From Work to Gym: The Designer Who's Making a Case for Leggings at the Office
Fact: I practically live in leggings. It's true. I'm a working mom with a crazy calendar packed with events (and a to-do list I'm convinced will never be finished), so when I get home from the office, I can't wait to disrobe from the confines of my (albeit very stylish) work attire for some comfortable spandex (the high-quality Italian fabric, of course). And I'm not alone. The activewear industry (and subsequent athleisure trend) has seen tremendous growth in popularity and lately, I've noticed that leggings aren't just workout specific; they're quickly becoming workwear, too.
Leandra Medine made a strong case for wearing leggings as pants in a recent Man Repeller post. The image sees her pairing heather-gray leggings with a very office-friendly Céline blazer and classic loafers by The Row. "I am embarrassed at the number of times I have brought up how much I like wearing leggings over the course of the last few months, not because I am actually wearing them but because I refuse to move on," she wrote. Mandy Gragg of Haute Sweat is also a fan of the business-casual look, often incorporating a "splash of active fashion" into her work wardrobe. "If you're a legging lover like myself, play with your technical fabric textures for a more polished look," she wrote in a tribute post to the active workwear trend. "I usually pair longer silk blouses or sweaters with them so they have a more office- and happy hour–friendly look."
After catching up with my dear friend Katie Warner,co-founder and CEO of Los Angeles–based activewear brand Carbon38, Johnson I discovered that leggings for work is definitely a thing, and it's about to explode. Since I wasn't entirely convinced (at first), I quizzed her with the five W's of investigative journalism, and now, I'll be honest, I'm pretty much sold on the idea of combining leggings with a crisp white shirt, a blazer, and heels. If you're still unsure, read on and see how others are blending this very comfortable piece of clothing at the office.
MYDOMAINE: Leggings are no longer seen as pants solely for the gym. They're now worn with stylish flats, sneakers, boots, and sometimes even heels. Why do you think the trend has taken off in such a big way?
KATIE WARNER JOHNSON: Throughout history, when the demands of a woman's life changes, so do her wardrobe and thus the fashion industry. The last big shift was in the '70s and '80s as women were entering the workforce in unprecedented numbers. Anne Klein, Liz Claiborne, Donna Karan, and Diane von Furstenberg created chic alternatives to the business suit and set the standard for a new era of fashion as dictated by customers' changing needs. Today we are in the midst of a similar shift.
Women today are more likely to be the heads of households and breadwinners. Our to-do lists include dropping the kids off at school, running a board meeting, taking the dog to the groomer, raising $80 million, fitting in a SoulCycle class, and then heading out to dinner with our significant other, all the while looking powerful, sexy, and seamless. Our lives have shifted, and so have our wardrobes.
Thank goodness leggings are flattering, washable, chic, and literally let us be comfortable in our own skin. They have made their way from our yoga classes to carpool lines to Giambattista Valli's runway and the next stop: the boardroom. The last thing I'd want to do is stuff myself into a freaking pantsuit. Putting on a pair of leggings literally takes the pressure off. Superheroes wear spandex, and I believe we girls are part of a new generation of superheroes that can do it all.
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MD: What are some of the legging and athleisure trends you see women embracing for the workplace? Why?
KWJ: I think in today's mobile economy and remote workforce culture, anything goes. But for the beginner, the simplest way to start is swapping out your heels for a pair of "tennies" (aka tennis shoes). On cold rainy days, throwing a pair of smart leggings under a tunic is another great step to look sharp. At Carbon38, we have office-appropriate options like technical cashmere duster coats, mock turtleneck dresses (that look just as great with heels as they do with sneakers), neoprene blazers, culottes, and wide-leg pants that can easily blend athleisure into the office.
MD: What are some of the new legging styles you've started designing to appeal to this office look?
KWJ: In the past three months, we’ve seen a shift as ready-to-wear trends have taken on the DNA of activewear, and we are running with it. We launched our first ready-to-wear collection last month with wide-leg trousers, cold-shoulder tops, bat-wing hoodies, and flared, high-waisted yoga legging/disco pant hybrids. We have also carried smart pencil dresses constructed from legging fabric for over a year now that just don't seem to stay in stock. I think women are reaching for beautiful, easy-to-wear, on-trend pieces, and we aim to meet her needs through our own designs but also by curating the best brands out there. So 80% of my wardrobe is from Carbon38. I can't go back.
MD: Why did you start designing them, and what has the feedback been like? How are people wearing them?
KWJ: When we first launched our ready-to-wear collection, we were nervous, as it was a real departure. We knew there was growing demand for active meets business casual, so we were confident that our customers would take to our offering. But we had no idea how enthusiastic the response would really be, so that was a shock!
MD: What are the main differences in this clothing that label it "athleisure"? What sets it apart from other clothing?
KWJ: Ten years ago, we used to shop for workwear, leisurewear, and activewear separately and viewed each segment of our wardrobes as distinct. Now it is all one thing. And the common denominator is "performance." To us, performance means that it's washable, can wick sweat, is wrinkle-resistant, quick-drying, and hangs beautifully on the body. But the most important factor for any item is style. It must look good. I also believe that "devil is in the details," which is why we and our selected vendors use only the best fabrics, the highest-quality trimmings (and we are maniacal about fit).
MD: While many of us have embraced the legging trend in all other areas of our lives, work is one place where we haven't—do you predict that this will change?
KWJ: I am wearing leggings as I type and am happily nestled in my office. I don't think there is any area of our lives where it is off-limits. Look, if I was a money manager, accountant, or investment banker, I would probably not head into a client meeting in just tights, but give it a couple years, and I think it'll be the new norm.
MD: Do you have a name for this new "leggings for work" trend?
KWJ: We've played around with "athluxury" and "workleisure," but my personal favorite is "next-gen RTW."
Shop some of the latest athleisure styles below that have evolved from the legging craze (and even use the same fabric!).
Are you ready to embrace the "next-gen RTW" trend? Would you ever wear leggings to work?