For airline fashion, even the sky isn’t the limit: Synergy between cockpit and couture flies high

Airlines have been betting on it for years to create a distinct identity and attract flyers.

For airline fashion, even the sky isn’t the limit: Synergy between cockpit and couture flies high
According to designer Nikhil Sharma of menswear brand Lacquer Embassy, “Akasa Air has forayed into garments made from recycled polyester fabric which is a great step to show sustainability as one of the brand’s key messages.” (Photo source: AkasaAir)

By Akanksha Seth

Earlier this week, the newest airline on the block, Akasa Air rolled out the first look of its crew uniform. Created by Delhi-based fashion designer Rajesh Pratap Singh, the look essays comfort and originality with a bandhgala-style jacket reimagined in a futuristic avatar. The crew sports cushioned black and white sneakers with orange laces, designed by Vanilla Moon. It’s a rare sighting in airline uniforms and one that is believed to be speaking directly to the brand’s ethos – easy, playful, and fun.

Akasa is also highlighting its focus on sustainability through the outfits. According to designer Nikhil Sharma of menswear brand Lacquer Embassy, “Akasa Air has forayed into garments made from recycled polyester fabric which is a great step to show sustainability as one of the brand’s key messages.”

Fashion in the airline industry is not a new concept. Airlines have been betting on it for years to create a distinct identity and attract flyers. When Air India introduced its trademark sari for air hostesses in the 1960s, it was a way to advertise India as an exotic destination. The perfectly pleated sari became a sort of symbol for the East, projecting a well-groomed and hospitable image of India to global travellers.

But this was back when air travel was the prerogative of the rich. More recently, Indian airlines have moved towards youthful, aspirational and fun identities, to cater to evolving travellers. In 2017, SpiceJet engaged Mumbai-based designer Nimish Shah to give a ‘Red-Hot-Spicy’ makeover to their crew uniforms. The revamped look featured short shift dresses with sling bags and box heels for women, and three-piece suits with lace-up oxfords for men.

Indigo’s all-female staff are seen in deep blue tunics, accentuated with hats and scarves, also designed by Rajesh Pratap Singh. In a first, the airline partnered with celebrity hair and makeup artist Ambika Pillai to create a global look for the girls – pink and red lips, nude eyes and short hair.

Vistara, on the other hand, brought in the designer duo Abraham & Thakore when it launched back in 2014. Their use of the classic V-shaped yoke, trouser suit for women and mandarin-collar jacket for men, has a distinctly Asian look. A Vistara spokesperson says, “Vistara’s uniforms…captures the spirit of the airline, embodying the best of Indian traditions.”

Fashion designer Rohit Bal says the priorities for airline fashion are comfort, practicality, smart fit, international appeal, minimal jewellery, lasting appeal, though not necessarily in that order.

Indeed, the ensembles of each of these airlines clearly speak to the appeal of the brand. While SpiceJet pops in reds & blacks for a bold and vivacious feel, the cool and professional chic of Indigo comes alive in shades of blue. The global sophistication of Vistara finds expression in purple and gold, a palette that seeks to set it apart from low-cost carriers. Amidst these, Akasa is looking to create its space in the skies with the warmth and glow of orange.

The style and grooming of flight attendants have long been associated with the service one would expect on the flight. As the Vistara spokesperson points out, “We have tried to keep all our uniforms practical and comfortable, allowing cabin crew and staff members to move confidently, and put into action the thoughtful, welcoming spirit of Vistara.”

Emirates, one of the most high-end airlines in the world, is known for its impeccable hospitality which has become ubiquitous with the airline’s signature look. With their pillbox-style red hats, bold red lips, and flowing white silk scarfs, the cabin crew oozes elegance and charm.

In some cases, airline fashion has even been elevated to cult status – like the famous ‘Singapore Girl’. Singapore Airlines’ sarong kebaya outfit for female flight attendants was designed by haute couturier Pierre Balmain back in 1968. The timeless attire made with Asian batik print has stayed the same ever since – including the patterns and fabric. What’s more, each piece is tailor-made for the specific crew member, a tradition that has been alive for over 50 years. The ‘Singapore Girl’ is even immortalised at Madame Tussauds.

This synergy between cockpit and couture has always flown high. From the glamorous makeover of Virgin Atlantic by Dame Vivienne Westwood in 2014 to Air France’s longstanding collaborations with French designers, including Balenciaga, Dior and most recently Christian Lacroix. And it’s an interesting playground for designers.

Utkarsh Ahuja, creative director & CEO of Indian designer wear brand Matsya, says, “Uniforms require technical design which keeps both comfort and functionality in mind. You need to look at how the people wearing the uniform spend their day. And also keep the brand ethos in play, taking inspiration from the values they are aiming for. Like denoting luxury with the use of gold or shiny trims etc.”

Australian carrier Qantas took it a step further in 2020 with a limited-edition athleisure-wear collection showcasing the brand’s iconic flying kangaroo motif. Designed by leading Australian fashion designer, Martin Grant, the range aimed at bringing the nostalgia of travel back to people’s homes amidst the pandemic.

With the rapid democratisation of air travel in India and an increasing number of first-time fliers, it will be interesting to see how Indian airlines continue to innovate to stay ahead of the curve. For airline fashion, even the sky isn’t the limit.

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