Back to work in style: With most workplaces reopening, comfort and functionality have become the new norm

When Sana Jhamb started working from home two years ago, she found appreciation for smart casuals. A white shirt with lacy, knee-length weave jacket paired with denim worked best for both work meetings and work from home (WFH) zoom calls. “After two years of prioritizing comfort and utility, smart flexi-casuals may sound basic — jeans, a semi-formal jacket, sneakers — but this is good attire any day, anywhere. Instead of accessorising with heavy chunks of brooches, belts, slip-ons or stilettos, I go for a semi-casual look as it is a perfect combination of style, statement, comfort, ”says the director of a Delhi-based communications firm, who works in an open culture office that offers flexibility and creative freedom.

As work from anywhere, home or office has become the new normal for most professionals, comfort-first and functionality without compromising on style is now a prerequisite in work wear. But this essentially means that nothing is stuffy, there is stretch, drape and softness built into silhouettes, and a freedom and confidence to play with color and print. The idea is to bring variety to mundane pant suits as the formal look stays but with a twist.

The concept of work wear has not been challenged nearly as much as other types of fashion throughout history. “The pandemic brought about another re-evaluation of what constitutes appropriate office attire, and accelerated changes that were underway. People now look for clothes that are relaxed, relevant and versatile. Separates are popular as they give an option to dress pieces up or down. There’s a pent-up appetite for color pops and pastel florals in contemporary silhouettes, ”says Amrish Kumar, director and creative director of Ritu Kumar.

Corporate environment has become more relaxed with the athleisure boom in the past two years, but there is still a resurgence of ‘Zoom’ shirts and ‘bleisure’ outfits. The emphasis is on comfort and not laidback. “Work wear continues to remain a bit dressy with softer, lighter and crease-free fabrics in use. Ties are being worn much less, but the classic suit and tie combo will never go out of style for corporate menswear. For summer, and given the workplace environment permits it, jackets without collared shirts or open collars are becoming increasingly popular, ”says Yatan Ahluwalia, image, grooming, style and etiquette consultant, who advises to wear lighter colors like pastels, navy blue, which is the new gray and substitutes black, an extensive use of anti-odor and anti-bacterial fabrics and the relaxed fit replaces the snug body-hugging form in menswear.

Rules are changing
The concept of work wear is fundamentally changing, and fashion brands and experts are incorporating conscious designs, patterns and colors to bring variety. Globally, when most people continue to work from home, many are also eager to dress up again when they return to the office, either on a regular basis or occasionally. “For women, tailoring makes an appearance, especially the strong-shouldered blazer styling them to more casual tops and relaxed bottoms, as opposed to the pantsuit look, which at this moment, has the tendency to feel too formal. Depending on the workplace, denim is having a moment as jeans feel significantly more put together than pandemic-era sweatpants. From high loose fits, straight-leg jeans now make skinny silhouettes a distant memory. The dress classification is on the rise with office-appropriate styles like the shirtdress, ”says Melissa Moylan, vice president – womenswear, Fashion Snoops, a New York-based trend forecasting and consumer insight agency.

In fact, the psychology behind work wear has changed drastically post-Covid. It’s not just about functionality but also about personal branding. “People who never met or were behind the scenes are now expected to attend ad hoc virtual meetings. For certain sectors, it is a choice of comfort at home and quick presentation simultaneously online. Therefore, greater choice of multipurpose anti-wrinkle textiles and comfort clothing is in great demand. On the contrary, for those working offline, workwear has seen a surge in greater style and effort to look presentable. This is possibly due to pent-up demand and the need to love your own self, ”says designer Varija Bajaj, founder of workwear brand Office & You.

Companies starting to shift back to working in offices in the near future will crave for more formality in their lives after two years of cozy hoodies, joggers, and other athleisure. “The concept of comfort has continued into the workplace, and the foreseeable future with performance and stretch fabrics for tailored clothing, the absence of the necktie, and a preference for comfortable knits as underpinnings instead of stiff shirts. There is a much-needed injection of refreshing pastels and energetic brights, especially for knitwear in patterned overcoats for men in both casual and professional situations, ”adds Michael Fisher, vice president of menswear at Fashion Snoops.

This means sharp suits and formal dressing do not have to be boring. One can work and dress in hybrid. Effortless style and easy-wear designs of ultra-light jackets and pants in Uniqlo 2022 Spring Summer collection are apt in any temperature, and prevent wrinkles even after washing, besides a non-iron shirt for men and women’s wrinkle-resistant rayon blouse or pleated skirt has pleats that stay put even after washing.

“Businesses and their leaders ditch the suit and tie look to embrace a hybrid style of dressing — smart separates, tailored pants, culottes and casual tops for women to chinos, trousers, shirts and polo shirts for men. Knit denims, relaxed fit shirts, breathable fabrics give a blend of style and comfort, ”says a senior spokesperson for Bestseller India that markets and sells brands like Vero Moda, Only, Jack & Jones and Selected Homme.

