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The saleslady wears Prada |


The saleslady wears Prada

September Grace Mahino - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - Stepping inside the Comme des Garçons store at One Rockwell is sort of a test of how comfortable you truly are in your own skin. Aside from the impossibly cool displays, there is the CDG sales staff, garbed in the label’s signature hip, Japanese minimalist style: black drop-crotch pants, immaculately slouched T-shirts, white sneakers. For anyone whose personal style is shakey at best, it’s a bit intimidating to see a whole store relaying an undiluted image, a singular message: “This is our brand.”

Welcome to the new dress code at work: from the ubiquitous neutral-colored and conservatively-cut tops and bottoms, more companies are updating the office uniform into something more reflective of their brand’s values. And in order to find the perfect apparel that’s on point with the company branding even as it covers both practical and aesthetic functions, they look to designers for style directions.

Fashion brands are known for implementing dress codes so their employees keep with the image that they’d like to project and maintain among shoppers. CDG and Alexander Wang store floors are manned by folks dressed better and fancier than most people, their outfits issued from the companies’ own collections. Beauty store Sephora’s employees wear Prabal Gurung designs that reflect the strong and modern style direction the company wants to take. Boho-chic New York boutique Anthropologie doesn’t mandate its staff to wear Anthropologie pieces but “encourages” them to do so. Zara, Banana Republic, J. Crew, G Star Raw, and Betsey Johnson provide uniforms to their staff, along with employee discounts to help cover dress code expenses; some brands reportedly allot clothing allowances, all in the service of keeping up appearances that convey the brand’s DNA at a glance.

From high to low, literally and figuratively

The cool work uniform is not a new trend, though. International airlines routinely make news whenever they hire a designer for a uniform upgrade. A pioneer is Braniff International Airways, whose 1965 Emilio Pucci-designed flight attendant uniform captured the Space Race mania of the decade. Other designers who have gone into uniform design for the skies were Pierre Balmain (Singapore Airlines), Gianfranco Ferre (Korean Airlines), Christian Lacroix (Air France), Balenciaga (Oman Air), and Julien Macdonald (British Airways). 2014 will be an exciting year for in-flight fashion as new collaborations would debut revamped looks: Vivienne Westwood for the Virgin Atlantic, Australian designer Martin Gant for Qantas, and Gurung for All Nippon Airways.

Back on land, the service industry is playing catch-up, tapping designers to create their staff uniforms. Some noteworthy collaborations are the W Hotels chain with Michael Kors and Gwen Stefani, the Gramercy Park Hotel with Narciso Rodriguez, and the Mandarin Oriental New York with Vivienne Tam. Cocktail waitresses at the Hollywood Roosevelt lounge Teddy’s had been dressed in Diane von Furstenberg wrap dresses, and Grey Goose Vodka girls had worn Rachel Roy designs to events where the liquor brand is a major sponsor. The Gansevoort Hotel Group also came up with a cost-minimizing partnership with Prada for the opening of its Toronto hotel in 2010: rather than hiring the label to create a new design, Gansevoort selected existing ones from Prada’s collection, thus providing product placements for the brand at no cost to the hotel. 

Nicholas Oakwell of uniform design company No Uniform, explained to Financial Times in 2009 the new direction of corporate workwear: “Uniforms are becoming much more important to the hotel industry now, as more hotels become ‘fashion’ brands themselves.”

But it’s not just luxury and fashion establishments that are taking a good, long look at their uniforms. McDonald’s has also jumped on the bandwagon, hiring Bruce Oldfield in 2008, then British designers Wayne and Gerardine Hemingway for another overhaul that was unveiled at the London Olympics last year. FedEx took on Stan Herman, former president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, to upgrade its uniform. Herman, who helped popularize the designer workwear trend in the US during the ‘70s, told CNN last year, “The most important thing is likeability. If a corporation walks around in a uniform they don’t like, they become a grumpy corporation.”

The changing local workwear scene

The Philippines isn’t lagging too far behind on this design movement, though it has not been as high profile here as it is in the US and in Europe.

