Your Flight Attendant's Uniform? Oh, It's Couture

Airline marketing teams often partner with famous couturiers and design houses

Qantas

Courtesy of Qantas

We’re dedicating our August features to architecture and design. After spending an unprecedented amount of time at home, we’ve never been more ready to check into a dreamy new hoteldiscover hidden architectural gems, or hit the road in luxury. Now, we’re excited to celebrate the shapes and structures that make our world beautiful with an inspiring story of how one city is restoring its most sacred monuments, a look at how historic hotels are prioritizing accessibility, an examination of how architecture could be changing the way we travel in cities, and a rundown of the most architecturally significant buildings in every state.

These days, few people use words like fashion or glamor when discussing aviation. Still, for years, airlines have sought to combine style and design elements into their advertising and flying experience. While the “golden days of flying” are long past, airline marketing teams still pay hefty sums to work with well-known couturiers and design houses to create positive feelings towards their brand.

Such familiar partnerships in the airline industry are stronger than ever, but it takes a keen eye to recognize some of them when you travel. But why would airlines invest so much money in something that is not necessarily a core function of the business?

From a perception standpoint (even subconsciously), these partnerships leverage multiple brand reputations. In an industry prone to consumer complaints, combining a highly favored brand can add value. For airlines, relying on a well-known, highly favored name also instills a source of pride while lifting staff morale.

Finnair Marimekko livery

Courtesy of Finnair

For some airlines, it can also serve as a “calling card” of sorts for a destination. Beyond our borders, international hub-and-spoke airlines like KLM and Singapore Airlines are aware that many passengers are simply connecting between two countries via their home base. This is their bread-and-butter business.

Having the opportunity to share a bit of their own local culture with passengers during their journey (whether through food, design, or even free local tours on a long connection) can leave a lasting impression that could lead to a return visit.

Going back decades, there are hundreds of symbolic links between airlines and fashion labels, designers, and even composers (hello George Gershwin and the famous “Rhapsody in Blue,” now synonymous with United Airlines). Here are some of the most famous fashion and design partnerships you may recognize from the skies in recent years.

In the Cabin

Showcasing a luxury brand in the pointy end of the plane (first or business class) comes with added benefits as it exposes well-heeled travelers to a product, label, or service in which they may be interested in on the ground, too. 

KLM’s long-standing partnership with Dutch designer Marcel Wanders has been a huge success. Launched a decade ago, the airline commissioned Wanders to create meal service elements for its World Business Class. These include silverware, dishes, tray liners, and packaging with intricate Delft Blue patterns and decorative design. The same pattern is visible elsewhere on board, from menu design to linens; it even appears in paper boxes containing condiments for the meal.

KLM’s SkyTeam partner Delta Air Lines is no stranger to popular design partnerships on its flights either. In 2013, the airline brought Westin’s famous Heavenly Bed duvet and pillow aboard its Delta One business class flights.

Delta's Alessi serviceware collection

Courtesy of Delta

Then, in 2017, Delta teamed up with Alessi to overhaul its inflight service ware, including stylish new silverware, plates, trays, napkin rings, salt and pepper shakers, and flight attendant serving items like coffee pots, bread baskets, and wine caddies. Alessi created an exclusive, playful design for Delta that adds a contemporary twist to what is traditionally a rather mundane experience on other carriers.

Finnair of Finland, already well-known as a home to chic design, is another contender for savvy marketing. For decades, the airline had used its iconic, handmade Ultima Thule glasses from Iittala—first appearing in the late 1960s when Finnair launched its first long-haul flights to New York. Appearing like a frozen, icicle-laden glass, it showcases the Nordic heritage of the airline’s homeland while also proving practical since they are lightweight yet sturdy. The airline also uses the same Ultima Thule design in other crockery pieces, including ramekins and water glasses.

Marimekko, another Finnish design label, also inked a deal with Finnair in 2012 to use its special patterns throughout the aircraft. Its colorful look appears on amenity kits, pillows and blankets, slippers, menu cards, tableware, napkins, and even as an aircraft livery (pictured above). Similar elements are used in the airline’s Helsinki airport business class lounge, which brings a bit of Finnish culture to passengers, even if they are just connecting between flights.

Kengo Kuma The Room

Courtesy of ANA

It’s not just food and drink elements that rely on big names. Japanese architect and designer Kengo Kuma assisted All Nippon Airways (ANA) of Japan in the redesign of its airport lounges as well as the airline’s new business and first-class seats. Dubbed “The Room” (business class) and “The Suite” (first class), these feature ample privacy and use Japanese wood finishes and simple lines in their design. 

Iconic Crew Uniforms

Fashion designers have worked with airlines for decades. Among the highlights are Emilio Pucci and Roy Halston (Braniff Airlines), Oleg Cassini (TWA), Coco Chanel and Pierre Cardin (Olympic Airways), Christian Dior, and Cristóbal Balenciaga (Air France), and Yves Saint Laurent (Qantas), among dozens of others.

Perhaps no airline is more well-known for its flight attendant uniforms than Singapore Airlines, which introduced the Pierre Balmain-designed sarong kebaya for its female crew. Singapore Airlines has used the colorful attire in its marketing since the late 1960s, eventually becoming a symbol for the high levels of service for which the airline has become known.

Delta enlisted Richard Tyler to create its now famous and striking navy and red dresses for flight attendants in 2006. Its latest uniform iteration is the creative handiwork of Zac Posen showing off shades of “passport plum, cruising cardinal, and groundspeed graphite” (translation: purple, red, and grey). Posen is said to have worked alongside employees in various roles to understand what uniform pieces would be most functional in different work roles without losing a focus on style. The result is considered by many as the most striking of today’s North American airline uniforms.

Similarly, Vivienne Westwood is responsible for the chic look of the Virgin Atlantic flight crew and ground staff uniforms. For an airline so reliant on its hip, cutting-edge image, relying on a famous designer becomes quite fitting in the consumer's eyes. When customers perceive that a brand is of higher quality, many are willing to pay more to be a part of it. This has been a founding principle for Richard Branson’s business model for years.

Virgin Atlantic Vivienne Westwood uniforms

Courtesy of Virgin Atlantic

Melbourne-born Martin Grant created Qantas’ most recent uniform while United partnered with Brooks Brothers as one of the companies making its newest employee uniforms. Gianfranco Ferré’s uniform for Korean Air incorporates a regional look in baby blue and beige that is a head-turner in airports worldwide. 

And then there’s France. Considered a home base for the world's fashionistas, the Christian Lacroix-crafted uniforms for Air France are still going strong as symbols of elegance and culture. It should come as no surprise then that the airline has sought the help of famous names for its employee uniforms since 1946, when fashion house Georgette Renal created the airline’s first wardrobe.

Despite endless financial woes, Alitalia has always spent the big bucks to bring in prominent fashion houses to come up with stylish employee uniforms, too. These have included stylist Alberta Ferretti, Ettore Bilotta (who is also responsible for the chic look of Etihad Airways’ and Turkish Airlines’ flight attendant uniforms), and Giorgio Armani.

Take note the next time you are in the airport or jetting at 35,000 feet. There are quite a few recognizable fashion and design names vying for your attention. You might be pleasantly surprised to find that the airline industry is more stylish than you originally imagined...flight delays and all.

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