Flights of Fashion: Seattle designer Luly Yang undertakes a first-class redesign of Alaska Airlines’ fleet of uniforms

After more than four years, dozens of focus groups and countless hours of anticipation, fashion designer Luly Yang’s airline uniform project is finally taking flight—literally as well as figuratively. Known for her formal red-carpet couture and bespoke suiting for men and women, Seattle-based Yang was chosen by Alaska Air Group in 2016 to revamp the uniforms for its more than 20,000 employees. This month, airport runways from Seattle to Los Angeles and New York will double as catwalks as everyone from flight attendants and customer service agents to ground crews and baggage handlers dons long-awaited new uniforms—the airline’s first major sartorial upgrade in nine years.

“I am super excited,” Yang says, beaming about the rollout. We’re sitting in the tranquil, light-filled private studio in downtown Seattle that she uses when she needs a quiet space to hold meetings or to work on her designs. Her eponymous boutique, located at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel, is just a short walk away; its windows are known to showcase a rotating selection of Yang’s whimsical, eye-catching creations. Rich velvet and satin tuxedos and gowns in deeply satur­ated hues, fabrics boasting bold patterns and unique details—strategic draping, jewel-like beading, ruffles and feathers placed just so—have been a signature at the corner of Fourth Avenue and University Street for nearly two decades.

“This is one of the most special collections I’ve ever worked on,” she says, “and I plan to be at the airport when the uniforms debut. The emotions will be high, and I want to celebrate that energy and excitement with Alaska. This is a very special, one-of-a-kind experience for any fashion designer. The magic moment is when the employees wear the uniforms, and the garments come alive.”

At first thought, the choice of a designer who specializes in one-of-a-kind couture creations for individ­ual clients seems at odds with the scope of a project that requires the design and production of one cohesive uniform collection that needs to fit a plethora of body shapes and sizes, as well as serve each individual for the numerous tasks of his or her job. But Alaska takes pride in partnering with local businesses on everything from its inflight food-and-beverage program to the design of its airport lounges, so picking a locally based designer for the overhaul was a top priority.

“We knew Luly’s background, talent and timeless design solutions would be the perfect fit for Alaska,” says Sangita Woerner, Alaska Airlines’ Senior Vice President of Marketing & Guest Experience. “Her style perfectly captures our fresh West Coast vibe—and of course we love that Seattle is her home base, too.”

As Yang tells me about her approach to design projects, it’s clear that the task isn’t as incongruous as it might seem. “My process is always the same,” she says. “It starts with conversation and listening to really understand, to the core, who I am designing for.”

Yang spent months holding focus groups with employees from around the country, distributing surveys, collecting feedback, and observing everyone from pilots to baggage handlers in order to see how their uniforms needed to stand up to the rigors of their jobs. This meant lots of flying, and lots of time at airports.

The things that stood out to me were the little details,” Yang says. “Paying attention to where the pockets are, or how deep they are. Many of the team members need their hands free to do things. They have to carry around mobile devices and be able to store them quickly. Flight attendants asked to have longer shirts so that the garment doesn’t slip up when they are putting luggage in the overhead bins. These little things were important, and every decision was intentional.”

Fit and function for all 13 work groups were essential to Luly Yang’s design strategy.

Additionally, Yang had to take dura­bility and climate into consideration. The most durable fabrics aren’t always the most comfortable, and a ground crew member in Alaska can’t wear the same thing as someone based in Southern California. These puzzlelike constraints presented Yang and her team with the ultimate design challenge—one that she ended up enjoying so much, she has expanded her uniform business as a result, with end-to-end uniform solutions that include design, product development and production.

“Through this process, I discovered my love and passion for custom uniform programs,” she notes.

