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Whimsical Guys Are Selling Again, But Full Recovery May Take Years

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In an otherwise grim picture after a year of coronavirus lockdown, a bright spot has emerged for the clothing industry: Americans are finally ditching their loungewear for dressier ones.

The rise started around Valentine’s Day when consumers started to put jeans, dresses and casual button-down shirts in their shopping carts for the first time in months, industry executives said.

We saw a complete change, like someone flipping a light switch, Chris Riccobono, founder of men’s casual shirt vendor Untuckit, told The Post.

The retail chain saw foot traffic increase 23% from late February to early March at the 86 stores it operates across the country, he said. The data suggests that interest in clothes typically chosen for a night on the town or a visit to the museum is increasing and occurring sooner than expected, according to Riccobono.

Retailers like Urban Outfitters, American Eagle and Anthropologie are also reporting signs that more Americans are suddenly keen to ditch jeggings for real clothes. The trend is cheering retailers, even as experts warn a recovery is likely to be long and difficult.

Bohemian-inspired retailer Anthropologie recently said that seven of its top 10 online sellers in the last week of February were dresses that changed hugely from most of 2020, when all that everyone else wanted was a spacious, stretchy outfit to put around the house.

Over the past year we’ve been lucky though [the top sellers] ]included one or two dresses, said Richard Hayne, managing director of Urban Outfitters, owner of Anthropologie, during a call for results.

The jeans are on sale again at American Eagle Outfitters, the mall chain said on a March 3 call. General manager Jay Schottenstein predicted that demand will continue to grow as more buyers get vaccinated.

I think in the next few months things will start to get back to normal, Schottenstein said. And then I think next year I was going to see a boom in this country. It’s gonna be like the roaring twenties. You’re going to see people come out.

Flag on an Anthropologie store in lower Manhattan.
Bohemian-inspired retailer Anthropologie recently said that seven of its top 10 online sellers in the last week of February were dresses.
Shutterstock

Experts warn that the clothing industry, one of the sectors hardest hit during the pandemic, down about 23% in 2020, could take longer than the rest of the country to rebound. McKinsey & Co. predicted in December that clothing sales would decline 7 to 12 percent in 2021 compared to 2019, with a modest recovery possible by the first quarter of 2023.

Craig Johnson, chairman of retail consultancy Customer Growth Partners, is also seeing sales drop this year, by around 9%, even as people get vaccinated and start returning to work. If the current pace of demand continues, the industry will at best herald a positive holiday season, he predicts.

One of the reasons for skepticism is that spending on clothing was on the decline before the pandemic, with more people dressing casually for work and even parties, while shifting more disposable income to travel, restaurants, etc. concerts and movies.

When the pandemic subsides, clothing vendors will face the same competition potentially even more than before. And some people may never return to work full time in an office as employers seek to cut real estate costs.

The future of fashion has never been so uncertain, said Richard Kestenbaum of Triangle Capital, a retail investment bank. One of the reasons, he said, is that we don’t know how people’s lifestyles will change when the pandemic ends completely.
Still, experts say it’s a positive sign that indoor wear appears to have peaked in February. Some purchases of dressier clothes are due to necessity, as some consumers no longer fit into their pre-pandemic clothes after a year of sitting too much or training more.

Thomasina Watson, 26, of Houston, was preparing to buy a whole new wardrobe after losing 50 pounds, she told the Post.

I have used the pandemic to improve my health and now I am excited to show off my new self, said Watson, who signed up for Weight Watchers and started going to a gym after gaining weight last spring.

At the top of my shopping list is some pretty clothes, Watson said. I am single and excited to see my friends again.

Whatever the cause, the rise is causing retailers to rush to capitalize on changing consumer tastes. Even companies that normally focus on casual wear are leaping at this opportunity, with Gap-owned Athleta promoting her ankle-length Presidio dress for $ 98 while cutting back on some sweatshirts.

They are putting more of their casual clothes at the center of their minds instead of their stretchy clothes, said Kathy Gersch, retail consultant.

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