Uniforms, corporate clothing or institutional wear—go by the term you prefer—is a big business category in the fashion industry. The way the staff of a company is attired makes a far-reaching impact on customers and adds immense value to the image and branding of the organisation. From hotels, hospitals, airlines and offices to multi-brand stores, beauty parlours, spas, resorts, shops, stores, boutiques, restaurants, coffee shops and health clinics—the list is endless. And, top designers are adding their creative emphasis in this styling of image.

One of the leading fashion designers in India, Lina Tipnis turned her creative gaze on corporatewear in 2010. Her list of companies ranges from Nissan India’s front-end sales team to Varuna D Jani Fine Jewellery and Irasva jewellery. Creating a mix of western and fusionwear, Tipnis explains, “The uniforms are different for each company. Western—for corporates—business suits are in wool blends and polyester cotton shirting fabrics. The emphasis is on detailing, trims and colours, which complement the brand’s feel and essence. Fusion—for smaller high-end retailers—depends on the customer profile, for which the designs need to be planned. Since employees differ in sizes; the designs are created to suit any body type in order to maintain uniformity.”

Tipnis follows a set model. “First, we need to understand the brand profile, philosophy and target audience. Based on the brief given by the CEO and the marketing team, looks are created in the form of colour illustrations, keeping in mind critical factors like durability and styles which work for most body types, and fabrics which are low maintenance. Above all, they have to look stylish and make a statement for the brand.”

Research plays an important part. “We study their customer demographics and understand the brand positioning. Image is everything and therefore it is important to communicate the message of the brand through the language of the attire.” Besides providing the sketches, Tipnis gives companies the option to either stitch the uniforms themselves or outsource it to her. Normally, four sets are created per employee. Important points to keep in mind are comfort, durability and styles specific to the need of the brands. The fabrics are sourced from various mills and should be durable, low maintenance and easily available with a sharp, edgy and fresh feel. She has used Siyaram’s Soft Touch suiting and shirting fabric from Ruby Mills. The pricing varies from ?3,000 to ?8,000 for business suits; the lead time is 30 days.

When it comes to changes in designs, Tipnis says, “It is not often, but only minor changes are done to make them practical. Unless it is a 50-year-old brand going in for re-positioning to attract a new younger audience, they just want a new look. Stocks are replenished every 6–9 months. Today, due to a higher attrition level, companies prefer to give two sets initially followed by two more sets in the third month.”

Corporatewear designing is lucrative because of the numbers ordered. The cons are few. “The only challenge is to get approvals for aesthetics and to get everyone on the same page. After design approval, the next challenge is to get every individual’s measurement. This is done in person or over video calls. Last, it is the individual fittings and trials which are time consuming.”

While uniform designing is a major revenue stream for designers, Tipnis feels, “Every customer-facing business needs uniforms. Today, banks, hotels, fashion and lifestyle retail—all require uniforms. From hospitality, travel, security, sales teams—all need uniforms. Uniforms are a huge business.”

Ravi Bajaj realised the importance of designing corporatewear in 1989 and his list of companies is an impressive one. From Taj Hotels and Hyatt Hotels to Jet Airways, PVR Cinemas, Volvo Cars, G4S, Apollo Hospitals, DLF, Wave Cinemas, Claridges Hotel, and GVK, Bajaj has ensured that the employees are stylishly attired. The division called Ravi Bajaj Employee Fashion (RBEF) was created as an initiative with the sole purpose of bringing aesthetics to uniforms because he believes that “appearances matter.”

“Wherever employees interact with customers, it becomes imperative that they project the right image of their organisation and the way they dress and groom themselves tends to be important. The term I like to use for uniforms is ‘employee fashion’,” says Bajaj.

His company creates quick, accurate and efficient samples and prototypes in an exclusive workshop studio. “We are equipped to handle all order sizes—from small to large. With our strategic tie-ups with Unisources India (a star trading house) and Pure Cotton India Ltd (a sourcing company), we have access to fabric mills and factories across the globe ensuring competitive prices and deliverables.”

A specialist in both Indian and western uniforms, Bajaj explains his four-step procedure while creating designs. “Step one is to get the brief. Next, the idea is translated on paper, and after that a presentation is made, followed by submission of samples along with all the specifications.” Bajaj makes a thorough check of each company. “We understand the nature of business, location for weather conditions, job profile of the employees and finally the image that the client wants to project.” RBEF has designed and produced uniforms for a minimum of 15 to a maximum 6,000 employees. Bajaj admits that designing a collection is quite different. “For designing a collection, one has an open canvas. On the other hand, uniforms have to be designed within a tight frame. All companies give a design brief, but at times they do tend to deviate from it.”

