Clothiers gear up to hit shoppers with below-the-waist campaigns
We may be on the verge of the Roaring 20s of consumerism, but instead of flapper dresses and cloche hats, it’s crop tops and rigid denim. As millions of vaccinated Americans emerge from months of home lockdowns and other COVID-era restrictions, retail experts predict a surge in spending on categories including apparel. Yet while brands have focused in the last year on Zoom-friendly blouses and accessories on top and leisurewear such as sweatpants and leggings on the bottom, they’re now pushing “hard pants” such as jeans and trousers, along with silhouettes that are more fitted, but still able to hide any weight gain from the pandemic.
“It’s the first time in a year nationwide that we are hearing feedback of ‘I’m ready to start investing in apparel again and investing in everything that can’t be seen right now below the waist,” says Frank Berman, executive VP and chief marketing officer at Bloomingdale’s.
In 2020, spending on apparel fell 19%, according to market research firm NPD Group, as consumers spent on categories such as health care, home furnishings and home office supplies. Dollars also flowed to child care, including babysiters, as parents had to adjust to new virtual school situations brought on by the coronavirus. The bulk of apparel sales was comprised of comfortwear such as sweatpants, whose sales jumped 17%, NPD found. But the business is now shifting. For example, sales of jeans—which fell 21% to $13.1 billion in the 12 months ending in February—are expected to rebound in the remaining part of the year, even outpacing 2019 trends, NPD projects.
“Denim is definitely back—denim never dies,” says Erik Torstensson, co-founder and chief creative director at jeans brand Frame, noting recent customer demands for rigid and straight denim.
Along with denim’s resurgence, both Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom report renewed interest in head-to-toe dressing. Nordstrom has increased its investment in outfits around summer outtings and trendier styles that are still comfortable, according to Marie Ivanoff-Smith, fashion director for the department store chain.
Marketing experts say brands are looking to gently ease their customers back into thinking about attire for special events and the office. They’re using style guides, email reminders and inspiration posts on social media.
“Our clients are definitely looking at doing marketing campaigns almost like reintroducing people to clothes—giving them more style guides to make the transition from sweat pants back into high heeled shoes or proper dress shirts,” says Sharon Harris, CMO of global digital marketing and communications firm Jellyfish.
Many of the products consumers want, and those marketers are promoting, involve some level of comfort. One of the current bestsellers at Frame is a pair of skinny jeans that comes in only two sizes but each size stretches by six to accommodate more body types. Ivanoff-Smith says that many of the season’s new pants have an elastic waist or a looser leg in softer materials.
The trend extends to jackets as well—NPD reports that coatigans, or a coat-cardigan hybrid, are now more popular with consumers than structured items like blazers.
Jon Jackson, a partner at the agency Work & Co, which was recently tapped by Frame for a website redesign, says consumers are looking for a balanced wardrobe that will carry them through the inevitable hybrid schedule of work at both home and office.
“It’s a hard pant, soft pant combo—we just need a little more pant,” Jackson says, referencing COVID weight gain. He says retailers should focus on style inspiration rather than be too aggressive with guides.
“It’s much easier for a client to give a gentle nudge by saying, ‘Oh the return-to-office is coming up, you might want to look good and here are some ideas,’” he says.
Since more consumers are still shopping online, and might need more help than usual with things like measurements if their size is different, marketers should be more expansive with product descriptions on websites, Harris says. She notes that brands are also relying on search engine optimization and performance-based content that puts more emphasis on in-depth clothing descriptions.
“They’ll be providing more detail,” she says. “They are starting to reposition them as more transition back to being with people,” she adds, noting that “the descriptions of clothes will become more front and center.”
While consumers are focused on below-the-waist fashion and some comfort, they’re still looking to jazz up their wardrobes. Clothing rental brand Rent the Runway reports that customers are moving away from “play it safe” with rental fashion choices and exploring more experimentation—middle-aged moms are renting mini-skirts and crop tops, for example. After struggling during the pandemic, despite renting some designer sweatpants, the company has seen daily sign-ups for its subscription business triple since January, according to Angie Hellman, senior VP of brand and customer strategy, speaking at Ad Age Next: Retail, a virtual conference earlier this week. (See video above.)
“That carpe diem approach to life is coming through in all the inventory trends,” she said, noting that customers are renting special outfits for all events big and small, including date nights and restaurant visits. “It’s making any event something to celebrate.”