The New Trend in Office Wear: Comfort

Debra Bar is head of marketing at Bank Leumi in New York, but her office wear these days doesn’t scream “bank executive.” She has purged her closet of business suits, replacing them with colorful dresses that she enjoys wearing more. Her heels are gathering dust in a desk drawer while she dons flat shoes, and even sneakers, since injuring her knee.

“No one really notices that I’m not wearing heels every day,” she says. “As long as you look nice, no one cares anymore. There’s no dress code.”

 

So what are you wearing today? Chances are, you are feeling more relaxed in your clothing than you were just five years ago. Sneakers are chic and are being worn under everything from pinstriped suits to bridal gowns. Women’s evening-wear labels such as Sachin & Babi are revamping their collections to include separates, slacks and flat shoes. Remember the button-down news anchor? NBC’s Matt Lauer didn’t even bother wearing socks on set to interview Ryan Lochte in August.

palm-foliage-printed silk pajama suit

A palm-foliage-printed silk pajama suit from F.R.S For Restless Sleepers.

Styles and fabrics have taken so sharp a turn toward comfort that fashions may never entirely turn back again.

“People expect comfort,” says Caroline Belhumeur, creative director for the apparel label Club Monaco. “It’s not like in the ’80s when people were stuffing themselves into blazers and stilettos and hobbling around.”

Blurred lines

Athleisure seemed to be just a fad when athletically styled fashions were introduced as daywear a few years ago. It quickly zoomed from wearing Lululemon LULU -0.82 % to the supermarket to wearing a Gucci sweatshirt to the office. The styles began eating into the denim market, formerly the bastion of casual. Milan and Paris runways in recent seasons have featured pajamas as evening wear, track pants made of fine silk and Adidas-style athletic slides with fur.

Puma Fenty slide

A Puma Fenty slide.

This shift has moved beyond athletically inspired looks. Added stretch is making some men’s suiting more forgiving. “When you move your arm, you want your blazer to move with you,” says Ms. Belhumeur.

The men’s luxury label Berluti, owned by France’s LVMH, LVMUY -0.26 % recently named a new creative director, Haider Ackermann, and charged him with making the label more casual. The brand’s chief executive, Antoine Arnault, noted that casual clothing is outselling “sartorial” tailored clothing across the board.

All this highlights fundamental changes in our culture. People who are never disconnected from work thanks to modern technology are melding their professional and personal lives in many ways—and what they wear is a reflection of that. It is impacting how people dress for places and events where dressy, uncomfortable apparel was once the norm—like the office. Or the opera.

Black double jersey with GucciGhost print from Gucci

Black double jersey with GucciGhost print from Gucci.

There’s less separation between weekday and weekend clothing these days, says Roopal Patel, fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue. “We’ve started to see a shift in how our customers are getting dressed every single day.”

Clothes with stretch

These changes wouldn’t be happening without vast improvements in polyester, a fabric whose name was once synonymous with “ick.” Improvements in textile manufacturing have turned poly into a luxury fabric, useful in everything from haute-couture dresses to breathable, moisture-wicking running clothes.

People in their 20s and 30s are particularly adamant about comfortable clothing. Eunice Cho, 31 years old, founded Los Angeles-based Aella after attending UCLA’s business school and interviewing for jobs.

“All the business options out there were really uncomfortable and so expensive,” Ms. Cho says. “I was like, why wouldn’t people want to wear comfortable clothes when they’re at work?”

Tubular Defiant sneaker from adidas Originals

Tubular Defiant sneaker from adidas Originals.

Aella makes suiting and other office-ready looks from fabrics that feel like yoga wear but look more polished. Ms. Cho avoids styles that look “frumpy” because many of her customers—women in their mid-20s and older—want to wear their work clothes out to evening events. Launched in 2014, the label is carried at stores including Bloomingdales and sold online.

Ministry—which recently changed its name from Ministry of Supply and launched a womenswear line—was created five years ago by three former MIT students who asked a simple question: “Why can’t the clothes we wear every day be as comfortable as the clothes we work out in?”

A Kickstarter campaign to make a men’s dress shirt with moisture-wicking, four-way stretch four years ago aimed to raise $30,000. It raised $430,000, selling 8,000 shirts the first month. The brand now makes shirts, suits and other apparel that look like traditional office fare, but could be worn for yoga, calling its category “performance professional clothes.” Co-founder Gihan Amarasiriwardena last December ran a half-marathon in Boston wearing one of Ministry’s suits—a buttoned jacket, shirt and tie.

Ministry Co-Founder Gihan Amarasiriwardena

Ministry Co-Founder Gihan Amarasiriwardena ran a half-marathon last year in Boston in this Ministry suit.

Clothing’s symbolism has shifted, too, as people don hoodies and track jackets rather than suit jackets. Sport coats, once an essential part of a professional man’s daily wardrobe, now carry a new significance in some circles.

Derek Guy, a 37-year-old graduate student in political science at the University of California, Berkeley, says he wore sport coats routinely when he was in his 20s as a way to signal his cool style. These days, very few young men wear sport coats in the classes he teaches. The few who do, he says, “come off as slightly dorky” and “pretentious.”

And what about those women who walk to work in heels?

“When I see a woman in heels walking to work, I’m like, ‘Why?” says Ms. Bar. “It just looks out of place.”