Angela Gahng started her direct-to-consumer contemporary womenswear brand, Almina Concept, out of necessity. While working as a brand merchandiser in New York City, she encountered a conspicuous gap in the broader apparel market. So with a giant leap forward into the choppy entrepreneurial waters, she did as so many resourceful creatives do: Fill it herself.
"Women had a difficult time finding high-quality, modern staples at a reasonable price," says Gahng, who launched the label in August 2017. "Pieces that were classic, but still incorporated the trends of the season in a subtle way."
Then and now, Almina Concept strives to be that brand women can trust for their swanky wardrobe essentials — you know, the sharp and silky blouse we may turn to on days that could use an extra sprinkling of poise. By April 2020, however, with the U.S. a month into its first spate of pandemic-issued stay-at-home orders, that blouse had taken up a semi-permanent residence on a non-slip hanger.
"We knew there needed to be a shift in product line when our best-selling draped slip dress wasn't a best-seller anymore," remembers Gahng, whose résumé includes tenures at the likes of Club Monaco and Loewe. Something had to give, and if Gahng had anything to do about it, it wasn't going to be the business she spent the last three years building, with the help of her supply-chain partners. So she pivoted. And pivoted, and pivoted.
By mid-spring, Almina Concept had canceled some of those blouses in favor of a little category called loungewear, defining its own on-brand take on the tracksuits and Zoom-sanctioned sweaters that now flooded the market. The brand's story is less of a cautionary wives' tale and instead more of a blueprint for the sartorial arch of the last 10 months: In the fashion history books, 2020 will have many chapters, from its industry-wide racial reckoning to a transformed sustainability narrative to, of course, a global health crisis that has swiftly transformed our wardrobes and what we need from them.
Trend forecasters and apparel specialists alike emphasize that this so-called "great loungewear pivot" is set to have implications across all facets of retail for years, even decades, to come. Consumers can take literal comfort in knowing that those cashmere joggers they hurriedly purchased in March aren't becoming obsolete anytime soon. What comes of the category, then, if and when the world opens back up again?
As it turns out, that bridge may be one we won't have to cross. It's very unlikely that loungewear, in its ubiquity, will fade off into the sunset any faster than it emerged. The momentum toward this streamlined sense of comfort and utility has been a long time coming, but — as pandemics are wont to do — the current crisis only expedited its velocity.
"The shift to loungewear is a trend that has accelerated in the last 10 months, but it's important to understand that it did not come out of nowhere as a reaction," says Lorna Hall, director of fashion intelligence at trend-forecasting agency WGSN. "It's rooted in bigger drivers that existed pre-pandemic."
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In fact, WGSN has been monitoring this shift to loungewear since (at least) August 2018, when its proprietary fashion social-media tracker, the Barometer, saw loungewear mentions in continuous growth, where it would stay for the next 18 months. In a March 2019 forecast called "Considered Comfort," WGSN published research indicating that people's relationships with the physical home was changing, and quickly. Living spaces, they said, were set to become a "multifunctional system of living," with our interiors catering to a new kind of versatility. (If only they knew.)
"Loungewear was always going to be commercially relevant with or without COVID-19," adds Hall. "We were already signaling a market opportunity and structural shift in the making, one to more casual and versatile garments characterized by their ability to work for people who were spending more time at home."
There's a sort of historical precedence for this — not for loungewear specifically, per se, but for the gradual casualization of our lifestyles and by proxy, our wardrobes. According to Deirdre Clemente, an associate professor of history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and the author of "Dress Casual: How College Kids Redefined American Style," fundamental fashion changes typically occur over a 10-year period. Then, one seismic event often locks it into place.
