The formula to looking fly: Incorporating safety, employee feedback into custom uniforms

Photos by Ingrid Barrentine

A day in the life of an airline uniform is hard. They brush through bustling airport crowds. They stretch to close overhead bins. They stand up to scorching heat and arctic cold as baggage is loaded, bolts are turned and fuel is measured.

And then they’re washed, dried, and expected to do it again. And again. And again.

So, when we set out to update our uniforms in partnership with Seattle designer Luly Yang in 2016, it wasn’t just a matter of picking a handful of colors and materials.

It was the start of a four-year journey in creating the perfect balance of quality, and form and function to achieve a U.S. airline industry first: a custom-designed uniform collection certified to STANDARD 100 certification by OEKO-TEX®, the highest industry standard for safety.

To meet the rigorous standard, more than 1,200 safety tests on fabrics, zippers, buttons, thread, linings and more were conducted.

Step 1: Asking the right questions

How do you get to the bottom of what more than 20,000 employees need from their uniforms? Well, you ask them. Over the past two years, we conducted surveys, focus groups and work-site visits to get the feedback they needed.

The answers? More pockets to accommodate all the odds and ends that come with keeping an airline in motion. Designs that look great on people of all shapes and sizes. And materials with the perfect amount of elasticity and breathability to keep a crew feeling comfortable and looking polished from the time they take off from Honolulu and land in Anchorage.

Step 2: Creating the look

With the research finished, it was Luly Yang’s time to shine. The designer got to work creating a signature silhouette for the Alaska collection, reviewing designs with employees, gathering feedback and making refinements to meet the needs of Alaska’s pilots, flight attendants, maintenance & engineering teams and more.

“This was the ultimate puzzle for a designer,” Yang said, in an interview with CNBC. “In this case it was more than 20,000 clients, employees with hundreds of body shapes, 13 work groups and sometimes 45 sizes per garment. It was complicated, which is why I loved it.”

The collection, featuring more than 90 garments and accessories, debuted at an employee fashion show in January 2018, hosted in the airline’s Sea-Tac hangar.

But the work was far from finished.

Step 3: From runway to jetway

They looked good, they felt good, but the only way to know if the new uniforms were up to the job was to see how they held up to the pressure of packing, unpacking, bending, lifting, scuffs, spills and spin cycles.

Alaska selected 175 employees to participate in 60 day “wear tests” of the new uniform and report back on performance. Following the first wear test, refinements were made and then a second, abbreviated wear test took place to validate the improvements and quality standards.

Step 4: Ready for lift off

After four years of research, design, feedback and testing, Alaska’s new uniforms launched, making Alaska and Horizon Air the first U.S. airlines to earn the Standard 100 by Oeko-Tex rating for its custom garments.

As the new uniforms continue their rollout in early 2020, with Horizon Air and Alaska Lounge concierges already donning the new look, they have also stood up to scrutiny from one of the toughest panels on the planet: anonymous social media users.

Horizon Air flight attendant Parisjat Banomyong posted a video of her before/after uniform transformation on TikTok, earning more than 140,000 likes.

“My daughter and I just did it for fun and then it blew up,” said Banomyong. “I heard so much ‘you look amazing’ and ‘I can’t wait to see these uniforms on my flight.’ It was really fun to see the reaction.”