Jessica Pook

At a time when many airlines are refreshing their look, what does it take to design a uniform that both looks and feels good? Jessica Pook finds out

Stylish, practical and a reflection of the brand itself, crew uniforms these days are nothing short of iconic. So important is it to be influential in their design that airlines are using top fashion designers, innovative sustainable fabrics and even incorporating the latest in ‘wearable technology’ in order to stand out. But with many of these designs lasting up to a decade, it’s imperative that the uniforms are comfortable, practical, look good, and stand the test of time.

Comfort is key

One airline that is facing this challenge directly is British Airways. As 2019 marks its centenary year, the airline is due to unveil a new uniform for its 32,000 employees, designed by Saville Row tailor, Ozwald Boateng. The new designs will replace the current ‘heritage blue’ uniform, worn since 2004, and it will factor in important elements that assist the crew in their inflight duties

Ann Dowdeswell, sales and marketing director of Jermyn Street Design, which was recently awarded ‘Most Iconic Uniform of the Decade’ for its Eurostar uniform, believes the key element is comfort.

“At altitude the body reacts, so for comfort, things like stretch waistbands are important,” says Dowdeswell. “Uniforms often have to look pristine throughout long flights so we choose fabrics which are easy care, stretch as the wearers work and do not wrinkle or crease.

“We’re also seeing more airlines combining job roles so staff start at the ticket desk, move to check-in and then work onboard the plane. This combination of sitting, standing and then a more active role means staff have to be comfortable across roles.”

She adds: “The crew are often required to layer their uniforms for their different duties, so we need to consider the fit of each item as worn together as a whole. We do this with the wearer’s comfort in mind – they bend, stretch, sit, stand and reach up often throughout the day, so simple things like lengthening shirts to make sure they don’t come untucked helps them look smart at all times.”

The importance of the brand

Behind every uniform launch is a multi-million-pound brand eager to stand out, and each has very specific guidelines that designers must adhere to. Most airlines consider heritage of great importance when planning a uniform redesign and Air New Zealand is a prime example of this. For its upcoming relaunch, the airline has invited a selection of local designers with a proven track record in the New Zealand fashion industry to submit proposals, with the final design debuting in 2021. A representative from Air New Zealand says the new designs will be a ‘visual representation of the country on the world stage’ and ‘will capture the New Zealand spirit’.

Similarly, Chinese carrier Hainan Airlines paid tribute to traditional Chinese heritage as part of its latest generation of uniforms with cheongsam dresses for women and jackets with Mandarin collars for men.

Aer Lingus is due to launch its redesigned uniforms, again to be created by Irish fashion designer Louise Kennedy. Mike Rutter, coo, says: “The Aer Lingus uniform is the very fabric of our brand and together with the shamrock on the tailfins instantly depicts our rich history and gives our guests a warm sense of Ireland and Irish hospitality.”

Pre-design, extensive competitor research is carried out, brand strategy and budget expectations clearly defined. Dowdeswell says: “An airline brief is usually very precise. They want the uniform to stand out in a busy airport environment; this is done through use of colour and clever design of iconic items such as hats, coats, and accessories. Most also want a modern, classic design which represents the carriers brand, not only today but in 10 years’ time.” Airlines are becoming more environmentally- conscious too and taking steps to reduce waste and adopt sustainable solutions
around crew clothing by, for example, ensuring all uniform items can be recycled after their useful life.

Eco warriors

Last year, Delta made headlines for actioning the largest single textile landfill diversion programme in U.S. history by upcycling its retired uniforms. Delta partnered with Loopworks, a company that re-purposes materials into limited edition products, in order to save 350,000 pounds worth of textiles from landfill. Instead they were upcycled into backpacks, travel kits, and travel amenities.

Virgin Atlantic was also championed for its ethical efforts when its new uniforms were made from 25% recycled polyester yarn (yarn from used plastic bottles). All items were developed with closed loop recycling – a system that takes polyester clothing and turns it into fibres that can be woven into other fabrics. The airline also recycles its uniforms into blankets, pillows and teddy bears, which are donated to the homeless and emergency housing.

“This is becoming more important than ever before,” says Dowdeswell. “There are a number of ways to design a sustainable range, and this starts with the client brief and our specification for the products. If we can use single fibre fabrics (all cotton or all polyester) then those items can be fully recycled at the end of their life. We also have to consider the packaging we use for each product as well as the garment’s lifespan.”

Neat designs

As crew clothing is often worn for long periods of time, materials must be durable and long-lasting. Crew footwear specialist, SkySoles, has addressed the issue of accelerated wear and tear by offering crew oil and acid resistant, anti-static and anti slip shoes. These are made using a resistant rubber outsole which repels corrosives like oils, fuels and jet engine exhaust.

Other projects include ‘sprayable rubber,’ a new synthetic material that is said to perform better than leather and grips up to a 50 degree angle. The company is also working on a ‘global-haul’ cabin shoe, a new ‘fashionable sneaker’ designed for 24 hours of wear, as an alternative to the traditional, rigid court crew shoe.

Meanwhile, tailor-made uniform specialist Keit has focused on crew safety with its latest development, the I-Scarf and the I-Belt. Made using a flexible stretch fabric, the accessories easily release if caught or otherwise under strain.

Newest to the crew clothing mix is wearable technology. Already trialled by some major airlines, this innovation can assist with the safety and service. Virgin Atlantic has trialled Google glasses and the Sony smartwatch at its Heathrow lounge to greet passengers by name, provide real-time travel information and start the check-in process even before the passenger reaches the terminal door. Next will be technology communicating passengers’ dietary and drinks preferences to crew so they can provide a more personal experience.

In the UK easyJet has also trialled ‘smart’ uniforms with built-in cameras, embedded LED lighting and a microphone to improve communication and safety.

Technology is also changing the way that crew are able to order uniform. Skypro, uniform provider to Etihad Airways and TAP Air Portugal amongst others, has developed a digital service which allows crew to choose individual clothing items and specific sizes. The mySKYPRO portal also offers airlines the chance to manage stock and save on cost. Jorge Pinto, ceo at Skypro, says: “The portal is already bringing efficiency and cost savings to those using it and has become an effective solution for global uniform management. Skypro is very conscious that this is an era of digital transformation and we are always trying to be on the edge of what we do.”