She offers the oft-cited example of Women Wearing Pants™: At the turn of the 20th century, with everyday formalwear waning across the U.S. and Europe, sportswear emerged as an enjoyable alternative. In the 1920s, Coco Chanel presented long-held menswear staples, like tailored suiting, as women's own; by 1930, Marlene Dietrich graced the big screen in "Morocco" wearing a cabaret-ready tuxedo. But it wasn't until the workforce revolution of World War II — certainly qualifying as a seismic event — that trousers really, truly walked into the mainstream.
"Pants became acceptable in the context of World War II, but it's really in the rush after the war that women were just like, 'Screw it,' and continued wearing pants all the time," Clemente explains. "Men hated it. Their moms hated it. Fashion editors hated it. But women just kept wearing their pants because the context had changed. The social upheaval broke that context."
We may only be discussing oversized cashmere hoodies, not an entire and historically gendered category of clothing, but as Hall proposes, 2020's loungewear boom is indicative of a significant shift affecting all categories of our consumer lives, not just within apparel.
"It's a mistake to think that loungewear will not have an influence on other fashion categories," she says. "It already has."
For its part, WGSN is tracking the growing intersection of loungewear with traditionally more stringent contemporary categories, like knitwear and workwear. Take the body-hugging knitted stretch dress, an en vogue silhouette that entered the market as an off-duty item. Now, Hall says, it's speedily transitioning into retailers' dress sections: "You can still be relaxed in it, but if you have a couple of meetings to go to, it can transition into that work situation seamlessly."
Almina Concept's loungewear assortment of late comes courtesy of bona fide loafing staple, though with an objectively elegant touch. Its Boyfriend Sweatshirt and High-Waist Sweatpants (priced at $98 and $78, respectively) come in delicate cotton-and modal blends and upscale colorways like "Dark Melange Grey" and "Ivory." But to Hall's point, the brand's knitwear has ventured into loungewear territory, too: Its latest collection offers cozy mohair cardigans and ribbed cashmere that Gahng's consumers can both slip over ratty college tees or satiny camisoles, whatever may be more appropriate for their schedule that day.
"One of our favorites looks this season is an oversized blazer with high-waisted sweatpants, or even with a polo knit or cropped top," says Gahng. "All our tops match well with sweatpants, perfect for all those video meetings."
By all accounts, Almina Concept is lucky to have found a lucrative new niche on the other side of a tremendously challenging year for retail. But luck is the residue of design, as per John Milton, and the brand set itself up for success years before loungewear began to take hold in earnest.
"We use mom-and-pop factories in South Korea and have great relationships with our partners," says Gahng, "so they were more reasonable with the shift since they knew the marketplace was changing in the industry." Where many labels were faced with a bounty of canceled orders, or worse, unsold inventory, Almina Concept was able to disrupt its own production to better reflect audience behavior.
Almina Concept is still a contemporary brand through and through, and Gahng isn't sure how long its loungewear offerings will hold that a pivotal role in the lineup. "We'll always incorporate a few dressing-up styles each season," she notes. "But as of now, we'll continue to develop and broaden our knitwear and loungewear section. That's what consumers are currently looking for."
Trend-forecasters, however, truly can't stress this enough: Loungewear isn't a flash in the pan response to those of us who have been deemed "non-essential" leaving hip-wide dents in our couches and taking internal meetings at our kitchen tables. Loungewear may very well be forever because, as Clemente argues, the context has changed.
"The biggest mistake any brand or retailer can make is to assume that they will know what customer product priorities will be when they come out of this period," says Hall. "Rather than focusing solely on loungewear as the opportunity, design efforts should address the end-use of every garment and assess its relevance to the customer and how versatile it can be in servicing a number of lifestyle needs."
Loungewear is statistically unlikely to be temporary. It will guzzle up market share because, in WGSN's view, we'll just continue to spend more time in our homes. Fundamentally, every fashion business should be examining its business model and ensuring sympatico between product approach and consumer values. Right now, as we enter a grueling year-two of this pandemic, that means elasticized waistbands and spongy socks — goods you can, indeed, lounge in. But also, goods you can just simply live in.