NPD Group, discretionary retail dollar sales for the week ending April 17, 2021, increased 39% compared with the same week last year. “Even after the initial lift of stimulus payments delivered strong retail sales in late March, spending growth rates continue to exceed both 2020 and 2019 sales levels,” NPD Group concluded in its recent consumer spending report. The strongest category? Apparel and accessories.
People aren’t just shopping in greater numbers; they also have fashion, capital F, on their minds. At Pinterest, the category is “trending in the direction to be higher than prepandemic times,” Swasti Sarna, Pinterest insights manager, told Glamour. “People are looking to ‘revenge shop’ after being stuck at home for so long and are excited to refresh their wardrobes.”
Since January 2021, Pinterest searches for “trendy work outfits” have been 60 times greater than last year, “dinner date outfits” were 50 times greater, and “princess heels” 29 times greater.
If history has taught us anything about the cycle of fashion, it’s that, after a difficult period, women like to peacock. On the heels of the 1918 pandemic came the Roaring Twenties and flapper styles. After World War II, Christian Dior’s New Look was the rage. In China, once the worst of its coronavirus crisis was over, women took to malls in record numbers. Hermès hauled $2.7 million in one store in just one day after reopening.
Following months of depressed spending in the U.S.—clothing sales dropped 79% in the first months of the pandemic—and with summer on the horizon, it seems this pattern is set to repeat.
But what, exactly, is shopping after COVID going to look like?
WGSN’s Morgan-Petro says the pendulum on what people are buying is starting to shift, although not completely: “Women are still largely buying comfort-focused items at the moment. But this does not mean they’re not also fashion items. We’re seeing a shift in demand for more hybrid pieces that serve multiple end uses. Knit dresses, for example, are a key item…. A knit dress can be worn at home, at work, while working from home, or out to dinner with friends, checking many boxes and offering a great cost-per-wear value.” Other items Morgan-Petro points to are wide-leg pants and knit sweater-like pants—casual items but with a fashionable flair.
For retailers, the theme around what is selling right now comes down to a feeling: happiness.
“It’s been really fun to see our customer gravitate toward brighter colors and pastels, to floral prints, denim in new washes and fits, and items that she can wear to events or on summer vacations,” said Lauren Yerkes, chief merchandising officer at Revolve. “We are feeling she wants to get back out into the world.”
At Saks Fifth Avenue, “bright colors and bold prints” have been selling well, according to Roopal Patel, the retailer’s SVP, fashion director, along with knit dresses and items made from natural materials such as raffia.
Accessories, which had been a sole bright spot for the fashion industry during the worst of COVID, continue to be strong, but now it seems women particularly want to retire their everyday sneakers for footwear that’s still comfortable but far more stylish.
“Shoes have been selling across the board,” Patel said. “For example, sporty sandals and slides from brands such as Dior, Chanel, Prada, and Isabel Marant.”
At Net-a-Porter women are buying up statement items. Libby Page, the e-commerce site’s senior market editor, said Valentino’s oversized neon silk shirt and Erdem’s floral-print minis have been selling swiftly. “We’re seeing our shoppers gravitate toward bright colors and light dresses,” she said. Statement pieces like Bottega Veneta’s electric green cropped jacket and embellished party dresses from The Attico are also appealing to shoppers.
Affordable dresses are also seeing spikes across the board—something women had little need for this year. “Dresses are a top search [on Banana Republic’s website], which definitely signals that the customer is looking to ‘get dressed’ again,” Lauren Kazemi, V.P. of women’s merchandising at Banana Republic, said. A green pleated minidress and a floral print maxi are currently best sellers at the retailer, she said.
Women are also starting to make summer plans, which clearly includes vacations, weekends away, and much-needed beach days. As a result, we’re buying swimwear again. At e-commerce retailer Matches Fashion, bathing suit sales were up 50% in April versus March, with pieces from Cossie + Co and Hunza G. getting snapped up.
The retailer’s shoppers are also planning to get dressed for the multitude of weddings that were put on hold during the last year.
“As the world starts to open up again and intimate events become more of a possibility, we’ve seen our customer gravitate toward occasion day dresses,” Liane Wiggins, head of women’s wear at Matches, said. “Our wedding edit continues to do well, but even more so in the past month as restrictions begin to ease.”
Colorful pieces, floral prints, and dresses of all kinds aren’t groundbreaking purchases—especially as we move into spring and summer—but they certainly feel that way for shoppers after a year of hoodies, elastic-waist pants, and fuzzy slippers.
“I’ve really missed the dressing up part of being out in the world, seeing what people are wearing on the subway, on the sidewalks, seeing what the younger people are wearing in my office, and bringing a freshness to my style,” Worthy said. “That said, I don’t think I’ll ever go back to wearing uncomfortable shoes.”