This Brand Wants To Make Affordable Workwear For Everyone

Photo: Courtesy of Of Mercer.
It seems like the concept of workwear is constantly in flux. More offices skew towards the casual and our ideas on dress codes continue to evolve. Still, for women, it's always been a category that's hard to navigate — partly because the "rules" were always confusing and also because no retailer truly fits the myriad needs that a professional faces from 9-to-5 (and often from 5-to-9, too): comfortable, but professional; stylish, but not distracting; long-lasting and not costing a fortune. Over the past few years, we've seen brands specifically targeting this demand, but one major consumer base was largely left out (despite its proven spending power): the 67% of women who wear a size 14 or larger.

Of Mercer is a direct-to-consumer label that emerged to fill the void for affordable, versatile workwear for young professional women. Two of its cofounders, Dorie Smith and Emelyn Northway, met when they wore the exact same dress to a business-school party — which sparked the idea to found the company in 2013. Still, the brand knew there was a huge market still being neglected, especially when it came to workwear.

"We had emails from customers who were asking us to expand our sizes," Smith told Refinery29. "We kept hearing, 'You have to make clothes in [my] size, because no one's else is.' It was a combination of those voices that proved we needed to do this."

Today, Of Mercer introduced is first-ever size extension, offering pieces in sizes 00 to 20, with the intention to keep expanding both the size range and the selection of pieces offered in larger sizes. It's a project that's been in the works for a year now — six months were spent interviewing customers and people in more traditional, conservatively dressed industries, while the remaining six months were dedicated to product development.

Smith and Northway saw a particular gap in terms of classic suiting and basics — "Women who would typically shop at Theory, but can't buy a size 18 or 20 dress there," Smith explained. So they decided to start with 22 specific styles they already stocked and introduce them in more inclusive sizing, all while keeping the styles priced under $250. (All manufacturing is done in New York, which means Smith and Northway can to control the prices, to some extent, and ensure that the larger sizes are priced the same as the rest of the collection.) It's a natural extension for the brand's mission, which Smith describes as "making clothes that women want to be wearing all day long, and that makes them feel as strong as possible."

"There's always going to be a set of rules that you should follow when you're getting ready for the office," Northway said of companies with more buttoned-up office cultures. "Those aren't going away — even if the dress code isn't a full suit anymore."

Sometimes, the problem is about being too casually attired. Younger employees sometimes struggle to bridge the gap between feeling comfortable and authentic while also being dressing appropriately. (According to Northway, Of Mercer's cofounders have gotten requests from HR departments to come in and talk to first-year associates about how to dress for a corporate work environment.)

It's not a new struggle by any means. "I was in financial consulting before and Emelyn was in banking — both very conservative, male-dominated areas — so this is a struggle that we face personally," Smith explains. "When we talk to women who are trying to navigate this, we say the most important thing is trying to figure out what your personal style is."

For plus-size costumers, though, the options are often too limited to even find any work-appropriate versions of pieces that reflect a sense of personal style — which is what Of Mercer is trying to solve, Smith says, at a high level of quality and a low price point.

Both Smith and Northway credit more body-positive attitudes as creating a more inclusive space for consumers and brands to engage with the conversation — and hopefully make progress. "We always think that the more brands are doing what we're doing, the better," argued Smith. "It allows our customers to be more demanding — and we think that's really important because our women deserve a lot, and they should demand it from their brands."

Still, Of Mercer has a lot of room to grow — from catering to even more sizes to servicing other body types, such as tall and petite, and categories like maternity. It's all in the pipeline (for this New York brand and, hopefully, for many others).

Ahead, check out the inaugural drop of this size extension.

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