UNIFORMS MIX FASHION AND FUNCTION
Byline: Dianne M. Pogoda
NEW YORK — In the uniform business, fashion traditionally has taken a back seat to function.
But makers in this highly specialized field, from suppliers of high-performance outerwear to more decorative sales uniforms, have begun to pay more attention to trends, even as they are challenged to keep practicality the top priority.
“Nothing looks like a smock anymore,” said Marilyn Calastro, merchandiser of Designer Club of America, a private label apparel company here that specializes in salespeople’s uniforms for cosmetics companies. “The most popular look we do is a knockoff of an Armani jacket. The looks are updated now — that’s been the most significant change in the uniforms over the past few years.”
She said styles are comfortable, washable and fit a variety of body types.
“We stay away from suppressed waistlines, because the jackets have to fit slimmer as well as larger women,” she said.
“The uniforms have to be functional, but still attract the eye,” she added, noting the color scheme is determined by the client. Clarins’s uniforms, for example, are red, while Erno Lazlo’s are black and white stripes, like its packaging.
“The idea here is to make a uniform that employees will want to wear, not something they’ll hate putting on in the morning,” she said.
“We find a tremendous synergy between uniforms and streetwear,” said Michael Spiewak, president and chief executive officer of family-run Spiewak and the fourth generation in the 93-year-old uniform business. “Certain aspects of sportswear, like comfort, apply to uniforms, and vice versa.”
The company staged its first fashion show during the New York runway collections this month, showcasing its uniform-inspired sportswear and outerwear.
Spiewak said he always gets a laugh when he sees a look similar to one of his military flight jackets on fashion runways, and again when a customer comes to him with that picture and asks him if he can make the jacket as a uniform.
Spiewak said the company was making systems jackets for police officers 30 years ago, and from that, developed high tech jackets for skiing and mountain climbing.
In translating uniform looks to streetwear, he said he strives for an “urban fit,” with bigger shoulders and more room in the chest. And colors are always updated, he said.
The technical applications work both ways. For example, in developing a new generation of uniform jackets for police officers, the company “worked backwards,” he said. “We tried on the police jackets and found they were uncomfortable.”
The company took some details from active outerwear and adapted them to the police jackets.
“We gave the police jacket a three-piece, semi-dolman sleeve, for greater movement, added more room in the chest and put in Polarfleece,” he said.
“Historically, uniform users have had little interest in fashion,” said John Locke, account executive for uniform markets for 3M’s Thinsulate insulation. “They’ve been more interested in function. But the introduction of Thinsulate in the uniform market has allowed the looks to be more slimmed down.”
Thinsulate’s claim to fame — warmth without bulk — also allows easier movement and therefore greater comfort.
But when styles called for a bulkier silhouette, similar to what down coats look like, 3M had no product to offer, he said. As a result, it developed Thinsulate Lite Loft, a bulkier insulator that provides warmth without weight, but also is softer and drapier.
Fabric treatment is another concern for uniform makers. Paul Zimmerman, market development manager for textile products in 3M’s specialty chemicals division, which makes Scotchgard fabric protector, said the benefit of Scotchgard in uniforms is that it doesn’t affect the hand of the fabric, and allows stains to wash out.
“Quite often, uniform makers chose dark colors because they’d look better longer,” said Zimmerman. “But by using a Scotchgard treatment, they can use lighter, brighter, fashion colors and the fabric will still hold up. It enhances washability.”