The clothes make the man. This centuries old proverb is well applied to the hospitality industry, where everyone from the general manager to cleaning staff has a well defined look established through his uniform.
In a service oriented business with many moving parts, guests need to quickly identify who can best assist; often, that involves a nano second glance at attire. As hotel brands increasingly seek to differentiate themselves, it is becoming more common for established fashion houses to get involved in designing staff uniforms. Christian Lacroix did it for SO Sofitel Bangkok, while Yohji Yamamoto did it for The Royalton New. Yet is a famous label really important in an industry where employees regularly pull 12 hour shifts rather than strut along catwalks in their designer threads?
Hong Kong-based fashion designer Ranee Kok first began designing uniforms a decade ago, and her clients have included Wynn Macau and The Peninsula Hong Kong. Uniform design constitutes approximately 25 to 30 per cent of her business, with the balance consisting of custom and ready-to-wear design. “Hotels with a strong brand image will benefit from having a fashion designer on board for uniforms,” Kok believes. “If a property will spend the money on interiors, they will want the staff’s clothing to match. Ladies’ uniforms often have more criteria to fulfil; men’s uniforms tend to be simpler, with fewer details and less colour. It is often tricky to balance these differing sets of criteria while achieving a cohesive look for both genders.”
For Westlink, Bragard hospitality uniforms’ Singapore-based Asian importer and distributor, senior manager Caroline Tan admits that inspiration is often derived from the world of fashion. “We also have our own design office with people who are creating new designs,” notes Tan. “Design for female uniforms is more specific to the female anatomy. Details are more developed than male uniforms. But we wish to keep as much refinement for the man as well as the woman. We often offer a female version to the male; we work by couples.”
Bragard’s uniforms are made from a variety of materials, including pure wool or stretch polyester. “Wool’s long fibres allow for high quality, hard wearing elegance,” Tan explain. “Stretch mixed wool, which compose some of our products, is stain resistant, crease resistant, offers ultimate comfort, and is easily maintained: it is washable and easy to iron. Stretch polyester is comfortable, with a high degree of elasticity, washable, fast drying and easy to iron. A uniform’s typical life cycle is one to two years, depending on how the employee uses the outfit and what kind of work is done in it. Comfort is one of the most important priorities: hospitality uniforms are like second skins. Staff needs to feel comfortable as soon as he puts it on. Linked to comfort is incontestably styling. The elegance and luxury of the work place should be reflected: image is important.”
With its Total Uniform Solution, Hong Kong’s Comfort Workwear offers a full programme including design and fabric consultation, sampling and construction, and after sales services. “There is definitely increased interest in unique and bespoke uniforms,” observes Gigi Lo, account manager with Comfort Workwear. “The use of fashion designers is often required. The difference between branded designers and uniform designs is that we design with functionality in mind. Not all fancy designs work well as uniforms. I believe that corporate companies that are already doing crossovers with fashion brands benefit most from designer uniforms, since they probably want to reflect their theme. Others that benefit would be those seeking an opportunity for flashy marketing regarding their uniforms. I believe that a good uniform should always be a balanced mix of comfort, style and durability.”
As more chefs are coming out of the kitchen to become stars in their own right thanks to prestigious restaurant guides and cooking shows, chef uniforms are gaining notice as well. Australian chef Tim Grubi began making aprons for kitchen masters in the 1980s, and founded Global Chef as a niche boutique manufacturer of chef uniforms. While other hospitality staff uniforms vary in terms of materials, Grubi understands that chefs prefer breathable cotton and mills its own fabrics in pure cotton or cotton and polyester blends. “I think there probably is a place for designer labels on hotel uniforms for front of the house staff in their own branded hotels,” says Grubi. “But is it really necessary? Well, in one sense, that is what is happening with chef uniforms. Most of our direct customers ask for their own designer label embroidered on their chef jackets. Why promote another brand when you can promote your own?”
Grubi feels that a chef looks best when he looks professional and conveys trust. Much like a doctor, when a chef steps out of the kitchen to greet guests in his hotel or restaurant, he should convey an aura of authority – not the latest Milan runway shoot. “The chefs that are seen wearing fashionable chef wear in magazines somehow don’t come across in the same way as a working chef in traditional attire,” elaborates Grubi.
“Something usually looks a bit odd. Chefs are hard working men and women doing an intense job in often confined, hot and high pressure environments, and are often on display. As a chef in my previous life, I still believe the key is to look more like a well presented, clean professional rather than placing fashion above function.”
Hong Kong based Chef Works designs, develops and manages uniform and culinary apparel programmes for companies around the globe. Winnie Cheng, its operations manager, also feels that there should be a balance between design and functionality in uniforms. “In addition, the ease of uniform replenishments needs to be taken into consideration,” Cheng states.
“We believe that all hotels and F&B outlets can benefit from having a brand of uniform. At Chef Works, we have a huge collection of items for just-in-time replenishment, ranging from back of house to front of house. Generally, for back of house, durability plays a big role as uniforms are exposed to harsher elements and are less guest facing. However, the cost that goes into front of house is usually higher. If there is a high turnover in uniform replacement, it will have an impact on hospitality budgets. Chef Works has focused more on fabrics that are comfortable, lightweight, and can hold up well to various laundry standards.”
Worn with Pride
“The test of a well designed uniform is if employees are willing to go out in it,” says Kok. “Many work long hours and have to wear their outfits travelling to work or on breaks. If it looks too much like a uniform, they don’t want to wear it out in public. If they like their outfit, they will be proud to wear the uniform on behalf of their company, even when they are not working.”