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Emerging from the pandemic, personal stylists see a focus on bold joyfulness

Clients are seeking a new wardrobe full of fresh palettes allowing them to shed their pandemic uniform, stylists report

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While the COVID-19 pandemic caused a decline in retail activity overall, luxury retailers have continued to target the Canadian market throughout, and personal style has remained non-negotiable for the wealthiest of consumers, even if they are only dressing from the waist up.

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In the video-conference era, C-level executives have not compromised on how they present themselves, and personal stylists have found virtual means through which to bring their elite clients high-end fashion. Now, as reopening draws closer, personal stylists are reporting a pressing demand – a new wardrobe full of fresh palettes that allow their clients to shed their pandemic uniform.

“Clients have definitely expressed a desire to really make a real entrance into our new world,” said Suzanne Colmer, personal stylist and founder of Toronto-based Your Shop Girl . “From haircuts to colour palettes, clients are so excited to leave anything that even remotely reminds them of the pandemic behind. We have changed so much over the last 16 months and it makes sense that we would want to change our clothes, too.”

Colmer founded her style and image consultancy in 2008, and she aims to combine her love for style with her background in sociology and gender studies. She and her staff apply a personal touch in order to optimize custom styling for their clients. Colmer says this approach served her well during the global crisis.

“Prior to the pandemic, my wealthier clients would contact me for a ton of style issues,” explained Colmer. “While some of them were just looking for help shopping or cleansing their closet, a lot of them were looking for special event styling or to pack their bags for their trips and create guides for which outfits to wear to which events. We had to pivot to virtual work fairly quickly last year. While we were no longer being hired to pack for clients or dress them for events, the need for high-end clients to sustain their personal brand became even more important when work transferred to virtual. Every day was essentially like styling for a photoshoot, since our clients were doing all their business via virtual meetings.”

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With the reopening, I think there’s a certain levity and joy to personal style. … We’re just so happy to be able to see each other in person that getting dressed is more fun and less stressful than it was. More about showing up than showing off.

Afiya Francisco, The Style House

Ensuring that clothing was comfortable and would photograph well, and that a client’s video-call environment was appropriate and on brand for both work and personal meetings, became a priority. Colmer and her staff also created virtual capsule wardrobes – small wardrobes that mix and match to create more options for an online world.

Your Shop Girl has survived, thanks in part to Colmer’s intuition, but also due to her most loyal customers. Some of her colleagues have had to close their styling companies since 2020. Statistics Canada reports that retailers have seen a downturn of 1.4 per cent in sales from 2019, the largest annual decline since the 2009 recession. The restrictions on in-person shopping and gatherings resulted in a 1.7-per-cent volume decline in sales, also the largest drop since 2009. However, as pandemic restrictions have eased in recent months, retail sales were up 4.7 per cent year over year in the first quarter of 2021, according to Statscan.

In the luxury apparel market, marketing intelligence firm Trendex North America estimated Canadian sales decreased 27.9 per cent in 2020 .  However, luxury retailers continue to eye the Canadian market despite the pandemic, with a view to opening new, luxury brand stores , Retail Insider reported.  Toronto’s high-end retail strip in Yorkville will see Italy’s Isaia and Miami’s The Webster open up shop. The city’s luxury brand-focussed Yorkdale mall will welcome New York’s Thom Browne, which will also open a store in Vancouver. In Montreal, a women’s Prada boutique was unveiled on the third floor of Holt Renfrew Ogilvy, according to Retail Insider

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Style expert and on-air personality Afiya Francisco had to shift, creatively, to provide her viewers optimum styling consultation without being able to do in-studio segments.

“Throughout the pandemic, I’ve started shooting b-roll [supplemental footage] to give more dimension to my segments, and show not just tell,” said Francisco, who, in addition to her personal studio styling, has partnered with brands such as Holt Renfrew and Nike. “So, in addition to an outfit on a mannequin, I’ll shoot myself in the look to show movement and fit.”

Francisco established her multimedia styling and lifestyle platform, The Style House ,  in 2009, and her viewers’ desire to move forward continues to drive business.

“With the reopening, I think there’s a certain levity and joy to personal style,” said Francisco. “We’re just so happy to be able to see each other in person that getting dressed is more fun and less stressful than it was. More about showing up than showing off.”

Even luxury retailers that traditionally relied on in-person interactions to provide personal styling have shifted strategies due to the pandemic. Luxury menswear brand Harry Rosen  has seen Ian Rosen, the grandson of the eponymous co-founder, leading the Toronto-based company into digital styling.

Since 1954, the iconic style house relied on its renowned, personal interaction with clients to foster generations of loyal customers.

“During the pandemic, we refocused those relationships to be digital-first,” explained Ian Rosen, executive vice-president of digital and strategy. “Our clothing advisors, for example, can curate a personalized shopping page for any of their clients, where the items and sizes are personalized to them.”

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Rosen adds that their teams have been shipping customers packages with a selection of items they can try on at home, with a pick-up service for items not selected. That meant that during lockdown, style advisors were able to shift between business and casual wear. The result was a reported tripling of online sales in 2020 . Rosen says the brand will keep traditional, in-person, as well as the new, digital, styling options for their clientele.

“The big word we are hearing from our clients is versatility; they want to rebuild a wardrobe that they can dress up and dress down, depending on the day ahead of them,” said Rosen. “The workplaces that many men are going back to are going to have a formal dress code, but there is still a need to look polished, put together and establish your style for other occasions. … As lockdown restrictions ease this summer, we’ve seen a big flight to bold patterns and bright colours as our clients look for outfits for patio dining and outdoor get togethers.”

One of the more interesting style creations to emerge from the pandemic is the evolution of the suit. Rosen says it is being reinterpreted in many ways to adapt to a more casual, comfort-focussed world, including suit bottoms designed with a drawstring waist.

“We all know that for many, working from home is here to stay, and clients will continue to value investing in presentable and comfortable casual wear – the same pair of old sweatpants grew old after a month for most!”

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