Flexible dress codes: yoga leggings become office attire
US imports have overtaken jeans and are used to calculate UK inflation — but are they fit for work?
Isabelle Alix, a Parisian entrepreneur working in New York, believes women’s workwear should be more flexible — literally. She is co-founder of a fashion brand called Offtrack, which sells stretchy leather leggings modelled on yoga wear. When she and her French co-founder, Noémie Blanchard, moved to the US, they were struck by the demand. “Everybody was wearing yoga leggings,“ Ms Alix says. “We started doing it, too.” US imports of yoga leggings — or “elastic-knit pants”, as they are categorised by the US Census Bureau — first overtook those of jeans in 2017. In March, the stretchy leggings were added to the UK government’s “inflation basket” of goods that reflect shopping habits across the country, used to calculate official inflation statistics. Yoga, a spiritual exercise discipline that evolved in ancient India, is now a booming industry in the west — as are yoga leggings, the tight-fitting elastic trousers that allow for movement. Demand for the leggings — and now hybrid trousers modelled on them — is expanding. “Women are simply dressing for busier schedules,” Ms Alix explains. That means clothes that can adapt to sport, leisure and working life.
Ms Alix says athletes are driving the workplace trend: “They are seen as passionate, ambitious and committed, and people want to look like that.” Besides, she says, casual wear can be luxurious — the $450 leggings that Offtrack sell are made with leather from the same tannery that supplies Prada and Chanel. This “casualisation of luxury”, Ms Alix says, is why many people include denim and smart trainers in their work wardrobes. But is it acceptable to wear stretchy leggings to work? No, says Lizzie Edwards, a London-based style consultant who specialises in women’s professional attire. Dressing for sport in the office is a distraction, she says. “If you wear stretchy clothes, you are not psychologically at work.” Ms Edwards softens her stance when she hears about Offtrack’s leggings — “There are ways to make them look smart if they are navy or black” — but she would not advise anyone to dress for comfort in the office. But Tory Hoen, creative director of fashion company MM LaFleur, disagrees. The US brand, which specialises in women’s workwear, launched hybrid “yoga-inspired and office-approved” trousers in 2016 that Ms Hoen says “hold you in like spandex”. In two years, the company has sold about 21,000 pairs to women in the US. “It has been an unexpectedly huge part of our business,” she says. Liz Spaulding, director of revenue and marketing at Starz, a New York-based entertainment company, owns two pairs of the stretchy MM LaFleur pants. “They look like an office pant, but you can still cycle to work,” she says. Dress codes in the entertainment industry are casual, according to Ms Spaulding, but as she progressed in her career she started paying more attention to workwear — “you dress for the job you want, to feel confident”, she says. Ms Edwards says stretchy leggings may be acceptable workwear at a media company, but would not be appropriate at a bank. “People at a tech start-up in Shoreditch might not even brush their hair,” she says.
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Many employers no longer expect employees to wear traditional office attire. Just half of UK companies have a dress code policy, and three out of four of those who do ask employees to dress casually, according to a survey by the hotel group Travelodge of 2,000 employers. The group commissioned the research after hotel managers reported that numbers of ties, cufflinks and suits left behind by guests had dwindled. Fewer ties in hotels could reflect a growing proportion of women in roles that require business travel. But there are signs that men want to dress more comfortably, too. Ms Alix says men have written to her asking if they can also wear the company’s machine-washable leather leggings. But Offtrack is currently focusing only on women. “Our leggings are not designed to accommodate men,” Ms Alix says. One supplier who is prepared to support men at work, however, is Lululemon, the sportswear and leisure brand. Its ABC (“Anti-Ball Crushing”) pants are made from a the same stretchy material as yoga leggings, but have the appearance of smart workwear trousers.