At designer hotels, staff uniforms go haute couture
When Dubai sees the opening of its first Fashion TV hotel, expected by the end of next year and complete with the world's largest LED screen broadcasting the channel around the clock, one thing had better be à la mode: the staff uniforms.
After all, Fashion TV will be up against the likes of the new Burj Khalifa Armani hotel, not to mention plans afoot for hotels in Dubai from Elie Saab and Karl Lagerfeld, the latter on Isla Moda, with uniforms designed by Victoria Beckham.
They will be joining the ranks of designers who have either opened hotels in recent years - Versace, Christian Lacroix and Missoni among them - or been hired to make the concierge more catwalk. If fashion insight has long been tapped for the public face of bars and airlines, hotels have come late to the idea but are making up for lost time, with Michael Kors, Yohji Yamamoto, Cynthia Rowley and even Gwen Stefani having signed to design in recent years, as well as increasingly specialist, style-literate corporate uniform design companies.
"So many hotels are opening now that the uniform is becoming vital to giving each an identity, which means proprietors are ready to accept more creativity to get something distinctive," says Feizel Virani, the designer for the Dubai-based Dream Uniforms.
The company is behind the style at The Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh, as well as The Palm's Jumeirah Zabeel Saray hotel, with uniforms featuring a new blend of grey flannel with black-and-gold embroidered jackets.
"Putting together staff uniforms now is like putting together a complete fashion collection for each hotel," he explains. "In fact, it's not about designing uniforms anymore but a kind of hospitality couture that's as five-star as the property."
Certainly, according to Virani, the Middle East has become the hotel uniform design hot spot, not simply because of the world-leading rate of new openings - the first Jumeirah hotel in Abu Dhabi, at the Etihad Towers, opens today - but because of the availability both of specialist designers to create their staff style (with more western designers typically tied up in global brands or own-label projects) and, more crucially, of more economical fabrics and manufacture. Not that price is limited anymore: Dh1,800 for a jacket for key staff is now not uncommon for a uniform that has a lifespan - in terms of fashionability - as short as 18 months, compared with perhaps the three to five years that was the industry standard for most of the past decade.
Uniforms are now typically designed and delivered within just four months of contracts being signed.
"That step up in interest is a real change," says Stuart Chase, the general manager of the new Mövenpick Ambassador Hotel Accra in Ghana. "Too many hotels in the past have overlooked the uniform, but as hotels themselves have moved up to become more designer products, the uniform has had to follow. Staff not only look good, which is more important to the hotel brand now, they feel it too - they're more motivated and that's good for service."
That perhaps explains why the Mövenpick's uniform, designed by the Beirut and Dubai-based uniform company Emile Rassam, went through 19 drafts before the ideal look was selected. Small wonder, according to Marion Steinger, the senior vice president of the New York-based Top Hat Imagewear, that proprietors are giving staff more and more say in the design of the uniform they will wear, "and inevitably this means staff are pushing for the kind of clothes that chime with the kind of fashions they choose to wear outside of work".
Michel Noblet, the chief executive of Hospitality Management Holdings, the owners of Coral Hotels & Resorts, went one further: he hosted a fashion show for staff and clientele, followed by feedback sessions and wear trials, before launching the latest series of uniforms, designed by François Desroches of Dubai's Marketing Pro-Junction. "But then the uniform is increasingly regarded as a feature of the hotel," says Noblet. "The uniform is an attitude. Its style expresses what the hotel is about. It instils pride."
But the rising demands of hotels to look current is not without its complications, ones that non-specialists can overlook. Some are practical. Fashion fabrics will not stand up to the wear and tear, or the frequent laundering required for their effective lifespan or daily use - with even local conditions, such as the weather extremes and hard water throughout the UAE, needing to be taken into account.
"Comfort, too, cannot be overlooked," says Rana El Deek, the director of housekeeping at the Media Rotana Dubai, which is working on updating its businesslike uniform for next year. "Increasingly, hotel staff comprise younger people, so they want a certain look. But they also want something they can wear and work in every day."
Steinger, whose latest projects have included the new Ian Schrager Hotel in Chicago and the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas, explains: "We have clients going into fashion stores now and finding pieces they want us to copy - they want a non-uniform uniform because that makes their hotel more distinctive.
"But style has to function in a hotel setting. That means knowing how to make an economical, hard-wearing fabric like polyester look good, or that black may look chic but in certain climates is likely to fade in the sun, or simply that some styles may look good on a model but won't work as they must with all skin colours and body shapes."
And while functionality is essential, fashionability is becoming even more of a minefield. Creating a look that has to work for usually at least 500 people but perhaps the 15,000 staff of a major hotel chain is hard enough. Working with seasonal trends, however, is a matter of delicacy. "Not least," says Virani, "because staff can't look too good. Guests don't want to be outshone. And, as much as a great uniform can add to the hotel's appeal, they do want to be able to tell who is staff and who isn't."
According to Vicky Hales, Emile Rassam's commercial director and designer: "It's about being fashionable but not too fashionable."
For example, the uniform it has designed for the Hyatt Capital Gate Abu Dhabi hotel, set to open by the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre this month, will be formal but contemporary tailoring in charcoal - with a shorter but not super-short jacket that current fashion dictates, with a single-button fastening rather than the more common two or three, a narrow lapel and flat-fronted trousers.
"It's about fashionable detail rather than big statements," says Hales. "What would have passed for exceptional uniform design four years ago would now get an 'is that it?' reaction from clients. You can't go with too much fashion - if only because most hotels open six months or more after the plans say they will. But it has to be there." Indeed, hotels are set to chase style even harder over coming years as competition intensifies. The long-term trend for uniforms to reflect the local culture - for hotel uniforms throughout the UAE to have an Arabic or oriental twist, for example - is predicted to fade out, both as fashions become more globalised but also because it has become unacceptably clichéd to fashion-literate travellers.
"The industry is having to keep pace with guests' expectations and experience of fashion, and that 'ethnic' style, all muted shades of brown and Mandarin collars, just looks dated," reckons David Sprakes, the design manager for the uniform designers A Ronai LLC, which counts Emirates and Fly Dubai airlines and many Rotana hotels throughout the UAE among its clients, and which has noticed a strong shift away from off-the-shelf to bespoke uniforms. "The demand for difference between hotels in the Middle East is only going to grow, and it's already way ahead in uniform design compared with Europe and especially the US, where in some cases it's awful," he adds.
"The fact is that the more design-led hotels become, as they are, the edgier and the more designer the uniforms are going to get."
Updated: November 1, 2011 04:00 AM