There are multiple sources for the fabrics. “Some are from local mills, sometimes they are imported. Fabrics need to have longevity, and at the same time should be breathable and upmarket looking.”

The pricing varies. “We don’t do very lowcost uniforms.” A shirt starts at ?900, trousers at ?1,800, jackets at ?3,500 and the lead time is 30–120 days depending on the quantity. Since Bajaj has designed for a cross-section of companies, he is aware of the frequency in the uniform changes.

“For airlines, it is usually 10–15 years, hotels two years, and restaurants 2–3 years.”

Bajaj observes, “Uniforms tend to have lower margins but high volumes, and are also only produced against confirmed orders and advances. A normal collection has high margins but low volumes, and no guarantee that the piece would sell. There are only pros when it comes to the business of uniform designing except when occasionally an ego is bruised,” he adds. 

Payal Jain’s first corporate design project was for the Leela Hotel, Goa in 1995. Since then, there has been no looking back and she has designed the uniform philosophy for over 100 hotels, airports, hospitals and corporate clients.

“This is a large part of our business—one that requires as much passion and energy as the high-fashion label. The design philosophy for the corporate world needs to be practical, versatile, durable, cost-effective and universal for all nationalities, ethnicities, body types and sizes. Also, each client has a unique identity and brand philosophy, which must come across as the first impression. The people and their attire are a crucial part of this brand image. Every project with a property or group has been a learning experience. Over the years, we have worked with several prestigious hotel chains like Four Seasons, Aman, Hyatt International Hotels, Starwood group of hotels, Alila Hotels, Six Senses, Waldorf Astoria, Jumaira Hotels, Universal group, the Address, the Oberoi Hotels and Resorts, Taj Group of Hotels, Leela Group, Shangri-La Hotels and more in India and around the globe. We have also designed corporate looks for GMR Delhi International Airport, GMR Hyderabad International Airport, Maldives International Airport, Carnival Cruise, Max Healthcare, Doha Hospital, DLF Aralias, etc,” informs Jain.

There are several rounds of briefing meetings with hotel teams, owners and other stakeholders, each sharing their expectations and concerns. Often, site visits are required too to understand the layout, design aesthetic of the architecture and interiors and understand the cultural nuances.

According to Jain, in her experience of 25 years, “The decision on the uniforms may lie with hotel owners, project team, pre-opening team, FF&E (fixtures, furniture, and equipment) teams from the managing company, general manager or sometimes even the housekeeping teams.”

Jain’s process in designing uniforms is intense and research-based. “Often, our work begins before the hotel is operational, at a pre-opening stage. We work with the interior designers and brand consultants, along with the hotel pre-opening teams to create a design concept right from the beginning. We get a design brief from the owners and hotel teams and go into details of the brand and its ethos and philosophy. If it’s a brand we have worked with in the past, then it’s a matter of researching that particular property, the local culture and heritage, weather conditions, functional aspects of the architectural layout and other considerations like laundry facilities, distance, logistics, etc, which may need to be kept in mind. From an architecture and interior point of view, the vision of designers who have created the space need to connect with the uniform philosophy and marry with the brand ethos.”

She continues, “I believe uniforms are the first point of contact and the most important aspect of guest interaction. The soul of a hotel lies in its people and their appearance, confidence and motivation, and performance is largely dependent on how they feel about themselves. If the staff is happy, content and well-groomed, they will convey this feeling of satisfaction to the guests in every interaction. Uniforms are a big part of the ‘feel-good’ factor for any hotel. Also, the uniforms must convey the brand philosophy, hospitality standards, style, aesthetics, cultural and geographical influences of the brand and that particular property through the right balance.”

Designing corporatewear involves several aspects. “We research the architectural ethos and design philosophy, interior design and aesthetics, brand positioning, geographical surroundings and location, cultural dynamics, weather conditions, property footprint and logistics, hiring pattern/mix of nationalities, soft furnishings, laundry facilities, and local and religious nuances, if any. Other factors to keep in mind and research according to the location are body types and skin tones of staff, their comfort, habitat, preferences and concerns, practicality and functionality expected, laundry requirements availability and wear/tear expected. This helps decide the yarns, fabrics, detailing, shoes and other accessories that are part of the entire design aesthetic. We also define the grooming standard including hairstyle, recommended makeup palette, jewellery, shoes and other accessories.”

