High fashion, meet high altitude.
Designer Luly Yang debuted the Alaska Airlines' new uniform collection this month at a fashion show inside a hangar at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
The specially designed 90-garment collection will dress about 19,000 employees — including pilots, flight attendants and customer service agents — who work for Alaska Airlines and its affiliates. Alaska's new uniform collection is part of a brand refresh for the Seattle-based carrier, which is incorporating the edgier brand and culture associated with recently acquired Virgin America into Alaska's own reputation for service and reliability.
CNBC recently talked with Yang and others about the collection.
Yang is well-known for her bridal gowns and red carpet couture, but had another advantage: She was already a frequent flyer on Alaska and Virgin America when she was chosen to design the new uniform.
"We didn't start out to choose a Northwest designer," Sangita Woerner, Alaska Airlines' vice president of marketing, told CNBC. "We interviewed designers quite known domestically and internationally. Luly knew the Alaska brand and once we went to her studio and got to know her and her obsession with the quality, the design and the fit, we fell in love."
Before Yang designed the collection, she spent two years traveling around the country meeting with employees, observing them at work, getting feedback from union groups and reading through responses to more than 5,000 employee surveys.
"This the ultimate puzzle for a designer. And, as with my couture business, my approach was to really listen to and get to know my client," Yang said. "In this case it was 19,000 clients, employees with hundreds of body shapes, 13 work groups and sometimes 45 sizes per garment. It was very complicated, which is why I loved it."
Yang called her design for pilots a "modern interpretation" of the uniform, as well as "a signature piece" for the airline.
"The caps have a new shape, new drape, new material, are much more comfortable and are lighter weight," said Yang. "And they have that legacy embroidery touch that I think gives them more soul."
"In design we always try to balance form and function," and, for the Alaska Airlines uniform collection, function was very important, said Yang.
Flight attendants told Yang that because their jobs entail so much lifting, bending and reaching, their shirts often come untucked. In response, Yang's designed longer shirts and added waistband grips in the pants and skirts. "A lot of engineering details you can't see went into this, but I believe the employees will feel the difference," said Yang.
Textile safety and quality were top priorities during the development of the uniforms. Every component of the uniforms, from buttons and zippers to threads and fabrics, went through rigorous testing.
"It's a bit of an investment, but we felt it was a long-term investment that's pennies on a piece, but the right thing to do," said Ann Ardizzone, Alaska Airline's vice president of supply chain and risk management.
Yang applied the obsession to detail she gives to her own couture collection to the uniform designs. That included everything from the buttons to the stitching and assorted accessories.
"I'm asking a lot of these garments," said Yang, "I want this program to be the leader of where uniforms can go in the future. Not only in comfort and function and safety, but also in form and design."
Before the new uniforms go into production, it is being "wear-tested" in the field by a team of 130 employees.
During and after that 60-day test, employees and passengers will give Yang and her team feedback on how the designs handled real-world strains. Once tweaks are made and another round of testing is completed, production and rollout of the new collection is planned for late 2019.