By  on April 1, 2005

PARIS — Sporting a cloud-like puff of organza at their throats, Air France’s flight attendants are ready for takeoff with curvaceous new uniforms designed by Christian Lacroix.

To be worn by 36,000 of the carrier’s employees starting Tuesday, the looks are slated to be unveiled today at the Palais de Tokyo contemporary art museum here.

In an exclusive preview, Lacroix told WWD about his most far-reaching fashion assignment to date, his long fascination with “stewardess” style — and how he managed to tame his decorative impulse to meet the airline’s tradition of neat, subtly aristocratic uniforms.

“I had to find the simplest everything in order to convince everybody,” Lacroix said. “I had to find a reassuring and handsome look translating comfort, French culture and safety.”

For inspiration, Lacroix was able to draw on a lifetime’s fascination with fashions worn by airline personnel. He recalled the Fifties’ “army-style nurse behaving like a mother,” the trendy beauties of the Sixties and Seventies epitomizing “Parisian chic with a little drop of futurism” and the bourgeois style of the Eighties, when flight attendants resembled elegant French ladies welcoming guests at their homes for lunch or dinner.

Lacroix’s proposition for 2005 and beyond is neither militaristic nor fashion-oriented — and it’s not even very uniform-like.

“I don’t like weird, too mannish or too military looks without femininity,” he explained. “The idea of seeing everybody clad the same is not really my cup of tea. I much prefer uniforms letting the personality, self-individuality or character appear.”

So Air France personnel — from ticket agents to pilots — will have about 100 apparel and accessories items from which to chose. The core item for women is a waist-conscious jacket with what Lacroix describes as “very couture pagoda shoulders.” Other key items are slim trousers, redingotes and parkas, all in dark navy and sky blue with red accents.

The Lacroix uniforms usher in the first major change since 1987 at Air France, which has gotten by with a famous shirtwaist dress by Carven and variations on other uniforms from that year by Nina Ricci, Georges Rech and Louis Féraud. Lacroix’s designs for Air France are expected to remain in service for at least 10 years.Despite the recent fashion rut, Air France has a history of enlisting couture greats, from Christian Dior in 1962 to Jean Patou in 1976, who was tapped to dress personnel for the Concorde in an early incarnation of fast-fashion.

Design legend Cristobal Balenciaga also lent his talent in 1969, turning out a uniform that recently inspired the house’s current designer, Nicolas Ghesquière, who, incidentally, got his start at Balenciaga designing uniforms and other licensed products.

As a wardrobing opportunity, airlines long have held obvious allure for designers, accustomed to dressing beautiful young women walking up and down an aisle. During the glory days of commercial air travel, “you never saw a jiggle,” recalled Stan Herman, arguably America’s best-known uniform designer, whose clients range from Federal Express to Amtrak.

He noted that, during the Seventies and Eighties, competition to design uniforms was particularly heated. For example, Hollywood costume designer Edith Head went hemline-to-hemline with Halston and ultimately triumphed in a bid to outfit Pan Am’s crew.

Tastes were fickle and the stakes were high. Bill Blass once proposed plaid for American Airlines “and it never did fly,” Herman noted.

Other famous designers who have tackled airline uniforms range from Valentino and Calvin Klein to Mary Quant and Pierre Cardin, contracted by Pakistan International to design a pajama-like ensemble with head-covering dupatta.

Valerie Steele, director of The Museum at FIT, said uniforms were “more playful and high-fashion” in the days when flight attendants were still known as stewardesses.

Emilio Pucci’s designs for Braniff International in the Sixties are widely hailed — including by Lacroix, the current designer of Pucci — for their eye-popping colors and bubble helmets that stewardesses lamented made hearing difficult. (But they also could protect their hair from wind and rain by putting a pillbox hat or scarf over their bouffants.)

In more recent years, uniforms have taken on more authoritative airs, especially in the U.S., where attendants are regarded primarily as safety personnel.

“There’s no more of that ‘coffee, tea or me’ attitude,” Steele quipped. “Now, flight attendants have a more militaristic style. They look more like actual pilots.”Observers note that uniforms typically reflect the fashions of the times and can be dated easily. Air France, for example, had short, trapeze shapes in the Sixties, prints and midiskirts in the Seventies and broad-shouldered jackets in the Eighties.

More recently, as the airport and flight experience has deteriorated, so has the glamour factor.

Among airlines getting failing grades from journalist and design consultant Tyler Brule are Virgin Atlantic and China Airlines, both described as “dreadful,” and Air Canada, whose employees are up in arms over a style endorsed by Celine Dion, but not Brule: “It’s a one-button jacket: really bad news.”

By contrast, Korean carrier Asiana gets a big thumbs-up for its taupe skirt suits with a mandarin collar. “If Uma Thurman had been a flight attendant in ‘Gattaca,’ that’s what she would have looked like,” Brule said.

Steele and Brule agreed uniforms at U.S. airlines generally pale next to their European and Asian counterparts, which view airlines as a matter of national pride and branding.

There is hope, however, Steele noted, with new airlines such as Jet Blue and Song seeking the input of designers Herman and Kate Spade, respectively. Also, Richard Tyler received positive reviews for the uniforms he designed for Delta Air Lines, paraded on the runway alongside his collection in New York last February.

For Herman, Ralph Lauren’s designs for TWA rank as the best airline uniform of all time since his blazers oozed class and authority — right up until the airline went out of business in 2001.

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