If formal wear has been one of the most static and changing categories of clothing, the suit and tie wardrobe is still in play but limited to large-format events. “Co-ord sets and separates are an ongoing trend in work wear, as it provides a lot of choice to mix-match and create semi-formal and formal looks as well,” says Ashray Gujral, founder of clothing brand Dash & Dot, who debuted his Fall / Winter 2022 collection at Paris Fashion Week last month.

The focus on sustainability is becoming more important than ever. Post-pandemic designs at Fabindia have eco-friendly, comfort clothing while striking a balance with making modern interpretations of block prints, innovative cuts, happy colors, and on-trend details. “The Back-to-Work collection is an interplay of breathable wovens and prints in shades of summer,” adds Dipali Patwa, group head of brand and community, Fabindia.

In fact, sarees have long been a favored choice at the workplace for the air of quiet authority that they lend the wearer. Aditi Chand, CEO and co-founder of Tilfi, a homegrown brand of Banarasi handloom saris, dupattas and lehengas, who travels for work between Delhi and Varanasi, likes to wear Banarasi cotton Jamdanis even for her casual outings. “There’s a sense of discreet sophistication about sarees and the lightweight nature of the Jamdani weave coupled with the comfort of cotton making them versatile enough to dress up and dress down for varying levels of formality,” says Chand.

A personal choice
Work wear has evolved from ‘one style suits all’ to include personal choices. Bold colored dresses, a chic black blazer paired with classy cowl neck top, pencil skirt or slim fit trousers now find place in what is termed as the ‘business casuals’ wardrobe. Softer silhouettes ease dressing for movement, a sleek bracelet and loafers are also good to experiment with.

However, a lot of work wear depends on the context — industry, location, function, role, social norms, nature of interaction, time of day, and even season of the year. Many companies are pretty lax with the dress code these days, leaving room for comfort or flexible attire. Organizations have realized that allowing people to be more flexible in their dressing does not hinder performance but increases it. It allows people to be more expressive, confident and comfortable with themselves. With performance and work efficiency given highest importance, minimalism and utilitarian approach towards dressing has also taken a forefront.

Take the case of the start-ups and technology enthusiasts. The ease of doing business has given rise to the ease of dressing down but most corporations find dressing to work comfort as well as inspiring for teams. Bengaluru-based Rohit Kochar, founder, executive chairman & CEO, Bert Labs, a global new-age deep technology start-up that engages in designing, developing products, AI and IoT services, goes to work in effortless style. Bearing in mind the hot season, he selectively goes for sustainable cottons which are office appropriate, mostly relaxed formals, T-shirts and slim-fit chinos. “Given it’s an open culture and early-stage company mindset, the nature of the job allows us to wear appropriate casuals. Most team members come from diverse backgrounds in deep tech, I want them to bring their persona to work in their true element. Except when there is a client meeting and everyone must be in their best attire, ”says Kochar.
Corporate offices that have now moved to hybrid or virtual mode have the chance to switch from formal to light clothing. “I prefer smart / business casuals to make the work environment relaxed. As a lifestyle start-up, it’s good to lead a healthy and happy life, have team bonding and engage in personal conversations, ”says Kunal Mutha, founder of Only Earth, a vegan-plant based oats milk brand.

Manasa Garemella, co-founder of kindlife, a beauty and wellness ecosystem start-up, ensures to repeat her outfits on a regular basis as a step towards conscious and sustainable living and being kind to the environment. “Light fabric in pastels is best for the rising temperatures and a mix and match of different outfits or repeating my dresses works well,” she says.

For many, coming back to the office has not been a challenge as far as dressing up is concerned. There’s a craving to get out, dress up and meet people. “The pandemic did allow us to spend our days and nights in shorts and pajamas but we were all craving to get out, dress up. I like to add fun colors to my outfit in linen kurtas and denims, club it with a cotton / khadi bandi jacket and add my yellow or orange kicks to the look. Or, linen shirts or pants to keep the style intact and yet be relaxed, ”shares Pawan Hora, director and co-founder of a communication design and public relations consultancy firm in Delhi.

Also, the change from formal to casual is an instant boost, feels Mumbai-based Disha Singh, founder and CEO of Zouk, a vegan lifestyle brand of bags, who likes to dress up in tees and jeans on some days. “The change from those mundane shirt-trousers look is not only comfortable but encourages the team to be yourself and pull up any outfit,” says Singh. However, she feels if workplace looks become more individualistic, it should also be respectful of the office environment. “Despite a visible shift to comfort clothing, it’s important to keep the identity of the organization intact. A fashion-forward banking professional cannot turn up as a rapper, as appearance, decorum and formality are still tenets of an office environment, ”she adds.

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When Sana Jhamb started working from home two years ago, she found appreciation for smart casuals. A white shirt with lacy, knee-length weave jacket paired with denim worked best for both work meetings and work from home (WFH) zoom calls. “After two years of prioritizing comfort and utility, smart flexi-casuals may sound basic — jeans,…

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