You’ve been working from home since March. Much like in the Before Times, you probably spend most of the day sitting at a desk (or kitchen table). But now you also lounge on the sofa more than your productivity and posture would prefer. When inspiration strikes and the Zooms are over, you tackle a YouTube workout—hey, it’s still work! If quarantined children are around, you sneak in a few play sessions between meetings. Yogurt gets smeared on your pants.
Ever since the pandemic settled in, this daily routine, with wishy-washy boundaries between downtime and work, burning calories and begging a toddler to gobble some, has become the norm. Going out is out, staying in is inevitably trending. What do you wear to tackle it all? How do you navigate this new life, clothing-wise?
The answer, increasingly, is an emerging category of clothes—let’s call it next-gen athleisure—that aims to cover all bases. They’re both slack and self-respectful, efficient and indulgent, flexible and just impressive enough. Brands that make them—Epoque Evolution, Veilance, Rhone, and others—are deploying high-tech hybrid fabrics, innovative production techniques, and a hyper-flexible approach to assembling a wardrobe, in which a few garments perform multiple roles. They’re creating yoga pants that will, whenever we return to the office, double as totally acceptable office pants. They’re also offering up polo shirts that wick moisture and help regulate body temperature, which makes them equally good for a quick run or a tense budget meeting. They’re delivering soft undershirts you can sleep, sweat, and answer emails in. Colors are primary. Cuts are versatile. These clothes are hard to decipher at first glance; they look at once familiar and brand-new.
Of course, the athleisure category—infusing seemingly sporty clothes with a wear-it-all-day premise—has been booming for a while now. (According to Allied Market Research, the global athleisure market was valued at $155 billion in 2018 and is expected to reach $257 billion in 2026.) Running errands in leggings and a hoodie, pre-yoga or instead of it, is considered an efficient way to go from home to gym to store and back.
But when Covid-19 took errands away, the shape-shifting, spry appeal of athleisure seemed to dim. Consumers turned, at first, to pure comfort; by mid-May, searches for sweatpants and cashmere track pants soared more than 85 percent on websites like Moda Operandi and Net-a-Porter. As summer moves in and workplaces slowly reopen, the brands poised to dominate are those that are able to take the flexibility of athleisure, mix it with the indulgence of a fine pajama, and serve it with a utilitarian twist.
“Hybrid clothing has definitely been on the rise,” says Jessica Harman, strategist in activewear at the global trend-forecasting agency WGSN. “The comfort factor and more fluid approach to work and leisure have all played their role. We’ve seen iterations of it in the past, but now, as performance fabrics become more sophisticated, they’re better adapted to bridge the gap between work and leisure.”
Enter a brand like Epoque Evolution, based in Mill Valley, California; its premise is versatile, elegant clothes made from Econyl, described on the company’s website as “a 100% regenerated nylon yarn made from old fishnets and carpets.” Launched in 2011 by the Italian recycling company Aquafil, the patented eco-friendly material has since been adopted by the likes of Burberry and Gucci, making appearances in everything from swimsuits to furniture. The fabric’s robust-yet-fine texture made a star out of Epoque’s Jet Set Trouser. The utterly stretchy pants are so comfortable you’ll never want to take them off, yet they’re just structured enough to inject some motivation into a WFH morning. Machine washable, because yogurt and baby drool.
Since Covid-19, says Epoque cofounder Nancy Taylor, the most popular items have been “core pieces that are comfortable, and washable crossover products.” The trousers are one of them. “We are stuck at home in less than ideal or comfortable working conditions, and our clothes need to make up for that,” adds cofounder Hannah Franco. “The lines between leisure and professional are blurred. People are often sitting at their desks for hours on Zoom calls or trading off work and parenting duties. Your workwear now needs to be kid- and workout-friendly.”
Another womenswear brand, Lunya, has been racking up Instagram likes recently thanks to its Restore Pima line; originally sleepwear, now wear-it-all-day clothes. Restore’s soft-yet-classy tees are made from Pima cotton enriched with minerals that supposedly increase oxygen levels in the body and convert body heat into infrared energy, which is said to reinvigorate skin and tissues. For those desperate to recharge while stuck at home, these Goop-esque promises might at least have a placebo effect.
Bigger brands like Uniqlo and Gap are banking on crossover garments as well. Uniqlo has recently expanded its AIRism line beyond underwear. Made with quick-dry, moisture-wicking, odor-controlling, and anti-bacterial technology, AIRism now features T-shirts, tank tops, and hoodies for men and women. Hill City, a menswear offshoot of Gap, launched in 2018 to offer high-performance clothing that behaves like sportswear yet looks like your typical office wardrobe. The brand evidently didn’t gather enough momentum to survive Covid-19: Gap recently announced that it will shut down Hill City in 2021. Nonetheless, sales of lightweight pants, utility jackets, and other garments made with innovative materials like wrinkle-resistant Invista and body-temperature-regulating Coolmax, have reportedly been high during the pandemic.
Last year the Canadian outdoor brand Arc’teryx reintroduced its Veilance menswear line as a stand-alone brand to boost its market presence. It specializes in “climate-control solutions,” producing light, water- and wind-resistant pants “made with ergonomic patterning”—gussets and other elements to enhance freedom of movement—and zipped polos that control body temperature and transition easily from office to gym.
While trend-centric fashion brands like Gucci, Burberry, and Tom Ford eschew the traditional fashion week calendar or struggle to stay afloat, these new clothes offer a no-brainer approach to dressing, a uniform of sorts. They exploit the shift away from traditional workwear and cater to pandemic-induced cravings for simplicity. And there’s more to come in 2021; chances are, even when the time comes to go back to “normal” life, no one will want their jeans and restrictive jackets back. Instead, comforting qualities and high functionality might just be the key factors we’ll look for.
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“For those returning to work post-Covid, comfort isn’t going to be something they want to give up, but they’re also going to want protection from their clothing,” Harman says. “We’ll see everything from crease resistance to antibacterial qualities grow in demand, and a rise in new technologies to help combat viruses.” Doesn’t sound like that fun shirt you bought on sale back in December will be up to the task. But then, as times continue to baffle and uncertainty becomes a constant, perhaps we’ve come to expect from clothes what we can no longer do ourselves: be cool (temperature-wise, that is), adaptable, and ready for anything.
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