The resulting collection, which features more than 90 garments and accessories, for 13 work groups, debuted at an employee fashion show at the airline’s Seattle-Tacoma International Airport hangar in January 2018. In keeping with Alaska Airlines’ 2016 overall brand refresh, which included a bold color palette featuring Tropical Green and Breeze Blue, the new uniforms are contemporary but not costumey or too formal. During the design process Yang had access to vintage employee handbooks and uniforms that date back to the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, and she was inspired by the brand’s strong 88-year heritage and employee pride.

“Fashion has changed a lot over the years, and you can see the trends reflected in flight attendants’ uniforms,” she says. “What we’ve done is a modern interpretation of the brand. Our design strategy focuses on a West Coast–modern vibe that embraces comfort, experience and approachability.”

From two-toned, blue-color-block dresses to crisp gray vests, custom neck scarves and sleek trench coats, the uniforms were a hit—something that would make the Alaska team identifiable on the airport concourse and also present a professional look.

The approval from employees was strong, but aesthetics wouldn’t matter if the uniforms couldn’t hold up to wear or hindered crew members from doing their jobs, so Alaska selected 175 employees to participate in 60-day “wear tests” and give feedback about the performance of the garments. Refinements were made, and then a second, shorter, wear test took place before the uniforms were declared finished. The official rollout started at the beginning of 2020 with Horizon Air team members and Alaska Lounge concierges, and it continues through the course of this month.

In January, Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air were the first U.S. airlines to receive “Standard 100 by Oeko-Tex®” certification, meaning that garments meet global safety standards. Items have been tested to ensure they are free from harmful levels of more than 100 substances known to be damaging to human health. Each component of the uniforms—materials, threads and dyes—meets certification, and Yang and Alaska worked with Unisync Group Limited of Toronto to develop custom fabrics, buttons and signature accessories.

“All of the employees I spoke with can’t wait to have a new uniform,” Yang says. “Some of them have even been with the airline for decades. There’s strong pride there, and they want to represent the company with what they wear.”

Luly Yang offers a new look for flight attendants, as well as a stylish look for mechanics, above.

If anyone knows about having pride in their company, it’s Yang. While she’s best known as a fashion designer, she has also been recognized multiple times over the past two decades for her business acumen and strong leadership. She has steadily grown her company, both in employee numbers and in goods and services offered. She’s worked with local entities including Pacific Northwest Ballet and Teatro ZinZanni, and embraced philanthropic efforts benefiting Swedish Medical Center, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and Seattle Children’s Hospital, among others. Yang has not only become a pillar in the Seattle business community, but also an inspiration to women looking to start their own ventures.

“Everything I do goes back to our company’s mission,” she says. “We’re here because we want to elevate the human experience through thoughtful, innovative designs. We always stay true to our values and keep that mission top of mind. Our team is diverse in design discipline and backgrounds, but all of us share the same values, goals and passion for what we do.”

It’s a laudable foundation for any company, and one that Yang has applied throughout her career trajectory, even before she landed in fashion. Born in Taiwan, Yang moved to the Puget Sound–area city of Bellevue with her family when she was 10. She was interested in fashion at a very young age and recalls her grandmother designing and sewing her own clothes. “I grew up watching her,” Yang says, “and my mom was an artist who also designed and made our clothes for formal events. For part of my life, I thought that this was normal, that everyone created their own clothing!”

After high school, Yang enrolled at the University of Washington, where she pursued a degree in graphic design. Outside of the classroom, she was a fitness instructor at the university’s Intramural Activities Building. “Fitness and the human form became a passion of mine,” she says. “It helps me understand the human body and a garment’s interaction with it. I have ergonomic charts of the body on the walls in my studio. It’s important to be able to see how the articulation of an elbow, hip or knee works. Good design solutions are a perfect balance of form and function. Clothing needs to look good and move well with the body.”

It was during her time as a graphic designer for a Seattle-­based architecture firm that Yang made her first serious foray into fashion. In 1999, she participated in a charity fashion show that paired designers with paper companies, asking them to create runway-ready looks to raise money for the Seattle-based Art with Heart organization. Yang’s creation, her signature Monarch Butterfly Gown, awed the crowd and reawakened her passion for fashion design. Shortly after the event, she decided to pursue fashion as a career.

