What do you think of when you hear the phrase “business casual”? At the beginning of this century, the term might still have conjured up images of some fairly defined outfits, although this of course depends on where you’re from. Nowadays, it seems the idea of a defined style of office attire has become blurred. Is this a permanent state? Or, will we move once again into an era where office culture, particularly within the startup and business technology field, has its own recognised fashion world?
Khakis and Button-Downs
One of the phenomena that really shook the workplace fashion boat was the birth of Silicon Valley. It became clear that the startup world wasn’t just a business sector that blended into all the other markets. A new culture of work had begun, and as we’ve already come to understand, fashion is a part of culture, whether we follow it or not.
But what is the fashion of something that is by definition open-ended? What is the fashion of a product that is purely digital? And, when a company’s revenue reaches the hundreds of millions of dollars per year, does it really matter what the employees, and even the management, are wearing?
When you think about it, a lot of the factors defining what people used to wear in the office were based on the exposure of employees to clients. A clothing store couldn’t have salespeople sloppily dressed for obvious reasons. In the digital world, the client only sees immaculately-designed pages on a website or app. The people behind that trendy online fashion store could all be in their pajamas, and many probably are. Hopefully, they have the integrity to at least be wearing trendy pajamas.
Interacting with clients IRL wasn’t the only consideration though. There was also the psychological issue of managers worrying about an atmosphere becoming too slack, too casual, and resulting in decreased productivity. Today, managers will generally have a lot more appreciation for individuality and creative thinking. And whether the managers like it or not, millennials just don’t feel comfortable in rigid and formally restrictive environments. To keep them hired, the idea of anything resembling a uniform was destined to become unravelled at the seams.
The Business of the Fashion Business
Even with all these shifts going on, the fashion industry continues to rake in some serious revenue. Over the past decade, fashion has grown at a rate of about 5% annually. Although 2016 turned out to be a bit disappointing, experts are optimistic about ending 2017 on a high note. According to a report by McKinsey & Co., today the industry is worth $2.4 trillion. With people spending so much of their time at work on a daily basis, a lot of that money has to be going into what they’re wearing at the office.
Getting Dressed for Success
So what will we be wearing at work in the near future? Well, some of the world’s best designers are trying to answer that exact question. Advances in fabric technology and manufacturing have led to new applications in clothing. New materials have been synthesized and mixed to create fabrics that can specialize in tasks like repelling water while being breathable, light and extremely strong. One of the major features for office attire is fabrics that don’t crease, allowing for a perfect look even after being packed for travel.
Until now, these new ultra-capable fabrics have mostly been used for sportswear and outdoor exploration, but they’re creeping into office wear slowly but surely. In the tech world, our days can be very dynamic. You may start the day with a yoga session, go into an important meeting, and then take on some coding until you call it a day, Then, it’s the commute, which in itself can be a challenge in large urban areas. All these activities put demands on our “second skins”.
One company introducing this innovation into workplace fashion is Ministry of Supply, which offers dress clothing with high performance capabilities and low maintenance needs. As a marketing stunt and a field research test, Gihan Amarasiriwardena, the company’s CEO, ran a half-marathon in a suit and tie. Point proven.
The combination of something extremely pragmatic yet expressive and appealing can also be linked to the advancement of women in the workplace. Women have always been restricted by the most stereotypical ideas of office attire – fitted clothing, high heels, and a specific level of formality. By putting comfort and practicality right up there with style, we can enjoy a new dialogue about office fashion that goes beyond gender. This will hopefully lead to women feeling more liberated and comfortable at work.
A well-known example of this principle being put into practice is the online fashion brand ADAY. The company was started by former Goldman Sachs co-workers Nina Faulhaber and Meg He, and uses advances in clothing technology to make women’s clothing that can suit any occasion.
The New Era of Office Fashion
After an awkward period of being in a meeting with people in suits sitting next to others in trainers and hoodies, we might be heading for a new era of workplace fashion. Hopefully it will be one that has a good balance of self-expression and taste along with comfort and sustainability.