Shifting Tastes and Priorities
Apparel at Apparel Stores and Boutiques

In a typical Saratoga Springs summer, customers browse the boutiques for dresses to wear to the fabled race track, or scarves and earrings for nights out at the performing arts center. 
But not this past summer. With horses racing spectator-free and the performing arts canceled, local retailers have seen demand shift from dressy duds to work-at-home athleisure. “The trend is definitely more toward casual and comfy,” affirmed Chelsea Carey, creative director at Violet’s of Saratoga in that New York town. “We’ve shifted gears to basic tees, and dresses you can wear with flats or sneakers.”

Violet’s of Saratoga Owner Laura Pileckas. The store sells separates versatile enough for both sleep and errands. Photo by Susan Blackburn.

That’s not to say that Violet’s customers are eschewing fashion. Since reopening after the spring lockdown, the store did a brisk business in refined loungewear from the Commando brand, cotton separates from Bella Dahl, and anything with this year’s tie-dye trend. “People are looking for separates that are comfortable enough to sleep in, but nice enough that you can also wear them out to run errands,” Carey explained. 
The pandemic has altered Violet’s business in other ways. Demand for jewelry and other accessories has declined since faces are covered by masks. And with trade shows cancelled, Carey and her industry colleagues lost a major opportunity to discover new designers. 
Even before COVID-19 struck, Lou Lou Boutique in Richmond, Va., was consciously trying to carry more local vendors, said Manager Elisabeth Virak. “A customer might walk in and we’ll compliment her outfit, and it’ll turned out to be made by a friend of hers, or maybe she even made it herself,” explained the manager of her grassroots scouting method.

Melissa McCarthy, owner, The Studio, said people are cautious but not fearful moving about the rural area where the store is located.

Virak has also observed a trend toward loose, comfortable and flowy clothing for the new stay-at-home lifestyle. Customers are also looking for lower price points; the sweet spot, Virak said, is under $30. Best-selling items this summer included T-shirts, tank tops, and loose dresses.
In Laconia, N.H., Melissa McCarthy has always carried a single clothing line at her 1,300-square-foot boutique, The Studio. Angelrox, a Maine brand, turns out to be perfect for the pandemic — loose-fitting knit styles like tunics and tanks, in one-size-fits-most or small, medium and large. “It’s not a trendy line; it’s versatile enough that you can dress pieces up or down,” said McCarthy. “From a business owner’s perspective, it’s wonderful to know that I can order any of the pieces anytime. I don’t have to worry about ordering specifically for pre-fall, any of that.”

A view of the sales floor at The Studio in Laconia, N.H. The Angelrox apparel line is a perfect fit for the store.

McCarthy sees foot traffic slowly coming back to the New Hampshire town. People feel relatively safe in a rural area with mountains and lakes and fresh air, she explained, noting that COVID rates have always been low. “People are cautious, but not fearful,” the retailer observed.
It’s a different story in Saratoga Springs, where Clothes Horse Boutique Owner Joni Collura is wondering if the town’s retail will survive. “Everything has been canceled, so I don’t have my racing people, and a lot of the tourists are dressing much more casually,” she said. “I’ve had to cancel orders.”
With her local customers working from home, Collura nixed tailored jackets and fur-trimmed coats in favor of comfortable pants, ponte leggings, sweaters and even lounge socks infused with CBD oil for relaxation. 
Along with dressing down, customers at Clothes Horse Boutique expect lower prices. As they spend less money on dresses, some are splurging on little luxuries that brighten days at home — jewelry, accessories and fussy toiletries. Collura tries to boost interest by emailing the 3,000 customers on her mailing list, and stepping up her social media presence on Instagram. Such strategies once seemed superfluous for the 42-year-old store. “But I have a lot of customers telling me, ‘I don’t have anywhere to go,’” Collura reflected.
There’s one exception to that: weddings. “I am still selling mother-of-the-bride and mother-of-the-groom outfits,” said Alissa Gold, owner of Club Boutique, a Portsmouth, N.H., emporium that sells both sportswear and formalwear. “People are buying it, because people are still getting married. And the kids want their moms to look good.”
That’s not to say that weddings haven’t changed. The buzzword this year is micro-weddings; think small, outdoors ceremonies, with perhaps 30 guests instead of 300. “Weddings are much more casual than they were,” Gold noted. “I’m not selling the big ball gowns like before.”

From New York’s Violet’s of Saratoga, pictured from left to right are: Laura Pileckas, owner; Chelsea Carey, creative director; and Jessica Guerin, manager. Casual and comfortable apparel is a current trend, Carey said. Photo by Susan Blackburn.

Since the pandemic, Club Boutique has cut its public hours from 80 to 25, offering private appointments for shoppers with health concerns. Gold said another challenge has been stocking consistent inventory; with vendors often shipping far less quantity than expected, retailers scramble to fill their racks.
On the casual side of Club Boutique, which caters to sophisticated women ages 40 and up, Gold said her customers still want to look nice, even if they’re at home. “They want casual, but not too casual,” she said. That means soft, comfortable styles in this year’s trendy animal prints and “barnyard” checks, and oversized pieces in “pretty colors” like teal and blush.
With so many people logging into Zoom meetings, Gold has seen growing demand for tops, since that’s the part you see on screen. “You could dress up a white T-shirt with nice jewelry and lipstick, and look polished,” Gold said. “People’s lifestyles have changed, but they still care about how they look…They want to feel good. They haven’t given up hope.”

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