Jain presents sketches and once designs are approved, the prototypes are then made. “We prefer to produce in-house and have state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities in Noida, where all international health and safety standards are followed. To ensure that the design is translated perfectly into production, it is always best that it is produced under our own supervision. However, if there are logistics or other concerns of the client, we are open to the production being managed by them and yet remain involved in the entire process from start to finish. Certain countries have restrictions on imports. In such cases, vendors are recommended by us as per the client’s comfort and requirement for manufacturing locally. The minimum may be about 100–200 uniforms, but maximum can be any number. We have successfully produced up to 10,000 uniforms for a single client/project in the past.”

Jain’s fashion collections have her characteristic design sensibilities, but when it comes to uniforms, she states: “These are two completely different mediums of expression. One is about weaving a strong narrative and creating impact on the ramp, by presenting a collection which would appeal to a large audience segment across the world. The other is about interpreting a destination in terms of textiles and fashion, encompassing a wide and varied audience, maintaining a strong balance between aesthetics, functionality and longevity of design and product.”

Fabric selection is important. “We believe in sustainable fabrics, which is not always possible as some areas demand heavy wear and tear. In that case, we suggest the fabrics accordingly. Fabric selection and recommendation is based on a client’s brief, weather conditions, roles and responsibilities of the staff wearing them and general comfort, as well as ease of maintenance. We design and create all our own fabrics; always produced in India—a conscious and ethical choice we follow as a company to encourage Indian weaves, textiles heritage, craft, businesses and facilities. The costs vary depending on the choice of yarns, fabrics, prints or embroideries. We usually create fabrics and textiles from scratch for our projects and hence it is difficult to generalise the cost.”

From start to finish, a project can span anywhere between four and 12 months. Sometimes, projects start at the pre-opening stage and stretch up to 24 months—to conclusion and handover. Usually, every 18–24 months there is a replenishment of uniforms required, and sometimes designs are refreshed or tweaked, to keep up with the latest fashion trends.

For Jain, both uniform and collection designing for buyers and stores are strong revenue generating streams. “There is always some learning with each project and that’s the biggest takeaway. Sometimes, projects can be tough to manoeuvre with diverse stakeholders and getting approval from all quarters isn’t always easy. Also, strict discipline and a level of professionalism are needed to take a project from start to finish, and continue working with the same clients year after year. It’s very different from creating an haute couture ensemble for a client or showing a new collection at a fashion week.”

Bhamini Subramanian’s lovely hand-painted creations first appeared on the Indian fashion scene in 1990. The colourful spread of floral motifs and abstract designs brought many companies to Subramaniam who wanted her to create the look of their uniforms. The list moves from Jazz By the Bay, a famous restaurant in Mumbai to GATI in Hyderabad, BPL in Mumbai, Max Touch in Mumbai and Godrej Sara Lee Consumer Products Limited in Mumbai. Since the corporate firms were global in nature, the demand was for western or Indo-western creations along with saris. Subramaniam works in a systematic manner. The first procedure is to meet the client and get a brief of what they are looking for.

“We assess if a working rapport is possible, and only then go ahead with the order so as to avoid pitfalls and interferences that may be possible in the middle or at end of production. Once confirmed, it is better to verify the progress at every step—to ensure smooth execution and finish—so that there are no rejects and losses. We look into the background of the company, its size, its place in the industry, the age group of staff, the kind of work involved—is it indoors (receptionist or executive) or outdoors (sales and marketing), factory, technical or laboratory, different levels of looks to be made by hierarchies of designation, the company philosophy, its logo, the colours they wish to be identified by, the image they wish to project, and the quantity they would require is researched.”

The minimum order has been about 50 sets of upper and lowerwear with accessories like scarves or ties for male and female staff, with repeat orders from time to time. This is for a small-sized company. The maximum quantities have been 1,500 sets of the above with a good number of special custom-made saris, scarves and ties for the executives and directors of the company.

Subramaniam observes, “The market for institutional clothing in India could easily be from ?10,000 crore to ?12,000 crore considering the rise of IT centres, pubs, restaurants, malls, institutions, schools, hospitals, airlines, travel and sports. Since we have the demographics of a young working population as majority, the demand definitely exists.”

