Kate Spade designs uniforms for Delta's new airline.

The language of style.
Sept. 15 2003 2:31 PM

Runway Fashion

Kate Spade designs uniforms for Delta's new would-be-hip airline.

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Macdonald's new uniforms for British Airways

Delta Air Lines recently announced that the uniforms for its new would-be-hip airline, Song, will be designed by handbag mogul Kate Spade and her husband, Andy (who designs the Jack Spade line for men). This is certainly not the first time an airline has turned to a big name designer: Ralph Lauren, Bill Blass, Nina Ricci, Pierre Cardin, and Halston have all done airline uniforms in the last three decades, and Givenchy star Julien Macdonald is currently redesigning the ones at British Airways. But ever since the sexy Coffee, Tea, or Me ensembles of the 1960s yielded to feminism and changing fashions, airlines have stuck to copying standard female executive dress in cheap fabrics. Designer or not, airline uniforms all tend to look the same. Song is an exception: This might be the most ambitious attempt by an airline to brand itself with fashion since the now-defunct Dallas airline Braniff sent its renown (and revenues) soaring with its stylish Pucci-designed uniforms in 1965.

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Like Southwest and JetBlue, Song is a low-cost airline, but like JetBlue, it aims to be stylish, too. "Our brand is about stylish choices," said Stacy Geagan, director of public relations for Song. (When it comes to uniforms, the company presumably intends to be more chic than JetBlue, which once put out a press release describing its own uniforms as "Prada-esque"—no doubt an economical alternative to hiring the famous designer herself.) Other stylish choices: leather seats; more leg room than average; and individual screens on which travelers can play games with other passengers, access the Internet, or pay to watch movies of their choosing. Meals will be sold, not served, but they will be organic, and the company is mulling over whether to add cocktails such as cosmopolitans and martinis to the menu.

Kate Spade represents the same sensibility as those cocktails: classic, trendy, and candy-colored. In the world of fashion, Kate Spade occupies a niche somewhere above Ann Taylor and below high-fashion brands such as Gucci and Prada. The company is best-known for its bags, but it also makes shoes and travel-related accessories, including pajamas, raincoats, and sunglasses, as well as paper and beauty products. Its most iconic bag (which sells for $170) is a simple, rectangular cloth purse in bright colors such as the company's signature parrot green. The company's designs seem intended to appeal to a woman with a girlish sensibility (which is not to say she couldn't be married with kids) who wants a little bit of fashion, but not too much. Tellingly, the company's bags are high on the wish lists of preteen girls, according to the New York Times—though it's unlikely the company is intentionally targeting preteens or that many of them could actually afford the bags.

Typically, Kate Spade's ads contain more fashion content than its products. The latest campaign is no exception, with its glimpses of women dressed in exotically colored silks mingling at a madcap, glamorous party whose inspiration seems part Auntie Mame and part Andy Warhol's Factory. Any given photo contains a profusion of elements that would appear stylish, or even shocking, to the company's target customer: catered dim sum, red velvet cake, a vintage Zandra Rhodes-style dress, taxidermied animals, a toilet, fishnets, satin, and pearls.

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Spade's uniforms for Song

The uniforms the Spades have designed feature the same retro-preppy-chic styling, vivid colors, and simple shapes that have made their bags so popular. The female flight attendant wears a simple wool sleeveless sheath dress in dark gray and parrot green whose high neck, just-above-the-knee skirt, and dropped waist recall the mod '60s—a look that is very much "in" this fall. In the sketch, she also sports knee-high black stiletto boots, but for reasons of practicality, these will not actually be produced, according to Geagan. This sleight of hand is in keeping with the Kate Spade tendency to promise more fashion (in its ads) than its products actually deliver. Perhaps flat knee-high boots were deemed too edgy? Instead, the flight attendants will have several styles of high-heeled pumps and flats to choose from, including a two-tone, low-heeled Mary Jane (or they can wear non-Spade shoes that conform to Song guidelines). The look is simultaneously girlish, fashionable, and office-appropriate. Except for the garish colors and flat shoes, the ensemble would not be out of place at an investment bank, where women are in fact wearing quietly sleek '60s-inspired sheath dresses as well as suits. Similar dresses can be found on the Neiman Marcus Web site and in Barney's house label.

The male flight attendant's outfit is more outré: He's working a retro-preppy lounge-lizard look with body-skimming, slightly flared flat-front tan wool trousers; a parrot-and-citrus-green-striped short-sleeve knit shirt; and white slip-on loafers. Think Richie (played by Luke Wilson) in The Royal Tenenbaums, and you won't be far off.

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Pucci for Braniff, 1974

Braniff's attempt to brand its airline as a lifestyle company with a fashion-forward stewardess uniform was hugely successful (although the company went out of business in the early '90s because of overexpansion and deregulation). Pucci's first uniform for the company referenced his own jet-setting, cafe-society clientele and the glamorous, exclusive nature of air travel at the time with a luxurious sportswear wardrobe fashioned out of eye-poppingly bright coral red, hyacinth blue, melon, and grass-green silks and wools. The reversible swing coat even appears to have had hand-stitched lapels. (The equivalent today might be a Gucci silk minidress with matching shortie kimono.) In the late '60s and early '70s, the costume skewed more sexy than classy with miniskirts and matching tights in far-out psychedelic prints. Incredibly, in the late '60s, the uniform included full-length fur coats for stewardesses on the Greenland and Iceland routes.

The Spade uniforms turn Braniff's innovation on its head: Here, the man is the after-hours-styled sexy beast, not the woman. True, the woman's mod shift is more girlish than authoritative, but if the woman hasn't risen, the man has come down a notch to meet her. In keeping with our metrosexual times, he is strikingly feminine. And if this says something about our current vision of the working woman and her place in society, maybe it's that femininity, and not necessarily the female, is gaining status. More likely, though, these uniforms simply reflect what women like to see. Song's primary target customer is a woman traveling with her family for pleasure. "She does the research and makes most of the travel decisions," said Geagan. These may very well be the first flight attendant uniforms designed with a female customer in mind.

By turning to the Spades, Song is following a new trend among retailers such as Target, Kmart, H&M, and Zara, who are trying to establish themselves in the consumer mind as brands that are both luxurious and low-cost. "Luxury" in this case doesn't refer to goods (or services) that are made of the finest, most expensive, or rarest materials. It merely means that there is an association in the consumer's mind between the brand and the idea of style and fashion. In some cases, the companies offer inexpensive products with high-end styling (Martha Stewart for Kmart) or knockoffs of high-fashion items (H&M). In other cases, the association is more of a perception play created through graphically creative advertising and the use of designer names (Target). Author Thomas Hine, although he was referring specifically to 1950s mass-consumer culture, has coined the perfect term for this category of consumer goods: populuxe.

Kate Spade is too expensive to qualify as populuxe, though like the above companies, its positioning is often more fashionable than its products. Song, though, is the perfect case study. With its Kate Spade uniforms, the airline has brought a little bit of fashion to the masses but not enough to scare them. This is fashion for the person who wants to be chic without standing out from the crowd. In so doing, Song is attempting to upscale what has become a downscale mode of transportation. Surely we can expect to see an Ian Schrager Motel 6 line of budget-boutique chain hotels any day now. Populuxe may not be as luxurious as the real thing, but it's more fun than riding in coach.

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