Today I am working at a coffee shop, wearing a pair of leggings from Target and a hoodie from Lululemon. Granted, as a blogger/writer I have the freedom to dress down at work, but on the whole, the casualization of American dress is here to stay. The arrival of lux ath-leisure brands and the way consumers have adopted them outside athletic activity, reveals the new priority of comfort over structure. Brands like LuluLemon, Athleta, and Marine Layer act as identity markers (I’m a healthy, fit person!), status symbols (I can afford expensive jogging suit pants!), and body shapers (have you seen my bum in these?!).
Women used to justify spending $300 on a pair of jeans because they’d wear them all the time. Now, fewer women put their dollars into premium denim because denim no longer represents the modern, casual choice (Women’s Wear Daily has chronicled the decline in denim sales, and highlighted the survival strategies of various denim lines to diversify into other categories to stay afloat). The incumbent retailers, too, like J. Crew and Banana Republic, are tweaking their assortments to favor casual trends over denim, suiting and more tailored items.
When I worked at Club Monaco 6 years ago as a merchant we had a dedicated suiting category that comprised a meaningful part of our sales goal, and a suiting “shop” in every store. That no longer exists. On the website currently, the inspiration for “office” looks are an oversized blazer with a silk cargo pant, and a zip front blazer with a jogger pant.
For the women who don’t want to wear spandex but do want to get in on this shift toward comfort, new concepts are catering to you. Everlane (an online only retailer), for example, shifts toward ease, but doesn’t crossover to technical, athletic wear and adds enough polish to suit office needs.
This sweet spot, the place where genuine comfort and modern style intersect, is where you’ll also find Lou & Grey, a new retail concept from parent company Ann Taylor. Lou & Grey operates 6 brick-and-mortar stores right now, and have a small online presence as a subcategory on LOFT’s site. Lou & Grey just opened their latest (and largest) store here in Chicago and I got to stop by on their opening day.
The effect of appearing effortless and relaxed, yet also put-together is an impossibly mysterious phenomenon that I wholly associate with French style. When I first entered Lou & Grey I had the feeling I was in a French shop. Easy dresses and rompers, versatile joggers, chambray tops, textured sweaters, drawstring shorts, linen tanks, and silk tees fill the space. A refined palette of neutrals brightened with stripes and sun-faded green, blue and yellow felt just right for the beginning of spring.
I was pleased to see the denim kept to a narrow assortment, freeing up room for more interesting, softer options.
Increasingly, stores are carrying a wide range of third-party brands. Lip glosses to flip flops, Anthropologie, Madewell, and J.Crew have all adopted the practice. Lou & Grey has done something distinctive by carrying a lot of local artisans in their jewelry, candles, and apothecary categories. It also creates a one-of-a-kind boutique feel to each of their stores. The element of “surprise” is a big part of the brand mission.
Speaking of surprise – the best surprise here is the prices. They are really reasonable. I suspect because Lou & Grey is part of the machine that is Ann Taylor, it can tag on to Ann fabric orders, and take advantage of Ann’s established production channels to keep prices down. The range is: t-shirts $29.50, sweaters: $49.50 – $59.50, jackets: $79.50 – $89.50, shorts: $44.50, skirts: $44.50, pants: $69.50, Dresses: $69.50 Coats: $130-$198.
I left the store with a metallic grey long-length t-shirt, viscose drawstring shorts that imitate the look of denim (that’s confusing – they’re cute, take my word for it), a silk short sleeve top with a tiny-scale floral print, and a striped, elbow-length sleeve tee. All cute AND comfortable enough for me to wear while working at the coffee shop.
Lou & Grey is located at 3442 N. Southport Avenue, Chicago IL 60657. It’s open from 10am to 7pm everyday except Sunday hours are 11am to 6pm.
Images courtesy of Lou & Grey