The COVID-19 pandemic clearly intensified consumers’ desires to be casual, comfortable, and cozy at home, driving purchases in certain categories within footwear and apparel, such as slippers, slides, sweatshirts, sleepwear, and activewear. On the other end of the spectrum, categories such as fashion shoes, sandals, boots, handbags, sportswear, and tailored clothing were among the hardest hit, as consumers found themselves without places to go.  As the vaccine rollout propels a return to offices, social gatherings, events and travel, several fashion categories are poised for a rebound. However, it’s important to focus our attention on the right markers. A common misconception is that the growth of dress categories in 2021 will signal recovery in the fashion industries. While consumers might miss dressing up, I expect that continued dressing down will drive the recovery.  

Dress footwear was declining at a steady pace prior to the pandemic. In 2020, sales of dress footwear comprised only 8% of total fashion footwear dollar sales. This was down from 17% in 2017. Sales declined -50% in 2020 vs. 2019, on top of -10% the prior year.  There is no question that once there are events back on the calendar, pent-up demand will lead to an uptick in sales in the dress categories compared to 2020, and brands and retailers that play in this space should be ready to capitalize.  But this increase in sales will be occasion-based, and any surge we see will likely be short-lived. Dress footwear will be less relevant moving forward, as casualization and the prioritization of comfort continue. Therefore, recovery in the footwear industry will be driven by larger, more casual footwear categories like sandals, boots, fashion sneakers, and hybrid items. These footwear items are essentially the new dress shoes and are what consumers have and will continue to gravitate to for work, dining out, and events.  

In accessories (bags, small personal accessories, luggage), it’s harder to define “dress” vs. “casual,” but sales of work-oriented silhouettes such as satchels and totes will likely pick-up as workers go back to their offices. However, as with dress footwear, these categories have been struggling for some time.  Therefore, the biggest opportunities for growth will come from more functional items like luggage, backpacks, and hands-free bags that can be worn multiple ways. These will be the types of items that align with consumer priorities as they return to travel, commuting, and gatherings.    

The total fashion footwear and accessories industries are expected to grow this year, but volumes will remain significantly lower than 2019 as the climb back up from 2020 losses is steep (updated Future of Footwear forecasts coming soon!). The casual and functional categories mentioned above will lead the way forward, further supported by the fact that the majority of consumers expect to dress as or more casually than they did prior to the pandemic*.  There will always be a market for dress categories, but this will remain a smaller piece of the business than in years past, and although we’ll see some improvement in 2021, we need to keep our heels on the ground (sorry couldn’t resist) and not overreact or overcorrect based on a short-term boost.

Source: The NPD Group/Retail Tracking Service; Total
Fashion Footwear = Fashion, Sport Leisure, Outdoor, Work/Occupational Safety

*Source: The NPD Group/Omnibus Study September 2020