Even its current slogan of ‘flying in the face of ordinary’ suggests that it likes to do things differently by offering a passenger experience centred around ultimate comfort and style.
Of course, a lot of what the brand stands for is due to its charismatic and pioneering leader Sir Richard Branson, who started Virgin Atlantic in 1984 with just one plane. Although its success can be put down to his entrepreneurial flair, he has always maintained that the most important contributor to his business success is, and always will be, people.
“The people who make up Virgin Atlantic, make Virgin Atlantic. This isn’t a company that just talks about putting employees first or glibly claims that our people are our greatest asset. This is a company that simply wouldn’t exist without the energy, the determination, the wit and the wisdom of our people,” says Branson.
This view is echoed by Virgin Atlantic’s head of design, Luke Miles, who oversees the manifestation of the brand through design, both internally and externally. “Although we have these wonderful environments both onboard in the aircraft and on the ground in our clubhouses, the connecting piece is our people. When travelling from one destination to another you have this emotional connection to the brand and often that is through the people you interact with,” comments Miles.
Although Virgin Atlantic’s cabin crew stand out with their iconic ‘Virgin red’ uniforms, the company decided it was time to provide its 7500 staff, including cabin crew, pilots, clubhouse staff and Virgin Holidays employees, with new redesigned uniforms. “As our people are one of our key differentiators we wanted to update their image and build a bit of an icon around the thing that makes us so special,” adds Miles.
The in-house design team manages many aspects of design for the airline, including service concepts, interiors, airport lounge architecture as well as the uniforms. During these various design projects the team will often collaborate with top designers and architects. In this case it was renowned British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood.
“Virgin Atlantic has a distinct spirit and from a design perspective we continually try to challenge the norm and stand out from the crowd. Our current uniform has been around for more than 10 years and we have seen other airlines start to copy it. When we were choosing the designer for this project, we wanted to work with a group of people who share our spirit of adventure, who believe in challenging the status quo and creating something truly memorable,” says Branson.
Vivienne Westwood is not only known for bringing modern punk and new wave fashions into the mainstream but has also created some of the most striking outfits that have ever been seen on the catwalk and red carpet. “My clothes have always got a very strong dynamic rapport with the body – they are very body conscious, they help you to look glamorous, more hourglass, more woman. I design things to help people to hopefully express their personality,” explains Westwood.
Although Miles admits that this was a great marriage of two well-known British brands, the primary objective for collaborating with Vivienne Westwood was for her quality of thinking. “We like to work with brands who share our view on the world. We are a challenger brand and we are quite pioneering in the sense that we try to push boundaries a little bit and the Vivienne Westwood team is the same,” says Miles.
“It was also a lovely fit in terms of how we want to celebrate our people and the fact that she provides highly crafted, beautifully tailored garments that also celebr-ate the human form and make people feel special.”
The design team invited Vivienne Westwood to the Virgin Atlantic headquarters in Crawley, south of London, where they presented her with a brief based around its culture and history as well as where the brand is heading in the future. “We have changed some of our office spaces recently with the intention of bringing the brand to life and we share that with any team we work with. It gives them a sense of what the brand is, where the legacy is and what we feel is important,” says Miles.
With this knowledge, Vivienne Westwood proposed a uniform design that was futuristic but at the same time captured the glamour and style that the Virgin Atlantic cabin crew are renowned for. As she has an enduring interest in 1940s French couture cutting techniques as well as the Savile Row tailoring heritage, there would be references of those in the designs too.
Importantly, the cabin crew were also consulted during the design process, as they were the ones who would be wearing the finished items. For the female uniform, the silhouette is extremely feminine so as to suit all shapes and sizes. The jacket enhances the female form with the aid of cleverly placed bust pleats, a nipped-in waist and a curved hip line together with a complementing pencil skirt. “The idea of a tailored look is very important to us so we’ve kept it quite simple and the statements we are trying to make are within the cut and the selection of materials,” explains Miles.
For the men, a classic three-piece suit in rich burgundy wool features shadow details in grey wool under the lapels and pockets. Although not red and white like the female uniform, it was felt that this rich colouring gave the male uniform character as well as a contemporary feel.
“Both the male and female suits are sophisticated but also quite fun. I think that is one of the nice things about working with the Vivienne Westwood team – they are very sharp at producing work that has character but is also sophisticated, with a sense of timelessness about it,” says Miles.
Although Miles admits that the uniform isn’t a revolution from what went before, he explains that, much like their other design projects, whether it be a new clubhouse or airline seat, there is this idea of a stepped approach where the design invites you to explore. Being from an industrial design background himself, he describes this as first, second and third reads.
“The first read is what you see from a distance and how it invites you to take a closer look. So, the uniform’s colour gives you that striking moment at a distance. Then, with the second read, when you are onboard and interacting with the crew, the details will further reveal themselves on closer inspection. For instance, the little delicate wing print on the female blouses high-lights a textural change as it transforms from matte-white to sheer.
“Then the third read is about having the whole thing burn into your memory so that you do not only remember the uniform but also the experience you’ve had with the people we are lucky enough to have working for us,” explains Miles.
Being so important to both Virgin Atlantic and Vivienne Westwood, another vital factor in this project was sustainability. As Virgin Atlantic highlights in its ‘Change is in the Air’ (CIITA) sustainability program, sustainability is very much aligned with the company brand values and it is pushing on with the process of embedding it firmly into the way it does business.
In terms of the uniform, many items will be produced using recycled materials – in particular, working with recycled polyester yarn made from used plastic bottles. Virgin Atlantic is also developing all items with Closed Loop Recycling in mind. This new technology takes worn polyester clothing and turns it back into fibres that can be woven again into new fabrics and, in turn, new clothing.
However, as Miles explains, another aspect of sustainability is longevity. “Good design not only provides a good experience for users but obviously allows items to last longer. That is a very key part of what we’ve tried to do with our uniforms – we have treatments that we are applying to them that will increase that longevity and wear over time,” he says.
“You have to remember that the environments in which these uniforms will be worn can be quite demand-ing so it’s very important to us that the quality of the garments is at a high level – that we are able to recycle the parts that we can in terms of being as ecological as possible but also that the product needs to last for as long as possible.”
Currently, only illustrations of the new uniforms have been released. Before the new uniforms are showcased they will be going through wearer trials with crew providing feedback on the design, practicality and wearability. This will enable any tweaks to be made ahead of the full launch in 2014.
As Miles says, the design team are all delighted with the new uniforms and are obviously excited about them rolling out. “It’s a lovely chapter for us as a brand in terms of our image, and how we keep on building that iconography in terms of our people, and the uniforms are a key part of that.”