Corporate Casual Crackdown

Casual had its day in the sun, but now – thanks to new styles and advanced performance properties – corporate apparel is embracing its roots.

When it comes to corporate apparel, the pendulum has finally swung away from casual. Danny Friedman, vice president Added Incentives, points to a client he has been serving for more than a decade to illustrate the point. Before the dot-com boom, the company favored logoed wovens and crisp polos. But then the Silicon Valley explosion ushered in an age of casual excess. Jeans and tees became de rigueur for employees of Friedman’s client, who makes industrial bar codes and safety labels for commercial products. “By the middle of the decade,” Friedman says, “employees weren’t even required to wear anything logoed.”

That’s not the case anymore with professional work wear. These days, the company requires employees to don logoed polos that have performance features. “Casual Friday is still alive and well, but this trend has slowed and in many instances is reverting back to a more dressed-up look,” says Lonnie Morris, regional manager for The Apparel Group Ltd., which makes dress shirts, sports shirts, pants and more.

The fact that the polos Friedman’s clients now wear have wrinkle- free and antimicrobial features is representative of an important facet of the trend away from extreme casual. “We do tend to see a return to more formal styles during a time of financial hardship, but companies are adding more performance features to those classic looks,” says Shelly Renning, general merchandise manager at SanMar. Polos and woven shirts continue to be the number one and two categories, with the focus being on performance items.  The marriage of old-school style with cutting-edge properties continues to be a winning proposition for distributors. Recently, a client in the energy industry came to Mike Beckman, a marketing specialist for Proforma, looking for shirts that would help employees look classy while also standing up to the rigors of a trade show. “They wanted to get away from the standard booth golf shirt and have something they didn’t need to iron,” Beckman says. After doing research, Beckman came through with a wrinkle-free, antimicrobial, long-sleeve button-down from Vantage Apparel. The shirt suited the company’s tastes for something distinguished and manageable. “People are starting to dress better to set themselves apart,” Beckman says, “and they want performance features that help them do that.”

The cycle back to a more polished corporate appearance isn’t limited to woven shirts and polos. Edwards Garment Co., for example, has experienced a steady rise in sweater sales since introducing the item in 2009. “What we find is that sweaters, sweater vests or sweater twinsets give the wearer additional variety on how their image is portrayed,” says Taraynn Lloyd, director of marketing for the supplier. Anita Brooks has found success with sweaters and sweater sets with the female end-users at one of her clients – a credit union. “There has been positive feedback on buttoned cardigan types that can be layered over shirts; they’re a nice complement that gives a professional finish,” says the president of Geiger-affiliate ASB Marketing.

While the trend in corporate apparel is toward polishing up, don’t count on a full return to formal business attire. “I haven’t had a lot of interest in blazers and ties,” says Friedman. Still, that doesn’t mean demand for dressier clothing isn’t out there. Executive Apparel has experienced an upsurge in items like blouses and crisply tailored navy blazers. “We have noticed a big change recently because casual moved over the line to sloppy,” says CEO Donald Singer.

Additionally, outerwear that projects a casual yet professional image is increasingly on the radar of corporate clients. It can take more upscale features like half-zip jackets, or some- thing unique like a houndstooth check pattern on one particular Ashworth jacket from Alpha Shirt Company. “Items like quarter-zips, bonded soft shells and fleece are all doing really well in the corporate apparel segment,” notes Glenn Oyoung, chief operating officer for Tri-Mountain.