This time of year is usually peak season for "going-out clothes." For a few frenetic weeks schedules are packed with holiday soirées, family gatherings, festive dinners, and New Year’s Eve events, for which it suddenly seems imperative to own an array of velvet tops, backless jumpsuits, and sequined mini dresses.
In 2020, though? The closest thing many will have to a holiday party is a long night of Mariah Carey tunes, Hallmark Channel movies, and red wine — none of which exactly calls for a sparkly new outfit. For brands who have made party dresses their calling card, this is the latest hurdle in a challenging year. With their customers staying home, many of these labels have been reckoning with the question: Is there a future for fancy dresses? Or should they just pivot to sweatpants like the rest of us?
According to Herve Leger's Creative Director Christian Juul Nielsen, there’s still reason to bet on the former. For one, the brand — best known for its cocktail-ready bandage dresses — recently surpassed last year’s Black Friday sales, and it continues to find buyers around the world for its full-price dresses.
“I do think people continue to find ways to dress up,” he says, recalling a recent dinner party at a friend’s house in the Hamptons. “We were just four of us, but her daughter was there and we cooked a nice meal and she was like, ‘Oh, let me run up and put on a dress.’”
For fans of the Herve Leger look, a bandage dress is an easy choice to pop on, he reasons — sure, it will always be a bit of a statement, but it doesn’t need to be steamed or pressed, and there are no fussy embellishments to worry about.
These same qualities helped boost the brand’s bridal business this year: With big weddings off the table, many brides ditched their plans for floor-length gowns and instead sought out shorter, simpler styles.
“I think for a lot of girls, they were like, 'Ok, I'm not going to wear a big ball gown when I'm getting married on Zoom, or with four people coming to the wedding, but I could wear a little French halterneck Herve Leger dress with an open back,’ you know?” says Juul Nielsen.
Designer Alexandra O’Neill, founder of the three-year-old label Markarian, says bridal has also become a “huge focus” for her team over the past few months. The brand makes all of its pieces to order in New York City, which brought production to a halt during lockdown in March, but later became a draw for brides who wanted a bespoke design without a six-month lead time.
In the spring, O’Neill also began selling logo sweatshirts that she hand-embroidered with floral hearts and customers’ initials, with all profits benefiting the nonprofit organization No Kid Hungry. For holiday, she’s added zodiac sign embroidery and a portion of proceeds will go to a different charity each month.
“It just started out as me wanting to let my friends know that I was thinking of them, even though we couldn't be together” she says. “And then I thought it could be nice to offer that to our clients as well during a time when they were really feeling — and actually were — very isolated.”
Now part of the brand’s permanent collection, the sweatshirts have also served a practical purpose: “We are an occasionwear company and it is a time when there are actually no occasions happening,” says O’Neill.
That fact — coupled with months of store closures and slashed department-store budgets — has already led to the demise of at least one beloved eventwear brand. In October, Carly Cushnie announced the closure of her 12-year-old label Cushnie, citing the effects of the pandemic and the particular challenges she’s faced as a Black female designer throughout her career.
Rent the Runway, usually a go-to choice for one-off party outfits, has also been hammered by consumers’ newly-homebound lifestyles. As lockdowns spread across the U.S., the company saw its subscriber activity reduced by as much as two-thirds, according to the Wall Street Journal. It has since closed all retail stores, changed the pricing structure of its rental program, and given customers more options for purchasing the secondhand items it carries at a discount.
With shoppers reining in their spending on clothing during the pandemic, many brands have focused on their most affordable styles as they develop upcoming collections.
For the Ibiza-born, London-based label De La Vali, that means updating several of its fan-favorite minidresses in new prints and colorways, keeping prices around £295-350 (about $393-466). While not cheap, it’s a price point that’s still accessible to customers who have kept their jobs and found themselves with fewer opportunities to splurge on travel and dining out.
“Everybody likes to treat themselves,” says co-founder Laura Castro. “I think buying a little dress, if you're not going on holidays, is kind of like buying a ticket to your next fantasy.”
While multi-brand retailers have reduced their budgets almost across the board this year, De La Vali has yet to face any order cancellations and says it is in talks to hopefully launch with several new U.S. accounts in the coming seasons.
Online, retailers such as Matchesfashion are still advertising curated holiday assortments — although the stiletto heels and sequined gowns are now supplemented by a heavy assortment of luxury homeware.
“If we are able to this holiday season, we will be hosting or attending intimate gatherings at home. In addition to investing in uplifting pieces for the home, we also see excitement from our customers to dress up again, albeit in a much more relaxed way,” says Liane Wiggins, head of womenswear buying at Matchesfashion, citing “elegant kaftan dresses by Taller Marmo, velvet flats from Vibi Venezia, delicate jewelry by Shay, and crystal-embellished knitwear by Christopher Kane” as some of the season’s most popular picks.
Castro and De La Vali co-founder Jana Sascha Haveman decided early on to stay true to the brand’s glamorous DNA — even if that meant potentially sacrificing some sales in the short term — but they also got to work on expanding to new categories. In the next few seasons, they plan to launch footwear (an espadrille for Ibiza and a boot for London, to start), accessories, and more separates (encouraged in part by the success of their vegan leather suit this fall).
Mostly, though, they’re counting on customers being in a party mood once the pall of 2020 has passed and it’s finally safe to gather again.
“Before the pandemic, everything was very loungewear-oriented, and that's been a big focus in fashion for a while,” says Haveman. “But we believe that after this pandemic, event dressing is just going to go through the roof because that's the thing that people are going to miss the most. We do really think we're going to bounce back stronger than ever.”