Stan Herman’s 60-plus years in fashion include selling on QVC, setting the stage for New York Fashion Week in Bryant Park and formerly heading up the Council of Fashion Designers of America. But millions of people, who might have never heard his name, have worn his designs daily for years.
The New York-based designer discussed his decades of designing uniforms for such corporations as Amtrak, Federal Express, JetBlue, TWA, McDonald’s and United Airlines, among others, in a Friday morning talk with WWD’s executive editor Bridget Foley at Parsons The New School. Billed as “The Sartorial Significance of Blue,” the conversation was part of Initiatives in Art and Culture’s three-day “Blue” conference, which closes Saturday in New York.
Emphasizing the color’s universal appeal, Herman said, “In all of my years, I don’t remember anyone I have dressed in a uniform not liking blue. They may have been bored with it, but they never disliked it as a color.”
Describing blue as “America’s corporate color,” he said decision makers find it easy to live with. However partial Herman is to blue, he now has green very much on his mind, having just inked a deal to create uniforms for the Central Park Conservancy’s 300 or so employees. His spruced-up styles will be part of a re-branding effort to celebrate the conservancy’s upcoming anniversary. When the first planning meeting gets under way in a few days, color will be a crucial starting point — as it always is when Herman embarks on a new uniform project. His first assignment in the sector called for reworking Avis’ head-to-toe red uniforms. “They hated it,” he said of the fiery ensemble. “I put them in navy pants, which made it palatable. Then Halston, who did Avis after me, said, ‘Oh, that’s awful’ and put them in gray.”
After highlighting how blue connotes infinity, the ocean, the sky, durability, denim, the Blue Book and blue periods in art, Foley asked Herman what the color means to him. “It’s meant a whole career to me actually. The uniform part of it has been extremely important,” Herman said.
The designer recalled how United Airlines’ president in the Eighties set him straight about the depths of blue. “He said, ‘Herman, I will hate this uniform, if I can’t stand 100 yards away from that uniform and know it’s different than American Airlines’ blue. There are navies and then there are navies.’”
When Ogilvy & Mather approached Herman about working with Avis while he was running his company, Mr. Mort. Designer, deals and collaborations were far from the norm that they are today, the 91-year-old said. “You’ve got to remember that years ago, designers were not supposed to be out there talking to people. We were supposed to be in the back room [allowing that he led the more public approach],” Herman said. “Geoffrey Beene said to me, ‘You shouldn’t have done that, honey. We belong in the backrooms.’ I hated it. If you were a woman designer, they thought you would get married and leave. If you were a male, you were a f—-t and they didn’t want to show you to all these Southern buyers coming in.”
Avis led to Herman designing uniforms for TWA, and some of the former TWA staffers from 45 years ago showed up in their Herman-designed uniforms at last summer’s opening of the TWA Hotel at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Herman decked out the hotel employees. A scarf he designed for TWA is part of the Smithsonian’s collection, which is fortuitous since he never made a point of saving his designs.
Herman, who suits up workers at JetBlue and FedEx, said, “Listen, it was a big deal to get a uniform account in the Sixties,” noting that Bill Blass, Valentino, Halston and Edith Head were among the well-known names that landed deals. Halston lost the PanAm one after refusing the president of the company’s request that he shorten the hemlines for female employees’ uniforms, as was the trend at that time. Head then took over and “hers was terrible. It wasn’t nearly as good as his. She was a costume designer. She thought everybody was Elizabeth Taylor.” Referring to his run designing uniforms for Amtrak’s Acela service, the designer noted a conductor’s vest requires 16 pockets.
Having the people who are going to wear his designs is essential for Herman in creating uniforms. “The biggest problem is always the ego of the person who is going to wear it. It’s shocking how many people don’t know their right size…not the men so much. A woman will say she is a four and you know that she is an eight. Then you have to put the four on her and she complains that you make a bad four.”
Lining up a manufacturer that is able to build the uniform is another challenge. Having designed FedEx uniforms for 40 years, Herman now suits up 280,000 employees. “Now it’s a process of evolution, not revolution. We are starting to work on a blouse that will not go into effect for four years. I hope I’m alive, when it happens,” he said.
While Herman claimed that Americans don’t like uniforms, Foley mentioned how Tom Ford has said that “’Most of us dress in a personal uniform most of the time.’ The Chanel jacket was based on an Austrian worker’s uniform.
How have uniforms informed what we tend to wear in a cultural sense?”
Herman was a little puzzled, stating, “Everybody says anything you wear, if you wear it consistently is a uniform.…I’ll have to talk about that with Tom. He’s our new president of the CFDA.”
Having held that same role for 16 years, prior to Diane von Furstenberg’s 13-year run, Herman said Ford “is the perfect choice for the future of the organization. To your question from before, we are in a difficult time. I don’t want to get political, but we are in a very strange, tribal moment. It does affect our business — how designers work, what they feel. That’s part of the reason everything looks so hysterical. Sometimes I look at the collections at the end of the season and say, ‘My God, there’s so much — so much.’”
In light of the demise of Barneys New York and Zac Posen closing his company, Herman addressed whether fashion is in a blue period. “I want to be an optimist for a second. We’re nurturing lots of talent. There is big change in America. Years ago, we didn’t have the big talent that we have today. It is such a seductive, sexy industry today. It’s happened through ‘Project Runway’ and the red carpet. It’s an industry that’s not going to be put down or pushed away. Because of all that and what’s happening in the world, the growth is stagnated. I would hate to be a young designer starting out today. The state of fashion is lousy but the possibility of fashion is still great,” Herman said.
So it seems, considering a statistic Herman shared later in the discussion in relation to QVC on-air sales. “When you’re hot, really hot, you can sell $30,000 [worth of product] a minute,” he said.
Through his many incarnations in the fashion industry, Herman sees himself as “a happy camper. I have had such a good life. I’ve done the things I wanted to do. I’ve never been involved with people I didn’t like. I don’t have rages. I’ve just gone and done what I want to do. I just like myself.”