Keeping the Mumbai climate in mind, Subramaniam selects easy breathable wash-and-wear, crinkle-free fabrics that look fresh all the time. Normally, it is 70 per cent cotton blended with 30 per cent polyester for shirts and tops while it is gabardine twill for trousers, coats and jackets. “I have even made 60 grams handpainted, crepe silk shirts with art deco logo for Jazz By The Bay. Max Touch asked for silk saris with custom-made print for female sales executives. Another company wanted scarves in synthetic fabric due to budgetary constraints. Thicker fabric for men’s jumpsuits was made for a pesticide company.”

For small quantities, the lead time is 30 days, while for larger orders at least 2–3 months are needed. The pricing per piece is ?2,500 for shirts, tops, trousers and skirts, and ?5,000 for the silk ones.

Subramaniam remarks, “A concept approved and a large order executed are definitely welcome and a matter of prestige for a designer. While procuring fabrics, you have to be sure of same quality delivered all the time without even slight differences in yarn, colour or shrinkage, or even difference in print. There must be no delay in fabric delivery once an order is placed so as not to cause problems in production. Trims and embellishments have to be of consistent quality and supply made available as and when needed.”

As far as sizes are concerned, she adds, “Small companies prefer that we take individual specific measurements of each member of staff. In large companies too sizes for shirts may be averaged out to assess the number of small, medium and large. However, unlike brands, it is difficult to standardise the Indian body form, especially for women. Corporate uniforms demand a sleek and smart look; hence, specifics work better. In the case of coats and jackets, it has to be individual body measurements. Once the concept is decided, the same is continued for the next 2–5 years till they want an image makeover. So, replenishments or repeat orders keep coming every six months.”

It is mostly the CEO or director or the corporate relations / publicity head of the company who takes the final decision. The go-ahead must come in the form of a confirmed order written to the designer’s firm who will then begin to execute it as mutually decided by both parties.

Subramaniam feels that designing uniforms may be lucrative only if the volumes or orders are repeated frequently. The mark up in each piece of the designer collection is definitely more than that of the uniform, but the quantities are smaller. An exclusive but small uniform line, which pays well, may be comparable to a casual pret collection that is not so highly priced.

“Here, I am not including value added work like hand embroidery in zari, gold or silver, though digital embroidered/printed fabrics can be done in quantities at a cheaper rate. Payments made for uniform orders are quicker than collections given to stores or buyers depending on terms of transaction.”

She adds, “We cannot really compare the two (uniforms vs collections). Our collection comprises each piece—as one of a kind—and hence is exclusive, whereas designing uniforms is the replica of a prototype produced in numbers. There is subjectivity involved while making a collection as it is done on the designer’s whims and fancies and the customers they wish to sell it to, while designing uniforms is based on a client’s requirements and besides having the sense of pride of designing it, the end piece is seen with objectivity as a product, since it has to meet the company’s as well as the staff’s satisfaction.”

In 1998, Jay Ramrakhiani graduated from pret, cocktail gowns and formalwear to corporatewear, which he prefers to call identity apparel (ID) for the Indian Hotels Company Ltd (IHCL) (a Tata enterprise). He has also designed for IHM Aurangabad, a culinary school, Khazana lifestyle stores of the Taj Group, and uber luxury palaces of Rajasthan. In addition, the list includes the service apartments known as the Wellington Mews, Exim Bank (Mumbai), Dr Batra’s Positive Health Clinic, Tata Medical Hospital Kolkata, Lodha World One (reception), GVK airport Mumbai/Bengaluru and a few international assignments.

“When designing ID apparel, I consider the end user and not the customer. Which is why I consult the employees who will be wearing it. Their requirements in terms of specifics which I maybe unaware of are very helpful, and their response may be surprising. I don’t compromise on quality over quantity. My apparel should have my stamp of approval.”

Ramrakhiani keeps in mind several aspects when designing ID apparel. “ID apparel would consist of formal jackets, pants, shirts, ties, cravats, tops, camisoles, scarves, sherwanis, Nehru jackets, waistcoats, housekeeping sets, bellboys’ wear, fine dine restaurant wear, chefs’ coats, class wear, cummerbunds, embellished sun umbrellas for royalty, doorman’s long tunics with brocade emblems, emblem buttons to distinguish, handwoven saris by the weavers of Varanasi, blouses and many more.”

