Turns out the fashion legacy of coronavirus doesn’t begin and end with a tracksuit. Enter the new style icon: the alpha homebody. Think power-dressing for the era of WFH, fabulousness for a party season without parties, status-signalling for an age that values home, health and core relationships above all else. In 2020, when working from home extends to CEOs and you don’t have to commute to be going places, the domestic goddess is staging a comeback.
You might find the domestic goddess 2.0 in the kitchen, but she’ll be on her laptop at the table (or post 6pm, knocking up cocktails) rather than baking cupcakes. She is Gwyneth Paltrow running a media empire from home, wearing a ketchup-red designer sundress but no mascara. She is Chrissy Teigen, taking down President Trump on Twitter while hanging out in a silk robe. She is Sophie Ellis-Bextor live-streaming a kitchen disco to her 264,000-plus Instagram followers with an 18-month-old crawling around her feet. Her home is her castle, but she is a powerhouse, not a potterer. The new domestic goddess is too busy curating her Zoom backdrop to grow roses around the front door.
Olivia Morris’s new range of “house shoes”, launched this month, are to the new domestic goddesses what the Rolex was to the wolves of Wall Street. Morris, who in her career has created sky-high heels for Patrick Cox, Hobbs and Lulu Guinness, has created a range of chic backless mules with padded 2cm-high wedge soles, specifically for wearing at home. “I work at home, I parent at home, I love having people over. I’ve created a shoe for that life. I don’t want to pad around barefoot, but I don’t want a huge sheepskin slipper, either,” she says. She chose metallic leathers, embroidered satins and rich brocades, but “deliberately avoided the fluffy marabou look because this isn’t a new-wave housewife shoe. I’m a working woman.”
“I’ve become a homebody,” says Susie Lau, the fashion writer and front-row veteran. “That is something I would never have predicted.” Pre-pandemic, Lau barely stood still. She estimates she spent five months of 2019 overseas for work, with party invitations every night at home in London. “For a long time, that felt like normality. When lockdown began, I assumed I’d be bursting to go out when we came out of it. Actually, I just haven’t felt like it.”
Lau is still busy, but these days everything happens inside the London home she shares with her three-year-old daughter, Nico. Her alarm still goes off early, but she jumps on to a 7am Zoom call with clients in Asia rather than into a taxi to Heathrow. That hasn’t stopped her dressing in the colourful finery that made her one of the first street-style stars. “What I wear has changed in that it’s not social-facing or about keeping up with the Joneses,” she says. “Now it’s about clothes that make me happy. I’ve been digging out old treasures, like an old Comme des Garçons dress that I haven’t worn in for ever.”
High heels and tailoring no longer feel aspirational. “Being at home more has reconnected us with how important comfort is,” says Alex Eagle, whose London store sells homeware alongside cashmere sweaters. “I have been really conscious of fabric recently, wanting to wear cotton and silk shirts. I think it’s something to do with these strange times and needing to be at one with nature.” And with offices mothballed for months, the guard rails of what constitutes a “workwear” aesthetic have come down. “People have proved that the nine-to-five is irrelevant, and our wardrobes are going to reflect that. You don’t need to look like you are doing business to be doing business.”
These times are not quite as unprecedented as the truism of our age would have you believe. It turns out there is a precedent for a health crisis that steered fashion in one direction while at its zenith, and left a quite different legacy in its aftermath. Between 1851 and 1910, when tuberculosis killed 4 million people in England and Wales alone, the disease infected the culture as powerfully as it did the population. Poets and artists romanticised the pale and fragile bodies of youthful victims – more than half those who died were between 20 and 24 – conjuring a fashion for waifishness that presaged heroin chic by a full century. But as understanding of germ theory developed, and floor-trailing hems came to be seen as a contagion risk, tuberculosis took fashion in a different direction. Hemlines rose by several inches, which, in turn, made footwear more visible. An infectious disease that first sparked a trend for slenderness later drove trends for short skirts and fancy shoes, status symbols that went on to set the pace in fashion for 100 years.
