In an industry synonymous with fast, throwaway products, the rise (again) of workwear has come as a surprise to some. But there’s no denying that long-lasting clothing with simple, functional design is taking the world by storm.
Fashion trends come and go at lightning speed, but one is proving to have lasting effect on wardrobes. Workwear has gone from being associated with the working classes to being embraced by style communities and subcultures around the world, from skateboarders to British punks. It’s a category that has been a fixture on the sartorial landscape for quite some time but today it has gained newfound momentum in mainstream men’s and women’s fashion – helping to shape the way we get dressed and set a new style agenda for 2024.
In all four fashion capitals this year, houses grounded their ready-to-wear collections in styles synonymous with workwear. Celine, Ferragamo and Brunello Cucinelli opted for suede trucker jackets in their collections, while Coach offered gabardine and denim dungarees. Versace and Prada paraded utility vests, while Fendi featured leather aprons and tool belts – an homage to the elegant uniforms worn by the workers in its new leather-manufacturing facility in the Tuscan town of Capannuccia. It joins MaxMara, where creative director Ian Griffiths looked to Britain’s Land Army with his dyed drill boiler suits and chore jackets, to inspire his collection for next spring. Designers across the luxury spectrum are referencing humble workwear archetypes, while original workwear brands such as Carhartt wip and Dickies are enjoying renewed popularity.
But why the sudden appeal? For one, people are drawn to the way that workwear whispers smart-casual, says Lucie Greene, trend forecaster and founder of consultancy Light Years. “Workwear has almost become quiet luxury for the original hipsters,” she says. “As this group reaches financial maturity, it is starting to embrace the workwear aesthetic in a more refined way, looking for indulgent materials. But core design values, such as reductionism, sturdy quality and industrial cues, remain.” Pointing to new-wave workwear-inspired brands, including Alex Mill and Studio Nicholson, Greene notes that their appeal also lies in a unisex approach, creating “a modern uniform for anyone who wants elevated comfort”.
Workwear addresses our demand for increased comfort while providing a refreshing alternative to the streetwear wave of the past decade. It also shines a spotlight on the value of embracing classic design and eschewing trends. “This reflects a broader social and cultural shift in values and preferences in which people are seeking authenticity, durability and functionality in their clothing choices,” says Carolyn Mair, author of The Psychology of Fashion. Mair notes that workwear fosters a mindset that views clothing as long-term investments. “By prioritising craftsmanship and wear-forever clothing, brands and consumers are embracing a paradigm that reduces consumption, extends the lifespan of clothing and minimises waste.”
Such is the continued appeal and success of the original workwear brands in hooking new customers, luxury designers need to elevate and move the design along to offer something fresh. Labels such as Japan-based Sacai (which has recently collaborated with Carhartt wip), Britain’s Olly Shinder and Fendi have all been helping to diversify the market, so much so that today the swing tags of workwear garments oscillate from accessible to premium. At luxury multibrand retail outfit Matches Fashion, menswear buyer Alexander Francis has bought into workwear styles from Carhartt wip, Drake’s, rrl and Visvim, some of which are under the £100 mark (€115) and average around the contemporary price bracket.
“All these brands offer go-anywhere, do-anything products at a selection of price points,” he says. “We are seeing customers looking for styles that can work in the office and at the weekend. It’s about buying less but buying smarter – and workwear really talks to this shift in behaviour.”
While Francis doesn’t predict a return to the head-to-toe workwear dressing of the early 2010s, he points to “die-hard” workwear style icons such as Daniel Day Lewis and John Mayer “who show that a uniform approach to workwear remains a classic look”. The uniform element of workwear strikes a chord: see the rise of the Danish fashion industry or bellwether brands such as Prada using their fashion shows to celebrate uniforms associated with the care sector and workwear (the irony of a €4,000 full-length donkey jacket noted).
“We are seeing customers looking for styles that can work in the office and at the weekend”
For Morten Thuesen and Letizia Caramia of uniform specialist Older, a Milan-based business, “uniform means longevity”. In the decade since they left their jobs at Alexander McQueen in London to explore the artistic potential in the industrial side of uniforms (their clients include the Noma Group, Tate Modern, Château Marmont and Flos), they have become experts in the space. “Uniforms have always been a fascinating aspect for fashion – it’s to do with the tailoring and understanding proportion,” says Thuesen. “Our ideology is that the uniform is democratic and that needs to be translated in the design but also the pricing, supply chain and production.”As for Lawrence Steele, a fellow Milan-based designer and creative director at Aspesi, uniforms have gone from symbols of restriction to a form of “liberation” from the daily task of getting dressed.
It’s by the same notion that workwear is again in the spotlight. “Craft used to be seen only in terms of hand-sewn garments, while manufacturing had associations with mass production and low quality,” says Greene. “New-wave workwear highlights the intersection of hand craft and old-school manufacturing, associated with true skill in small-batch production, ingenuity in mechanical machines and pride in clothing emerging from factory towns.”
It hails a new era. As Mair puts it, this chapter in fashion won’t be defined by a trend for a change but “a fundamental shift in the psychological relationship that people have with their wardrobes”.