He elaborates, “The type of industry also has a big influence on how the design will turn out as a finished product. It’s not the same to design ID apparel for a fine dine restaurant compared to a spa in the same property. The dressing (process) has to be smart and elegant. The fabrics used are all blended with cotton and polyester or viscose to enable comfort due to the tropical climes.”

Ramrakhiani feels a brand guideline and the ambience also help on the importance of thoughtfully designed uniforms for service personnel. It is important There is a process that Ramrakhiani follows. “Once I have the brief ready, I sketch my ideas to play around in a fun way and let my imagination run wild. The next part is to run my ideas visually with colour swatches, which have been laundry tested in terms of colourfastness, shrinkage and durability with the customer. If all goes well, I present a made-to-measure sample for the final call for production, unless there are changes to be made. The entire production whether it is six sets or 200 are all made in-house. Each set may comprise 2–5 pieces per set and last a minimum of two years.

While Ramrakhiani has designed collections for beauty pageants, fashion weeks and shows, he says there is a difference to uniform designing. “Designing ID apparel comparatively requires a lot of discussion and criticism before it is approved, as most designs are met with a lot of negative reactions with somebody or the other not being very pleased. While it’s easy to design something that looks good on a model strutting down a ramp, it’s more difficult to design something practical that will look good on all ages, sizes and heights that the staff will actually enjoy, be comfortable with, and like wearing 365 days of the year. Proud to say my uniforms have that magic to make the staff look smart and confident. Having said that, this makes designing ID apparel less lucrative compared to a collection for buyers and stores provided they are an outright purchase and not on consignment.”

Having been in the corporate apparel business for nearly 25 years, Ramrakhiani observes the way the industry is moving: “Institutional clothing is a growing market at around 18–20 per cent by the year 2025 taking 2018 as the base year. Low-cost apparel with a durability of 8–10 months will be more in demand. Global market trends are changing with new technology producing lighter apparels with internet of things (IoT) features and asset tracking systems.”

Designer Jattinn Kochhar started designing uniforms in 1999 for a list of companies that reads like the veritable Who’s Who of the corporate world. This roster starts with Air Hostess Training Centre (New Delhi), Austrian Embassy (New Delhi) (official designer for the Viennese ball ‘05), Flanschenwerk Bebitz GmbH (Germany), Tupperware India Pvt Ltd, Sahara Pariwar, Sahara Airlines, Sahara Television Network, TV Today Network, Viraj Profiles Ltd, Godfrey Philips India: Four Square (uniforms for the brand ambassadors of Four Square), Tagore International School, Sutra Restaurant, Syntech Technology Pvt Ltd (Gionee cell phones) Hotel Park Royal, Floats (uniforms for the night club staff), Apara Motels: Fire Ball (uniforms for the night club staff), Cafe (uniforms for the cafe staff), India Live News (anchor’s wardrobes) Jay Pee Palace (Agra), Haryana state police (winter uniform jacket), EMRI (Emergency and Medical Research Institute).

A specialist in western corporatewear with a few fusion creations depending on the requirements, Kochhar emphasises, “The numbers play a vital role in designing uniforms—the nature of the job/designation and functionality amalgamated with a sharp design that depicts the motto of the company. We provide the sketches and prototypes, or either of the two (as needed).”

The designing is done phase wise. “The projects are broken down into two phases. For phase one, I provide the design along with sketches and a sample for which I charge a fixed design fee and phase two is where I provide the facility of production at production cost. The client has the option of just getting the designs and getting the production done themselves, or I can do both for them.”

The quantity varies from 50 to 500 uniforms with a cost of ?1,000 per uniform for which a lead time of 30 days to several months is needed after approval of the design, again depending on the numbers. Companies normally provide 3–5 sets per employee and uniforms are changed every 10–15 years.

According to Kochhar, “Most companies do not have design aesthetics—not that it stops them from giving their design briefs. Interestingly, the main bosses like to get involved directly in the entire process, which is followed up by their procurement manager. Designing uniforms is a different type of business from designing a collection. Uniform designing is a numbers game, while collections may not be. The key is to design a uniform that the wearer will be happy to wear, is comfortable with, and conveys the company ethos with absolute ease. The market for institutional clothing in India is massive. We have not even made a scratch in that direction yet.”

This article was first published in the April 2021 edition of the print magazine.