Neela Lockel models her office wear on Aug. 3.

Neela Lockel models her office wear on Aug. 3. Credit: Raychel Brightman

She has a colsetful of suits she used to love. Now, she hates them all.

Neela Lockel, 45, the president and CEO of EAC Network, a social service organization in Hempstead, isn't alone. It's a sentiment echoed by many professional women returning to the office -- or returning to office wear -- after months of getting away with working from home in relaxed attire.

Their old "business" clothes don’t feel right and they’re seeking hybrid styles that straddle divide between comfort and chic. The new buzzy word for the style: "Power casual."

Jennifer Cona has taken on a power casual style for...

Jennifer Cona has taken on a power casual style for her return to the office.  Credit: Raychel Brightman

IT'S A BUSINESS WEAR EVOLUTION

Business wear is definitely morphing according to Avril Graham, the executive fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar. "If there is one thing that this reset and working from home has brought to our attention, it is that our pre-pandemic wardrobe choices may feel out of place," she says.

That’s certainly the case for Lockel who has imbued her wardrobe with color and whimsy and says, "I still command the same attention to do what I do. I just feel I have a whole different perspective on how I need to present myself professionally. I feel fashion has changed. When I shop now, it’s more feminine, more comfortable, less fussy and way more fun. And I’m not wearing as much black."

Even in the most corporate environments, style changes are palpably afoot.

Take Michele Dean, 52, CEO and president of Suffolk County Federal Credit Union in Medford. She says to some extent, working from home "opened our eyes to understanding you can be a lot more casual and still get your work done. The question remains, especially being a financial institute, where does that line cross?," she asks rhetorically. But upon her return to the office she says, "I’ve relaxed my traditional style." She still occasionally wears suits but these may be colorful – pink, lavender and blue, and you might catch her in "dress" jeans topped by a blazer and sandal style shoes on a "casual Friday."

POWER CASUAL LINES HIT STORES

Retailers have gotten the memo. A search of "power casual" clothing reveals a number of possibilities such as the washable silks, "jardigans" (part jacket, part cardigan) and comfy knit pants at the M.M.LaFleur brand where the mantra is "comfy-yet-polished pieces."

At Nordstrom, there’s a special "looks" section devoted to "power casual" that diagrams how to put an easier work-worthy look together. "Gone are the days of dressing too buttoned-up or one note head to toe," notes Kate Bellman, Nordstrom managing fashion editor. "The key is approaching our wardrobe with a high-low mix, pairing tailored pieces back to casual," she says suggesting a structured blazer with a soft pant. "We’ve gone through the pandemic embracing more casual codes, and they’re here to stay."

For attorney Jennifer Cona, 52, founder and managing partner of Cona Elder Law in Melville getting back into her designer duds feels good but she’s rejiggered the mix. "I definitely enjoyed the sweatpant life, but when I’m more dressed up I feel more like myself. It’s sort of back to business and comes with a certain attitude you feel." That said, Cona has partially closeted her dark suits and super high heels in favor of dresses, some with prints, colorful separates and lower heels. "I’ve softened the edge," she says. "I feel like we’ve all loosened up a little bit."

Ease on back to work in “Power casual”

We checked in with Kate Bellman, Nordstrom managing fashion editor, for advice on getting into power casual mode as we head back to the office in full-time or hybrid settings. Here are her suggestions:

· Work on the styling mix and pull from different areas of your closet – a tailored blazer with a breezy knit.

· Go for versatility and longevity – think of three different ways you could wear an item from office ready to weekend warrior.

· Look for luxe materials (cashmere, silk) with relaxed details, such as an elastic waistband.

· Find your color palette – whether calming neutrals or cool color pops, stick to colors you feel good in and can easily mix and match.