Tuesday, Aug. 07, 2012

Virgin America, 2012

These days, with soaring costs and shrinking fleets, it's hard for any airline to invest in revamping its uniforms. But Virgin America, a brand that prides itself on being on the cutting edge, is taking the gamble, working with Banana Republic to create a look that Carolyn Paddock, a veteran flight attendant and founder of In-Flight Insider, a travel website, says "mirrors a more casually stylish America." Part of the upgrade, says Virgin America's Doreen Lawrence, director of in-flight and catering, is to enhance customer experience. An easy-on-the-eyes staff has long been an airline tradition. Virgin America hopes the new uniform — charcoal grey dresses, tailored skirts and ¾ length gray blouses along with red trenches and leather jackets — will make you wonder where that chic crew is heading as they strut through airports after their August 8 debut.

Like passengers, crews have suffered the downgrading of the flying experience. From the sharply tailored suits of the 50s, to the wild Pucci prints of the 60s, uniforms have slid down the chain to a sea of dowdy navy wrinkle-free separates. In a job where you're somewhere between a hostess, a waitress, a cleaner, a nurse and a safety officer, a stylish uniform can add no small measure of pride. Even back in 1959, crew members were making noise about their look. "[Our uniforms] make us the airport joke," British European Airways crew complained, "other girls call us the airport mice."

But designing a uniform that is both stylish and practical is no small feat. Fabrics must be able to take repeated wearing and still look crisp; clothes need to be low maintenance, able to wash out overnight. "They have to be light-weight enough to wear in all weather conditions and be stain-resistant for any turbulence mishaps," says Paddock. Add to that the fact that the cut has to look good on all body types. Virgin worked for 18 months with Banana Republic, crew members and advising designers, before settling on a look.

The new uniform is already earning rave reviews from staff: "The stretch fabric really moves with you," says Lawrence, one of the people in charge of the uniform launch. "Even the guys like it." Not only does the spandex help with what Paddock calls "jet belly" — "your belly expands with the pressure, it's one of the reasons girdles used to be a required part of the uniform," she says — "but in a medical emergency, you've got to be able to move without being restrained."

Paddock gives a thumbs up to the look she dubs "professional, jet-setting and savvy." And Virgin and Banana are betting the look will be just as big a hit with passengers — some pieces inspired by the uniform will be for sale on Virgin's in-flight entertainment system and in select Banana Republic stores.