“Obviously it was a risk to quit a job that I really enjoyed and to jump into something that was com­pletely different from what I had ever done before,” she says with a small laugh. “But I was fulfilling a dream I had had since I was a young child.”

In 2000, Yang opened her first studio at Fourth Avenue and Pike Street with a collection of 12 gowns. Three years later, after a successful start, she moved to her current atelier at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel. Over the years, Yang has designed numerous high-concept collections inspired by everything from oceanic life (an aquatic-themed “Ocean” collection was presented at the Seattle Aquarium) to sight (her “20/20” collection was inspired by vision and the human eye).

I always start with a big-picture concept, and that becomes the soul of the collection,” she says. “It’s usually highly conceptual at the beginning. I’ll start by developing a visual story for the feeling I want people to experience, then I move to designing the collection.”

In a maintenance hangar or on the tarmac, the new uniforms bring a renewed sense of pride at Alaska and Horizon.

Beyond the conceptual, Yang runs a tight business. As the head of her company, she’s faced with tough decisions daily. Hard work and intense passion are the foundation.

“I face the difficult things head-on,” she says. “With every decision, we’re always asking, ‘Is what we’re doing making the human experience better?’ If the answer is no, then we’re not going to do it.”

When invited to give her advice for other women running their own businesses (or those thinking of making the leap), she keeps it short and straightforward: “Follow your passion, make all decisions intentional and strategic, and learn to do this quickly, with confidence. It’s important to move through the decision process and commit to it.”

The business community has appreciated her business focus. In 2007, she was honored with the Nellie Cashman Women Business Owners of the Year Award, and recognized in the Puget Sound Business Journal’s list of 2010 Women of Influence. In 2019, Yang was inducted to the Asian Hall of Fame.

When the Alaska Airlines uniform project came across Yang’s desk in 2016, it was an easy decision for her and her team. “I grew up here; I went to school here; I love the West Coast,” she says, “Alaska has always been my favorite airline, so I was very excited when I got that call.”

Yang has made the custom uniform business an integral part of her company, with corporate clients ranging in scale from boutique companies to global businesses in North America and Europe. She has recently taken on two additional landmark Pacific Northwest clients who are refreshing their brands, the Space Needle and the Fairmont Olympic Hotel.

In her own studio, Yang will release at the end of this year a ready-to-wear travel collection featuring easy-to-layer pieces and accessories designed for travelers on the go to feel comfortable and chic—the ultimate combination.

“I can pack enough for two to three weeks in one carry-on,” Yang says about her own travels, adding that it’s all about the layering. She travels frequently for work, to Europe and to Asia, and has the art of travel dressing down to a science.

“It’s all about what I like to call my ‘transformative items,’ ” she says. “Multifunctional pieces that I can wear from a morning meeting to a cocktail party, and maybe just throw on a jacket or switch shoes. It’s all about keeping things very versatile.”

One item that she always travels with is her signature Luly cashmere shawl that serves triple duty as an attractive accessory, a wrap during the evenings, and a neck roll or blanket while inflight. In her purse, she makes sure to bring a pair of sunglasses, a mid-layer sweater and a vial of pure lemon essential oil. “It helps energize me,” she says.

Within the next year, Yang plans to hold a 20th-anniversary fashion show that will feature highlights of her portfolio. Serving as reminder of the evolution of her brand and her creativity, the show will be a vivid chapter in a story that’s still being told.

“I have a curiosity about everything, and I like asking questions,” Yang says. “Staying curious keeps you innovative and keeps your mind open, whether you’ve been in your career for one year, 20 years or 50 years.” She pauses and smiles as if thinking of the decades ahead—an idea taking flight is a beautiful thing to watch.

Rachel Gallaher is a Seattle-­based freelance writer and the deputy editor at Gray Magazine. This story originally appeared in ALASKA BEYOND MAGAZINE—MARCH 2020.