Signals of change: dressing to impress and the impact for fashion retail

Have you experienced it yet? That slightly surreal feeling of getting dressed up for a night out or putting on a shirt and tie again for an office meeting or interview.

According to the European Journal of Social Psychology, on average it takes 66 days for a new behavior to become automatic, and our brains like new habits because they’re efficient. When we automate common actions, we’re freeing up mental resources for other tasks.

By spending the best part of the last 18 months making daily functional fashion choices and wearing either leisurewear or outdoor attire, we effectively broke the habit of dressing to impress – which is why it now feels slightly odd.

Instead, as indicated by rising sales of Ugg boots and jogging bottoms, and with Marks & Spencer reporting a fivefold increase in nightwear sales over the pandemic period, our fashion choices have been mostly geared toward practicality and a lifestyle of working from home.

The New York Times coined the phrase ‘hate-wear’ to describe lockdown fashion habits that are “neither stylish nor particularly comfortable, yet constantly in rotation”. Esquire magazine style director Charlie Teasdale came up with the term ‘sad-wear’ to describe “clothes that make us feel better when we’re sad, specifically born out of the existential ennui of lockdown”.

Whether or not sweatpants have the staying power to survive as a fashion choice can be left to the catwalk critics. What’s interesting for us at OMD EMEA is the impact that people’s post-pandemic relationship with fashion will have on future retail trends.

After all, the more opportunities we take to dress up as restaurants and nightlife venues reopen, the greater the retail bounceback is likely to be.

After a year in which the fashion industry as a whole posted record-low economic profits, business leaders are now seeking to drive a perceived consumer desire to retire at-home wear and renew retail habits for looking good and feeling good in clothes that mark a sense of occasion.

As we know, digital adoption soared amid the coronavirus crisis, with brands embracing livestreaming, virtual customer service and social shopping.

Online marketplaces also became more relevant with retailers and brands adopting new digital offerings, such as John Lewis allowing fashion brands to sell directly from their site for the first time or Hugo Boss investing in 3D simulations of more than 50% of their collection to enable more accurate virtual fittings and try-ons. Now fashion players are looking to optimize the online retail experience and channel mix, while persuasively re-integrating the human touch.

The challenges that lie ahead for fashion retailers, however, remain significant.

Covid-19 highlighted that more products do not necessarily yield more profits, so companies will no doubt look to reduce complexity and take a more demand-focused approach.

According to McKinsey, from the retail wreckage of 2020 will emerge a sleeker, more focused offering. Store formats will be redefined, with data and analytics used to predict footfall and build personalized offerings.

At the same time, we are likely to see more nuanced assessments of store ROI, based on a combination of digital and physical lenses. With China leading the way, brands will need to engage even more closely with social media to offer shoppers exclusive content and personalized experiences.

To manage ongoing uncertainty surrounding masks and virus variants, as well as increased competition from direct-to-consumer (D2C) services, retailers will need to enable greater flexibility and faster decision making, while balancing speed against discipline in the pursuit of innovation.

And, just as our ability to form new habits may have temporarily altered the way we dress and how we shop for clothes, our new behavioral habits have also signaled changed priorities across sustainability, brand purpose and ethical retail – all of which will require fashion brands to carry out comprehensive reviews of processes, practices and their supply chains.

For example, Zalando is launching its Circularity Pilot in early October as part of its goal of extending the life of at least 50m items by 2023.

The more we dress to impress, the more brands will need to impress by how they readdress for the future.

This is just one of our signals of change from everyday life. For additional reading, click here to read OMD Signals: Navigating the pandemic signals in H1 2021, and for more on the Future of Commerce, click here to download our report authored in conjunction with Omnicom Commerce Group.

Chelsea Horncastle, director, product innovation and insights at OMD EMEA, with editorial input from Tim Denyer, strategy partner, and executive director of marketing intelligence Peter White.

For more on the reinvention of retail, check out The Drum’s Retail hub, where we explore everything from livestreaming e-commerce to AR shopping and conscious consumerism.

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