The lockdown cult of the tracksuit was a rescue-blanket-adjacent uniform for what felt like a state of emergency. As we step gingerly back into a less introverted world, fashion is evolving. “At the height of lockdown, loungewear and underwear were in incredibly high demand,” says Morgane Le Caer, data editor at the global fashion search engine Lyst. Now her data shows a “shifting consumer mindset” that is boosting demand for dresses. “More and more, people are choosing to dress up from home,” she says. Marion Rabate, founder of the Parisian athleisure brand Ernest Leoty, has dubbed this autumn’s mood “back to school, back to health”. She reports high demand for bright pink – “and our customer is a woman who usually loves black, olive or navy. I guess people want to enjoy life again.”
The fashion industry has been poleaxed by the pandemic. Clothing sales are recovering more slowly than any other retail sector, with July sales still 25.7% lower than February levels. John Lewis has announced it will scale back on fashion and develop new home-based offerings, such as rentable furniture. Ralph Lauren is navigating the storm by leaning into its status as a lifestyle brand, selling towels and candles. The rest of the industry, meanwhile, is trying to figure out what the new domestic goddess wants to wear.
Brands that fit the new alpha homebody aesthetic are bucking the market’s downward trend. Ernest Leoty’s brand of investment-athleisure is a growing sector, “because health is now everyone’s number one priority,” Rabate says. “In March, our wholesalers were cancelling orders, now the orders are right up again. They really believe in this category.” The online limited-edition, vintage-inspired, Parisian brand Sézane had huge success in lockdown – “I think because my clothes are designed to be just as wearable at work as weekends,” founder Morgane Sezalory says. “With so much going on, fashion has to be effortless.”
Since leaving Downing Street, Samantha Cameron has been running her fashion label Cefinn full time. “Our clothes have always been about the home-and-work juggle,” she says. “To me, a good dress is one that is quite smart but that you can wear with trainers, in a shape and fabric that means you can give a messy toddler a hug without worrying that one smudge or crease is going to ruin your look.”
To reflect her clientele’s switch to WFH, Cameron has cancelled some of autumn’s formal tailored trousers, replacing them with a version that is tailored at the front and elasticated at the back. There are bright jumpsuits – “I miss the buzz of an office and I find wearing something cheerful perks me up” – but the collections in the pipeline lean toward softer colours. “We had a bright orange, leopard pansy print, which did brilliantly last season, but we wondered whether you might feel a bit brash wearing it at home,” Cameron says. “Our social lives are going to be home-based for a bit and what looks good in a restaurant might feel a bit much in a kitchen. We’ve chosen colours that are more tonal – more blues and greens, fewer reds.”
In 2019, the bestselling party season dress at the cult British label Kitri was Odile, a wrap dress embroidered with tiger stripes in red and black and sparkling with sequins. “The starting point for any winter collection is imagining the parties our customers will be at,” explains founder and creative director Haeni Kim, whose fans include actors Emma Watson and Claire Foy. “Sequins catch the light beautifully at a party, but we probably need to rethink that. I don’t think anyone wants to sit on a sofa at home in sequined trousers,” Kim says. “We’ve gone for bright colours and a louche, ‘hostess dressing’ vibe that feels luxurious at home. For instance, a gorgeous satin, wide-leg trouser matched with a satin blouse with gemstone buttons.”
A new breed of zeitgeist-surfing designer accessories is filling the gap in demand left by handbags and high heels. Anya Hindmarch’s “PPE kit” – a black recycled nylon clutch with a washable face covering, labelled pockets for mask and gloves, and a refillable hand-sanitiser bottle in a clip-on holder – sold out in two days, despite a £220 price tag. “I don’t think of myself as a domestic goddess, but I am obsessed with organisation,” says Hindmarch, who at the moment can usually be found “wearing one of my husband’s shirts and my favourite pair of jeans, although always with a good shoe” when she’s working from home. “Fashion matters because we still need to put ourselves together in a way that lifts our mood and raises our game. That’s more important than ever.”