Renee Salud has introduced stylish power dressing to the masses through his 2008 line Renee Salud for Natasha, a collection of affordable office attire. In 2009, The Peninsula Manila held a competition among La Salle College International design students to determine the staff uniform for the hotel’s then-newly renovated restaurant Escolta. June 2013 saw the Department of Education’s new uniform designs for public school teachers roll out in time for the new school year, and last July, the Philippine National Police held “CopWalk: PNP on the Ramp,” a presentation that showcased the evolution of the police uniform from 1901 to 1997 and introduced possible new looks for the PNP. Salud and Eddie Baddeo, an industry veteran who recently expressed support for the pork barrel scam whistleblower (and who also used to have Janet “Tita Jen” Napoles-Lim as a client), were some of the designers who participated in the show. None of the proposed outfits, though,  passed muster with PNP Chief Director General Alan Purisima and the rest of the deciding committee. A second CopWalk will be held 90 days after the first, where improved designs for a new uniform will be shown.

Still, corporate uniform design remains a largely unplumbed depth in the local fashion industry. This makes Rajo Laurel a pioneer in this aspect, as he has been profiting from its possibilities since 2002. Laurel has been creating uniforms for different kinds of workplaces, from an airline company (Cebu Pacific in 2002) and dining establishments (Max’s, Dunkin’ Donuts Café, UCC Terrace & Vienna) to schools (Informatics College) and hotels and resorts (Sofitel Philippine Plaza, Diamond Hotel, Misibis Bay, Makati Shangri-La). Uniform design has proven to be such a revenue and PR boom for his garment company Laurel et Ross, which was created to cater solely to corporate clients looking to dress up their staff.

Aside from its lucrative returns and the mileage it can offer to designers, uniform design is also a means for creativity to be stretched in ways that haute couture can’t. Glamour editor in chief Cindi Leive told CNN, “I think designers like the uniform challenge because it’s exactly that, it’s a challenge. To work within certain parameters, it’s almost like a reality competition: ‘Let me see how I can take these constraints and make them look fantastic.’”

Laurel agrees with this. “I think that creating designs for clients has made me a better designer. It’s a challenge both creatively, and also in terms of production. Unlike made-to-order clothes that are normally worn once or twice by the client, uniforms are used everyday...(T)he uniform should not only be stylish, it should also perform its function.” 

With image more vital than ever to companies whatever industry they are in, any way to differentiate themselves from the competition is implemented, as consumers take their choices of products to patronize as reflections of their tastes. As Oakwell put it, “It’s about building customer appeal.” Even if that customer has to blow two month’s worth of rent just to afford a piece of merchandise.

Walking a fine line

Issuing a company-wide dress code upgrade isn’t something to be done on a whim, however. Outside of design, practicality, and branding concerns, taking stock of and ironing out discriminatory undertones in the implementation of a dress code are necessary measures, as seen in Abercrombie & Fitch and American Apparel. In 2009, A&F lost in a wrongful dismissal case filed by a sales assistant, who wasn’t allowed to work on the brand’s Saville Row store floor because her cardigan wasn’t in line with the company’s look policy; the employee, who was born without her left forearm, wore the cardigan to cover her prosthetic arm.

American Apparel CEO Dov Charney also had to explain the brand’s so-called strict screening for applicants, who were said to be required to submit full-body photographs. “I think there are dress codes at every hotel, I think there are dress codes at McDonald’s,” he told the fashion blog Gloss. “I think it’s a fake story to say that American Apparel has a dress code that’s different from all retailers. I don’t think you can even work in the concierge desk at the common mall if you don’t follow a dress code.”

Photo submissions are on the extreme side of the scale when it comes to regulating and maintaining a brand’s image, and there are policies issued to employees that serve at the front lines that are almost inhuman: wearing heels at all times and no sitting down for long periods for salesladies immediately come to mind. At the end of the day, there needs to be a balance between the need for a company to uphold its values, and their mindfulness to avoid discriminating employees and infringing on their rights and welfare.

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