Courtesy of Delta Airlines
On Wednesday in a crowded event space on Armour Drive, fashion designer Zac Posen introduced his new line of uniforms for Delta Air Lines. Hundreds of Delta employees from across the country (selected to attend in part for their top marks in proper dress code) anxiously awaited the reveal of their new wardrobe.
The response from the crowd when the models—Delta employees themselves—stepped out? Giddiness. Like kids on Christmas morning. Like people who’ve had to wear the same thing—in some version of navy, red, or gray—over and over again for ten years and were just granted a new closet of designer clothing.
“Ooh, I see a pattern!” one cried of a scarf. “The gloves!” Another gasped.
The new collection is chic and classy, to be sure. Cuts hark back to the glamour of the golden age of flying, and the high-tech fabrics and detailing were apparent even from the pit. But the big surprise? Purple, purple everywhere—or rather, “passport plum” and “thistle”—injecting a serious dose of freshness to the storied brand. And according to Tim Mapes, Delta’s SVP of marketing, we may start seeing more of it—in napkins or Sky Club pillows, say. “When you saw our employees reaction,” Mapes said of feedback on sample colors, “they didn’t want close. They didn’t want iterative change; they wanted transformative change.”
All in all, Posen—a self-described airplane geek—designed around four dozen looks for more than 60,000 Delta employees worldwide. Looks ranged from the neon jackets and rain pants for ramp operators (who strutted out with light wands in hand), and reflector visors and polos for engineers, to three-button suits and sleek plum dresses for flight attendants with sateen trim. Standouts included button-downs with an asymmetrical winged collar like a perky leaf, and a swing coat that looked like an elegant cape draped across the shoulders. There were even matching leather gloves and handbags. The diversity of the employees—in age, size, skin tones—was a major consideration. Sizes run from 00 to 32.
“This is a big deal,” Cory Thurston, a ticketing agent in Seattle, said of the collection. “I’m in this five days a week. And I love it. The color is spot-on—it’s great for many skin tones. The cuts are modern—very European.” Another, based in L.A., said the collection looked “very expensive” and called the passport plum a “very 2016 color.” And a flight attendant based in Boston spoke for her team: “We really love it. We have a wide variety of bodies—that was our main concern coming here—Posen did a great job.”
Were there dissenters? They were hard to find. “I was surprised by the color,” said one Cincinnati-based flight attendant who had worked for the company for 29 years. “We’ve always been in navy and red. I love the cuts though.”
It’s a departure from what Posen is known for—the ball gowns, the line for David’s Bridal, the red-carpet numbers for Claire Danes and Reese Witherspoon—even from his role as womenswear designer for Brooks Brothers. (He’s also widely known as a judge on the hit reality show Project Runway.) But it’s certainly not the first time a mainstream fashion designer has designed for the skies—famed Hollywood costume designer Edith Head designed Delta’s uniforms in the 50s and 60s. There was Emilio Pucci for Braniff, Cristóbal Balenciaga for Air France. But Posen says the quality Delta pushed for is exceptional; note details like enameled buttons, sculptural seaming, shoulder epaulettes. The team is sourcing fabrics from top mills, and all pieces will be made in the U.S.A.—in Dodgeville, Wisconsin, by Land’s End.
Passengers may start to see the pieces in rotation as soon as December, but that’s only a group of around 1,000 employees selected to wear-test the pieces through March. A full rollout is planned for 2018.
Just after the reveal, Posen sat down with Atlanta magazine for an exclusive interview.
You’re known for ball gowns and feminine dresses. How was the inspiration different for something so inherently utilitarian?
Well, I don’t only do ball gowns or red carpet on my runway. We developed multiple different inspiration boards. And you kind of filter that inspiration down and focus it—we took techniques we’ve used in our more couture pieces, and then streamlined it, like with the collar on the thistle-colored shirt. We looked at the construction of the actual planes for tailoring details, and ergonomics. Stretch is in everything. Technology is added into the pieces. I was inspired by the utilitarian use this clothing is going to get and tried to give things that are performance-based but at the same time add a sense of elegance and sophistication to the experience of flying.
What were some of the specific practical considerations in the designs?
Everything is pretty much stretch. There’s an anti-microbial finish to the lining. There’s stain resistance in the fabrics, and a lot of natural fibers, and some synthetic fibers, but just in the right places—it’s engineered knitwear. These are things that I’m not seeing in uniforms.
What preparation and research did you do with the employees?
Enormous. I did JFK, I did Atlanta–New York, I did everything from picking up the luggage to serving peanuts and pretzels.
You actually did in-flight service?
Yes, of course! I learned the latch system, I learned the coffee system. When I did ticketing, I realized sometimes you have disgruntled customers. How do you deal with that? You can’t help it if the weather is bad. I did gating and greeted every single guest coming off the plane. I didn’t get to do the engineering—I wasn’t allowed to do that part. But I watched, and I spoke with them. What we did do is create groups of employees giving feedback, from men and women of all ages, of all backgrounds.
What did you learn from the history of the uniforms?
We went through the history of not only Delta, but pretty much all uniforms. In that process, we printed out probably every uniform from every airline internationally that was possible. Beyond Pinterest, I mean, libraries. It helped us see what was out there, see what was possible. Other international carriers have defined themselves through physical requirements and age requirements [for employees]. And that’s not what America is about. That’s not what Delta’s about, and that’s not what I’m about. This was about representing and celebrating a diverse group of employees, of body types, of races, of ages.
How did the purple—excuse me, plum—come about?
All the original colors are there but there’s an additional element with the plum. [Delta] really wanted to go with this color, and it worked. We built it and we tweaked it—they wanted a color that would pop in the Delta brand setting, not look like they were a part of the furniture. It’s a bipartisan color. Most of the airlines, we found when we did the research, were navy—there’s so much dark navy. Delta wanted something special.
Where’s your dream destination if you were getting on a Delta flight today?
I would go to Hawaii—I’ve never been. That’s a teasing question—I would love to get on a plane and fly somewhere today! I would love to go to Japan—that’s one of my favorite destinations in the world. I’m dying to go to Iceland and Greenland. I love, love flying. I’ve studied the design of planes—a lot of the cuts and and lines were inspired by that. It’s an incredible thing that humanity has been able to design planes to fly around our planet in.
(A more immediate destination, he hoped, was the flight simulator at the Delta Museum.)