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Expensive fashions are not just for movie stars and royalty. Haute couture is now taking to the skies.

Christian Lacroix designs uniforms for Air France. British Airways flight crews and staff now sport designs by Givenchy star Julien Macdonald. Los Angeles-based celebrity designer Richard Tyler presented Delta Air Lines' new line-up alongside his ready-to-wear collection during New York Fashion Week. Korean Air launched new outfits by Italian designer Gianfranco Ferre, including pants for the first time in the airline's history.

Since the first successful transatlantic flight in 1919, the air travel industry has developed on its own terms. It has created its own technical standards and has even produced its own aesthetic through cabin interiors, airport lounges, on-board plates and cutlery, and uniforms.

Flight attendant uniforms have remained the most important part of an airline's public image. Despite financial issues in the aviation industry resulting from tight competition and record-high fuel prices, top international carriers are calling in high-profile fashion designers to reinvent their images and rethink the entire "uniform" concept.

"A uniform is far more than simply clothing worn at work. It conveys a corporate image. It is the first contact you have with an airline," says Frank Legre, Air France's general manager for China.

"The French are said to be very romantic and elegant. It is very important that our uniforms reflect those values.

Air France has worked with Dior and Balenciaga before and is sticking to its tradition of collaborating with famous French fashion houses. The airline unveiled its latest uniform by Christian Lacroix in April 2005. It was the first makeover for the French carrier in 17 years. For the first time in company history, men's and women's uniforms were designed at the same time.

It was also a break from tradition to have a complete collection created from start to finish by the same designer. Christian Lacroix designed all of the gloves, pumps, hats, coats and dresses to achieve a high level of aesthetic consistency.

The basic colour remained Air France's famous navy blue. Women's jackets are distinguished by an "Air France" epaulette with a Chinese-style upward fillip. The women's slim-fitting dresses are identical, with red belts reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn. Christian Lacroix-printed scarves and red leather gloves add a finishing touch to the ready-to-wear ensembles.

The multimillion-dollar change involved 36,000 employees and started in 2001, when Air France set up a four-person team to work full-time on the project, which had a budget of approximately 20 million euros.

"The uniform structures the relationship between Air France and its customers, which is the central focus of the company's corporate strategy. To demonstrate its marketing ambitions, Air France decided to invest fully in this new creation," the airline says in a newsletter.

In an age when airlines are facing surging fuel prices and struggling to control costs, some might question whether expensive uniforms are a wise investment. But some passengers do care.

"I am not a fashion maniac, but if I got on a flight and a stewardess was poorly dressed, I would think she and the airline were un-professional. I wouldn't want to put my life in their hands," says Polly Wang, a frequent flier who runs a consulting company in Beijing.

Air Canada revamped its uniforms in 2004, shortly after it emerged from bankruptcy protection. Celine Dion modelled the new uniforms in a splashy four-city launch.

"Uniforms tie in perfectly with a refreshed brand. It's a reenergized Air Canada," George Reeleder, the Canadian carrier's senior director of marketing, was quoted as saying in The Globe and Mail. He admits the new uniforms cost "a large chunk of money," but overall expense came in at less than 10 per cent of the total re-branding budget.

British Airways unveiled new uniforms created by leading British fashion designer Julien Macdonald in April 2004.

"The old uniform has served us well over the years, but our people and our customers were increasingly telling us that we needed a fresh new look," says Martin George, British Airways director of marketing.

"Our uniform is one of the most powerful symbols of the British Airways brand and it is important that our people on the ground and in the air feel proud to wear it."

For the first time, female employees have the option of wearing skirts or trousers, and female pilots have a specially designed uniform.

"With the number of female pilots growing rapidly, the airline felt the need for a dedicated uniform with a more feminine cut," British Airways says in a press release.

In the 1930s and 1940s, flight attendants usually wore military-inspired outfits. By the 1960s and 1970s, they were more typically outfitted by renowned fashion designers. Dior designed uniforms for SAS, Balenciaga for Air France, and Valentino and Ralph Lauren for TWA. Some of these extraordinary creations often bore little resemblance to traditional notions of a uniform.

Flight attendants are now dressed much more conservatively, but some airlines still try to add stylish touches to their uniforms to highlight their brands and set them apart from dull female executives dressed in cheap fabric.

Parisian designer Pierre Balmain came up with Singapore Airlines' distinctive uniform, a sarong kebaya made of batik, in 1972 at the airline's inauguration. Singapore Airlines (SIA) was formed following the division of the former Malaysia-Singapore Airlines into two carriers Malaysian Airline Systems and SIA. The uniform later became one of SIA's signatures.

SIA's attendants are commonly referred to as "Singapore Girls," an idea that has become a global icon for the airline. SIA says the Singapore Girl epitomizes SIA's tradition of friendly service and Asian hospitality.

The Singapore Girl gives the airline a significant advantage over its competitors, and created a strong enough impression to warrant a wax model at Madame Tussaud's wax museum in 1993. It was the first commercial figure displayed at the London museum. Madame Tussaud's says the figure was chosen "to reflect the growing popularity of international travel" and in recognition of the 21st birthday of both SIA and the Singapore Girl.

Fashion designers no longer see flight attendant uniforms as merely a piece of clothing worn at work.

"They are so fashion-worthy," Tyler was quoted as saying at the launch of the new uniform he designed for Delta Air Lines. "They are pieces you could buy. They are classic, beautiful, what fashion should be."


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