'Hot vax summer' is coming - and retailers are gearing up to finally sell going-out clothes again

Nightlife going out clothes
Rebecca Smeyne/Getty Images
  • After over months of stretchy pants and sweatshirts, shoppers are ready to start looking good again.

  • Retailers expect a "peacocking effect" post-pandemic - and sales of dresses are already rising.

  • It's part of a broader trend that people are calling "hot vax summer."

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

Going out clothes are back, baby.

Dress sales are on the rise. Jeans are coming back. People are shopping for dress shirts. After over 12 months of stretchy pants, sweatshirts, and no shoes, shoppers are ready to start looking good again.

As vaccinations rise nationwide and political leaders predict a return to normalcy by this summer, retailers are beginning to see a shift away from at-home clothes.

It's part of a broader trend that some are calling "hot vax summer."

The rise of comfy clothes

When it started to become clear last spring just how widespread the coronavirus was becoming and how much it would disrupt daily life, retailers took action.

By the end of March, H&M, Macy's, Nordstrom, Ross Stores, and TJ Maxx canceled orders for new merchandise - by April, Gap nixed orders for both summer and fall in an effort to cut costs. An October report from workers rights groups found that between April and June of last year, retailers outright canceled or simply refused to pay for $16.2 billion worth of orders.

At the time, these reactions portended just how long and intense the pandemic would be. And while ecommerce sales flourished throughout the year - online consumer spending in 2020 was up 42% from 2019 - those purchases were mostly confined to comfy clothes and athleisure. From March to July 2020, sales of shorts, sweatpants, and sports bras were on the rise, despite overall apparel sales dropping 34%.

Which means that for more than 12 months, the market for going-out tops, sundresses, and high heels has been dormant - until now.

Parallels to the Roaring 20s

On March 11, President Joe Biden made an announcement: July 4, 2021 could officially become Independence Day from the coronavirus in the US. There was a "good chance," he said, that we could all have small, outdoor parties to celebrate the 4th of July.

The announcement is thrilling on several levels. Most importantly, it means that months of suffering and death could finally be coming to an end, and that schools and businesses that have been disrupted during the last year might finally reopen.

But it also means that the fun elements of life - parties, nights out, weddings - can resume as well. Enter what many are calling "hot vax summer," a time of general hedonism following this time of mass isolation.

"I'm most looking forward to having a ho phase," Sherin, a 21-year-old Chicago resident, recently told Insider's Julia Naftulin. She added that she can't wait to go out with friends and flirt and hook up with whomever she pleases.

Hot vax summer has also been endorsed by brands, most notably Suit Supply, which put out a raunchy advertisement showing hot people licking each others' faces. The tagline said: "The new normal is coming."

"People are looking to get out and about again," Fokke de Jong, Suitsupply's founder and CEO, recently told Insider's Kate Taylor. "Parallels to the Roaring 20s are being drawn on a regular basis."

urban outfitters
A shopper holds up a top at Urban Outfitters. TOLGA AKMEN/Getty Images

A 'peacocking effect'

But there can be no hot vax summer if we're all still dressed in baggy sweatshirts, and retailers are already preparing for what's ahead.

Amid the vaccine rollout, fashion retailer Revolve, a destination for trendy going-out clothes, has dedicated an entire section of its website to "vaccine ready" tops: shirts that expose the shoulders or arms to provide easy access when you go get your shot.

Gap's CEO, Sonia Syngal, said last month that the company is very optimistic about a return to dressing to impress, forecasting what she called a "peacocking effect" that will happen as people emerge from the pandemic.

Urban Outfitters CEO Richard Hayne said during the company's most recent earnings call that while customers have been focused mainly on "casual, at-home, comfortable" clothes, the brand has "started to see that break a bit."

The company, which also owns Free People and Anthropologie, has seen a "striking change" in what's selling - during the last week of February, seven of the 10 top-selling items on Anthropologie's website were dresses.

"We're particularly excited by the recent uptick in demand for 'going-out'-type apparel and believe this bodes well for our spring and summer seasons," Hayne said.

According to a report from the Washington Post's Abha Bhattarai, there's been renewed interest in products like high-waisted jeans, blazers, dresses, stylish tops, and sandals in bright colors and patterns among shoppers at retailers like Everlane, American Eagle, and Madewell.

"All of a sudden apparel and footwear sales are starting to show some signs of life," Marshal Cohen, a retail analyst for market research firm NPD Group, told the Post. People are planning to socialize and go on vacation again and look forward to a time after the pandemic.

"And so what are people doing?" he said. "They're saying, 'I need a new outfit. I need to feel good again. I need to feel alive and refreshed.' "

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