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Bespoke uniforms: Hardwearing, soft branding

Have you ever sat down at your local café and thought: ‘damn, the barista’s apron is stylish’? Or have you paid for your petrol and thought, ‘what a cool shirt’? Bespoke uniforms are popping up all over New Zealand, with limitless potential for both designers and brands.

Matt Nash of MN Uniform began making custom uniforms two years ago and he is already closing in on his 100th client. Working for the likes of Neat Meat, Odettes and Amisfield winery, he provides fashionable and functional work uniforms that give a sense of pride to each unique company.

“Point of difference is the most important thing in a business at this stage. Uniforms and how staff present themselves is a big part of that,” says Nash. “It has always been important, but it’s particularly sought after at the moment as it’s harder to stand out.”

Nash says the proliferation of Instagram means businesses now need to be effortlessly stylish. “You can’t present yourself they way you want to anymore, people create their own content, like with Instagram. You have to look good from all angles now.”

Having worked in hospitality and as the designer for Crane Brother’s Little Brother label, Nash knows how to balance style and comfort. He is currently making an understated uniform range for Britomart’s concierge and valet drivers.

“For us particularly it’s about how we get something unique,” says Britomart marketing director Sarah Hull. “It’s not a matter of just putting logos on something. The branding is on there, but in a subtle kind of way, with our logo on the buttons or our own scarves. Our customers will be up close to the valet drivers and the subtle differences will be noticed.”

A lot of thought has gone into the design of the uniforms. The concierge staff will have a warm jacket for when they stand outside, so they don’t ruin the uniform with their own. The uniform for the valet drivers reflects their status and are hardy to put up with moving in and out of cars.

The general wear and tear of uniforms is another reason brands seek out quality designs. Mimi Gilmour of Burger Burger and Fish Fish enjoyed working with MN Uniform because of Nash’s technical creativity. “It’s balancing … finding the right people to work with that have the same energy and passion,” she says.

The BB and FF teams have aprons that crisscross at the back, which is more comfortable than hanging from the neck, and can be adjusted to fit all shapes and sizes.

“I just think that if you put all your thought and energy into the atmosphere and food it’s really important to put that effort into how you present your team as well,” says Gilmour. “As New Zealanders we are really creative and proud…  we should put that energy into all aspects of our business.”

The designer of bespoke workwear company, White Label, Tamzin Hawkins has a similar sentiment. “I think our clients are thoughtful of the whole customer experience, uniforms have become as important as choosing the music that is played in the space or the ceramics used for serving,” she says. “A uniform adds to an experience by identifying a group of individuals that create a team, and reflect the feeling of the space through colour, texture and style.”

This approach has worked for White Label, which has achieved 97 percent revenue growth this year, with a host of clients from jewellers’ aprons at Meadowlark to up-cycled shelter bags at Al Brown.

“I think supporting local businesses is something people are becoming more aware of… we are using locally manufactured cotton tapes, leather and hardware, printing and embroidery,” says Hawkins.

Dressing respectfully is very important for Gilmour, who jokes that working with 15-25 year-old staff members means the team sometimes has to show them what an iron is. They provide the apron and top half of the staff’s uniforms, and the staff wear their own dark coloured pants and sensible shoes.

Although Gilmour says custom uniforms are on the rise, with more accessible manufacture costs and changing attitudes, some brands have been bespoke since way back. Air New Zealand in particular has had more designer uniforms than you can shake a hanger at. Before the current Trelise Cooper range they have worked with Zambesi, Christian Dior and Nina Ricci.

In an interview with Fashion NZ, where she revealed that she has also designed Mobil Oil’s uniforms, Trelise Cooper said: “Air New Zealand wants to be strongly visually perceived as a world class airline, with the uniform being a ‘best foot forward’ for the company. From their brief I conceived ‘On Show – On Board’ – a wardrobe with enough depth so that on the ground the crew look distinctive and different, and in the cabin their uniform is warm, friendly and intimate with talking points, things to discover.”

New Zealand designers are well suited to the current demand for bespoke uniforms. Leather and accessory brand Saben has been working with corporates since it began 16 years ago. They have produced signature accessories for the likes of L’Oreal, Spark, Westpac, Nespreso and Air New Zealand.

When talking to The Register this year founder Roanne Jacobson said the company has a unique placement by being local, but with scale. “Where they’ve got a need, we can fill it,” says Jacobson. “Because we’ve been around for so many years, whether the factory’s in New Zealand, Indonesia or China, any need, we can pretty much deliver on.”

Saben has the manufacturing capability to make a range of items in minimum quantities from 50 to 500. MN Uniform turns orders from 10-100 in a minimum of eight weeks, with his local hand-manufacturers.

“I think the fact we are made in New Zealand appeals to clients as they can be involved in the design process  right from the beginning and if they require something quickly we can offer a fast turn around,” says Hawkins, whose orders can take around two-to-three weeks including embroidery. 

White Label even re-dyes old aprons for clients. “We get back the old aprons after a year or two  and have them re-dyed to give them a second life, its great for business owners who can invest once in a quality product and see the evidence that the investment is worth it in the long run,” says the designer. 

With your local butcher looking sharper than you, it’s time to embrace the bespoke uniform movement.

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