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Opinion: ‘If you have 50 ties, choose the thinnest and darkest ones and recycle the rest’: Preparing your wardrobe for going back to the office

Gus Carlson is a New York-based columnist for The Globe and Mail

Like many businesspeople, I have heard the whistle signaling it’s time to go back to the office after two years of Zooming from home or wherever I could get WiFi. My first stop was my clothes closet, to see what might be appropriate attire for the next normal and, more pressing, what might fit.

It was a positively Jurassic experience. There, trapped in a sort of cultural amber, were uniforms of a prepandemic era that no longer existed. Dark suits, dress shirts, belts, leather shoes – and neckties, more than 50 of them, in varying styles and widths. There was even a pair of suspenders way at the back. Gordon Gekko would have been proud, Sport.

Granted, I didn’t work in a segment where cool casual had been the norm for years – such as technology, startups or the arts. My experience has been on Wall Street, in the news media, consulting, retail and information services, all industries where the cultural mantra has been appearance matters – or, more precisely, serious appearance reflects credibility.

A case in point. I worked at a Manhattan investment firm when casual Fridays emerged in the mid-1990s. Our chairman took one look at television news footage of our trading desk staffed by workers in khakis and golf shirts and he killed casual Fridays for good.

In notes to employees with gift cards for Brooks Brothers, the paragon of conservative business dress, our leader said simply that when managing people’s money, we needed to look serious. Casual dress signaled casual thinking, which was not a compelling message for clients.

About half of the more than 50 million US workers assigned to remote work during the pandemic are now returning to offices. Some, such as those at Citigroup, Google and BNY Mellon, are on hybrid schedules that mix at-home and in-office days. But an increasingly common question among all of them is what to wear – and when.

Retailers are also scrambling to adjust their merchandising and marketing strategies to cater to a population emerging from a period when comfort trumped style and dressing “from the keyboard up” was all that mattered.

“The return to the office will take time, and appropriate dress will depend on the industry,” said Tim Ceci, a New York-based retail analyst, luxury fashion expert and principal consultant for Point B, a global management consulting firm. “Traditional clothiers will come back if they make the customer experience seamless across multiple channels and offer a wide merchandise mix.”

Mr. Ceci, who ran the men’s clothing department at Barney’s in Manhattan for a decade, said the new business apparel order falls into two categories. The first is loungewear, easy comfort and knitwear suitable for work-at-home or traditional back-office roles that are typically not customer-facing. The second is in-person, in-office wear, often customer-facing, which tends to be more tailored and, in some cases, fancier.

While the back-to-the-office push is garnering headlines, the work-at-home crowd cannot be forgotten. A recent study by Pew Research Center showed that 59 per cent of workers who say their jobs can mainly be done from home are working from home all or most of the time.

As a result, retailers need to continue to evolve their store concepts to cater to customers who became used to a blending of work and home life during the pandemic, Mr. Ceci said. He pointed to Nordstrom, which has introduced its local concept in New York and Los Angeles: dog-friendly and kid-friendly 2,000-square-foot stores with stylists and tailors on site.

He praised the innovation, versatility and broad merchandise mix of SKP-S, the Beijing-based department store, and Ssence, the Canadian luxury brand retailer, for its wide product line and commitment to sustainability, a key element in buying preferences among Gen Z consumers. He also applauded LVMH, which owns a handful of luxury brands, and thrift stores, such as TheRealReal, that offer used and often like-new apparel at affordable prices.

“These are examples of companies that are getting it right,” he said.

Some trends about what to expect in the workplace are appearing in behavior out of the office. While high inflation and the job market are tempering people’s appetite to be extravagant, there are signs that special occasions once again demand special attire. Dressing up to go out for dinner and to parties is in again. After two years of darkness on Broadway, theatregoers are dressing up for shows again, a practice that had succumbed to the sweatpants-and-T-shirt crowd for years.

“People are still pensive and prudent, but they want to step up and step out,” Mr. Ceci said, agreeing that despite this trend, it is unlikely we will return to the days of dressing up to get on airplanes.

With the Brooks Brothers flagship store on Madison Avenue in midtown Manhattan having closed during the pandemic after more than 100 years as a New York City landmark, I turned to Mr. Ceci for some advice on whether there were any signs of hope in my closet.

“Leather shoes are coming back, so you’re good there,” he said. “No more sneakers or high-tops. But if you have 50 ties, choose the thinnest and darkest ones and recycle the rest.”

As for the suspenders, Mr. Ceci had no audible comment.

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