Sky high fashion: How cabin crew went couture

Story highlights

  • Al Nippon Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Qantas Airways are just a few carriers who've recently tapped fashion designers to overhaul their uniforms.
  • Martin Grant, who designed the new staff outfits for Qantas, says he's trying to bring "old world glamor" back to flight.
  • Air France, whose uniforms are designed by Christian Lacroix, says many designers don't like working with airlines.

If your air hostess seem better suited to a fashion runway than an airport runway, it may be because her uniform has a designer label.

Recently, there's been a rash of cabin crew going couture. Last month, Japanese carrier Al Nippon Airways tapped Prabal Gurung -- whose designs have graced the backs of celebrities ranging from Michelle Obama to Lady Gaga -- to revitalize the staff apparel. Vivienne Westwood is currently doing the same for Virgin Atlantic (stewardesses will start wearing the uniforms on trial next month).

"It could have something to do with the changing of the airline industry. Everyone is having to approach the business differently, and everyone is having to put an emphasis on look," says Australian designer Martin Grant, who in addition to clothing the likes of Emma Stone and Heidi Klum crafted the new uniforms for Qantas Airways last April.

High-end airlines put an emphasis on excellence, Grant says, and Qantas is no different.

"They apply the principle to everything: the food, the design of the interiors, the lounges. It's the same with the uniforms," he explains.

The updated outfits feature a haute take on Qantas' red triangle logo. Grant referenced the graphic in the uniform tops, which are navy blue with ruby red and fuchsia pink diagonal stripes across the shoulder.

"The uniforms have to be identifiable and easily seen. You want to be able to see from afar the staff you're looking for. When you're running around an airport, you're constantly looking for the logo of the aircraft," he says.

Moreover, Grant's design has an on-trend retro feel to it. The ensemble includes a trilby-style hat made from recycled bottle tops and trench coat.

Read more: The man with 1,000 stewardess uniforms

"Passengers and flight attendants alike say they miss the old world glamor associated with flight," says Grant, adding that security controls and low-cost carriers have taken some of the luxury out of the industry.

"[The accessories] very much came from staff feedback. They said, 'we want the glamor back. We want hats, gloves, the whole kitten caboodle.'"

Though Westwood's designs have not been unveiled yet, sketches suggest that the female staff will have gloves. Some of the items will also be made from a polyester yarn made from used plastic bottles. In a statement released by Virgin, Westwood said the uniforms would be in keeping with her "enduring interest in '40s French couture."

Some airlines have been sporting designer threads for years. British Airways had Julien Macdonald -- previously artistic director of French fashion house Givenchy -- overhaul their uniforms in 2000. Air France staff, meanwhile, have been wearing costumes crafted by Société Christian Lacroix since 2005.

"Because we have 'France' in our name, we're an ambassador for the country," explains Sylvie Tarbouriech, the vice president of branding for Air France. "The idea is that we should give our customers the best France can bring them, and when you're thinking about France, you're thinking about food, you're thinking about wine, and you're thinking about fashion."

Airlines have a long tradition of collaborating with designers. Emilio Pucci notably crafted some space-age-style uniforms in 1965 for the now-defunct Braniff International Airways. Still, Tarbouriech maintains it's actually quite difficult finding people willing to take on such a limiting project.

Read more: Airline uniforms recycled to make bags

"A uniform is the sum of many, many constraints," she says. "It has to be comfortable, it has to be in materials that are not flammable, it has to be flattering to everybody -- blonde, redhead or brunette, thin women and not so thin women. And it has to be in keeping with the brand colors. It's very challenging for a fashion designer to work under these constraints, and that's why it's not always easy to find one willing to do it."

Still, Grant says for him at least, it's long been a fantasy.

"I've loved the essence of flight since I was a child," he says. "I love the idea of groups of people looking smart, looking tailored and being part of a team."

      Business Traveller

    • Don't surprise Germans and stick to the agenda in Japan. What international road warriors need to know.
    • Japan is set to make its mark in the skies with its first new commercial jet for over 50 years, the Mitsubishi Regional Jet, aka the MRJ.
    • Think hotels are deliberately blocking your personal Wi-Fi networks so you'll buy theirs?
    • How would you like to trim three hours off the current commercial jet flight time between Paris and Washington, D.C.?
    • It's been a big week for makeovers in the world of aviation.
    • Aviation isn't known as the most eco-friendly industry; running an airline produces an incredible amount of waste. But some are doing something about it.
    • EasyJet announced in May 2014 that it would start trialing the use of drones as inspectors on their planes.

      Airports aren't exactly stress-free zones, but drones, tracking and virtual reality could help make them better places.