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Delta's Zac Posen uniforms unveiled

Celebrity fashion designer Zac Posen just unveiled his latest collection, but for a different type of runway.

"Delta came to us," Posen explained in his New York City office. "It started with an audition in a way, which came from putting together an idea of what we would do for this project."

It's been a decade since Delta last upgraded its uniforms, and CEO Ed Bastian told CNBC it's time to update the image.

"We compete in an international arena. The traditional domestic airline uniforms are worn — they are dated. They require a little more sophistication, a little more glamour, a little more chic. Our employees take great pride in how they present themselves, and I think Zac has done an excellent job in mixing an element of glamour, but also functionality," Bastian said.

About 60,000 frontline Delta employees, from those serving customers on the planes to those at the customer service counters and beyond, will be getting the new uniforms in early 2018.

Delta will have 1,000 employees "wear-test" uniforms between December and March in order to identify any final updates to fit, form or function before Lands' End manufactures and supplies them.

Delta flight attendants show off the airline's new "Passport Plum" uniforms designed by Zac Posen.
Source: Delta Air Lines
Delta flight attendants show off the airline's new "Passport Plum" uniforms designed by Zac Posen.

The uniforms — a product of 18 months of brainstorming and research (which included job shadowing) — were unveiled Tuesday in Atlanta, naturally, in a runway fashion show.

Delta employees were an integral part of the process, speaking up about functionality, durability, style — and the most surprising change — color. The airline felt there was too much blue and red, Posen said. They wanted something that stood out, while also looking good in the airplane cabin. The uniform also had to be durable and largely stain-resistant.

So, "Passport Plum" it is.

"There's the element of service and elegance on the plane," Posen said when describing the shade of deep purple the flight attendants will wear, and the color of the bags the women will carry.

Not every uniform is completely purple though, there's still a red trench coat, and some gray for some of the uniforms as well.

Colors and fabrics were chosen carefully to stand up to the wear and tear airline uniforms are subject to, Posen said.

To truly understand what he was up against, Posen spent time in the cabin and behind the Delta counter.

"I started my job shadowing at JFK airport!" Posen said excitedly. He helped passengers with luggage at the airport check-in to understand how much mobility is needed in the uniform's arms, and saw where airline employees sleep during layovers. He had them sketch their own designs. Posen helped on board the planes, too.

"I served the peanuts and the pretzels! From Atlanta to New York, I greeted customers as they came in the cabin," he said.

After all his hands-on training, Posen stayed steadfast in his insistence about the fabric quality, using anti-deodorizing fabrics and microbes that coat fabric for stain-resistance.

"I said, no matter what we design, this needs to be made durably, beautifully, sculpted and of good fabrics. ... There's a reason good fabrics have a cost," he said. "They're done with good quality to last."

Zac Posen designed some versions of Delta's new uniform to include a touch of red.
Source: Delta Air Lines
Zac Posen designed some versions of Delta's new uniform to include a touch of red.

While Delta declined to reveal how much the redesign cost or the financial arrangement with the designer, the investment is well worth it, Bastian said.

"No question, there's a great return on investment," he said. "You know, we have history on this. Ten years ago when we went through the bankruptcy, one of the things we did was we changed out the uniforms, we hired a designer, Richard Tyler at the time, and it restored the employees' respect and appreciation for what they do in terms of how they present themselves to the public."

Posen agreed. "That's really the power of clothing, and where a uniform can really be transformative for the experience of the customer by the employees themselves feeling empowered, feeling fabulous, feeling cool."

— Sabrina Korber contributed to this report.

(UPDATE: This story was updated to include information about planned "fit" testing and to mention that Lands' End will manufacture the uniforms.)