As sales of professional clothing plummeted amid COVID-19, clothing brands like Ministry of Supply, M. M. Lafleur, Black Lapel and VIDA had to adjust quickly to even survive the year.
Suits were a tough sell in 2020.
Amid the pandemic, brands that provided professional wear took a major hit. It wasn’t just that sales had fallen off of a cliff overnight, but also the uncertainty for how long the pandemic would last.
As enthusiasm over COVID-19 vaccines breeds hope for a (responsible) return to work, weddings and everyday gatherings, let’s pause and celebrate the brands who survived the retail apocalypse of 2020.
Uncertainty for professional clothing brands
Way back in March 2020, I spoke with Derek Tian, Co-Founder of online custom tailor Black Lapel, about his concerns about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on his business.
At the time, there was no way to know the severity or length of the pandemic.
Derek worried that, “the worst case scenarios include permanently shuttering Black Lapel and beyond that… unthinkable… long term damage to the American and global economy.”
“The impact has been dramatic”
Ministry of Supply Co-Founder and CEO Aman Advani told me that “the impact [of COVID-19] has been dramatic” for his business. The company was forced to close its six brick-and-mortar stores and halt its rapid expansion plans.
He also noted that Ministry of Supply’s e-commerce business took a hit. “Purchasing clothes built to wear out-of-the-home isn’t exactly top of mind,” Advani observed.
In March 2020, Ministry of Supply was set to begin implementing an aggressive growth strategy to open more brick-and-mortar locations. Employees were set to host an opening party for a new showroom in Washington, DC’s Georgetown neighborhood on March 13, which turned out to be the day the United States largely shut down.
Getting creative with marketing for the moment
M.M. Lafleur Co-Founder and CEO Sarah Lafleur explained to NBC News in the summer of 2020 that, “we’ve had to get creative with the way we market and talk about our clothes throughout the past few months. We’ve needed to reframe our marketing a bit so customers understand our clothing works well for this moment.”
M. M. Lafleur elevated the role of its clothing in a work-from-home lifestyle, embracing “coatigans” and prominently spotlighting collections on its website around “work from anywhere essentials” and “power casual” clothing.
She also kept up her company’s visibility through unique initiatives like #Readytorun, through which M. M. Lafleur pledges to lend clothing to any women running for public office. (If you’re a woman running for office and want to know more about the program, email [email protected])
Ministry of Supply similarly rebranded for the pandemic. The company retook photographs of all of the items on its website using “COVID-friendly photoshoots” and edited the names and product descriptions of products to appeal to workleisure workers looking for comfort and style while on Zoom calls from home.
Other companies also began to market their products to a work-from-home audience:
- Direct-to-consumer brand Untuckit created a landing page advertising their best Zoom shirts to look stylish “whether you’re on a zoom coffee break, a zoom meeting, or a zoom zoom.”
- Men’s skincare startup Stryx pivoted to highlighting how its products can help men look their best working from home, enabling sales to rise to pre-pandemic levels.
- Rumpl CEO Wylie Robinson emphasized how his team adjusted his blanket and outdoor gear company’s marketing to focus on comfort and security.
Pivoting to survive
In some cases, companies were able to pivot to make their businesses more resilient.
Umaimah Mendhro, Founder and CEO of VIDA, a global e-commerce platform that brings together creatives and manufacturers, quickly began prototyping face masks when the pandemic struck, sensing an opportunity.
VIDA was able to launch its Protective Face Mask on Friday, April 3rd, way before many other brands had gotten into the game, and was better able to keep their masks in stock and available for delivery.
Mendhro has since doubled down on VIDA’s mask program. VIDA now offers a wide range of face masks including FDA Emergency Use Authorized KN95 Masks, NIOSH and FDA Authorized N95 Mask, FDA Registered KN95 Masks, 99% Filtration Sports Masks, Knit Mélange and Medical Grade 3-Ply Face Masks. She has had to add capacity in response to demand from masks.
Out of necessity, Ministry of Supply similarly pivoted to offer face masks from their technical fabrics. As Sapna Maheshwari chronicled in the New York Times, face masks represented 13 percent of Ministry of Supply’s sales in 2020. (See my Quick Review of Ministry of Supply’s 3D Print-Knit Mask Kit for more on their masks.)
It turns out face masks offered a financial lifeline to a number of apparel companies who faced headwinds in response to COVID-19.
Will 20201 bring back demand for professional attire?
The fact that these kinds of professional clothing brands survived 2020 intact is a major accomplishment.
Now, with hope that COVID-19 vaccines will be widely available by summer, will demand increase for professional attire and work leisure clothing?
Early indications suggest that demand has already increased.
As Abha Bhattarai writes in the Washington Post,
Madewell and Anthropologie are seeing a resurgence in dress sales, while Bonobos reports rising demand for suits, dress shirts and tuxedos. Other retailers say they’ve noticed growing interest in trendy tops, wide-leg jeans, even resort wear and swimsuits, as Americans prepare to head back to the office, book summer vacations and make other post-vaccination plans.Americans are starting to buy real clothes again, Washington Post, 18 March 2021
The question is, how durable will this resurgence of demand for professional attire be? And where will professionals’ wardrobes settle in a new normal that may increasingly permit workers to “dress for their day?”
Only time will tell. For now, let’s enjoy the moment and celebrate resilience.
About JakeJake is passionate about exploring entrepreneurs' global journeys. He founded Modern Fellows in 2012 to get to know the entrepreneurs behind the innovative brands helping men dress sharp in the digital age. Jake has written about entrepreneurship, international business and/or fashion for outlets including Business Week, Forbes, Inc., Details Style Syndicate and Primer Magazine, and has provided analysis on international business for BBC Radio, NBC News, CNN and Time Magazine.
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