Erich Campbell provides some practical advice on how to build a fashionable workwear uniform that perfectly reflects your customer’s brand

The pinnacle of uniform design is making something employees are required to wear into something they want to wear. Companies know that uniforms create a professional look, support branding and give customers trust in their employees, but most aren’t anything one could call fashionable.

With employees and customers becoming more savvy about design and fashion, companies are increasingly satisfied only with packages that have both the special function and durability of a traditional uniform, and a retail style. Luckily, this is well within the reach of the creative decorator. Combining the utility of special garment features and material qualities with an aesthetically-pleasing style opens up new markets that won’t respond to classic uniforms while increasing the perception of value overall.

Workwear, retail-style: step-by-step

1. Identify a style that fits Many customers will provide images or brand names containing example garments and decorations; when pitching the style yourself, consider the demographics of your client’s customers and employees, their corporate culture, and their branding. Look at existing marketing materials and even decoration in their businesses. Once you’ve identified the key traits of their brand, find retail brands that fit those traits and look over their last few seasons’ new garments. It’s likely that selections will emerge as potential inspirational models.

2. Analyse your inspirational pieces Identify essential characteristics that define the look of these retail models. Colour, cut, construction, detailing, fittings, material weave/structure and fibre can contribute to the look of the base garment. For decoration, consider size, colour palette, materials, surface texture/sheen, contrast and art style. This analysis creates a profile against which you can judge your vendor-sourced garments and design direction.

3. Get great garments Check distributors for garments that fit your style profile, remembering the wearer’s utilitarian concerns. Industrial washing, non-metal fasteners for electrical safety, special pockets etc – try to find garments that serve function and form. Even purely function-first garments like aprons can be style-matched with colour, cut and the right decoration.

4. Design dazzling decoration Fashion-forward workwear falls flat if you mismanage decoration. Corporate branding may tend towards conformity, but not every piece needs to have a standard execution of a company’s logo. Instead, design for the garment individually and for the combined effect of an intended set.

Think about popular retail brands: they don’t replicate a single logo in one style for every piece; they re-imagine and remix their design assets to give each piece its own personality, even while maintaining recognisability. Decorations are suited to the available decoration area as well as garment style. Even when utility forces you to stay closer to standard decoration, your technique, style, materials and placement can bring retail flare to otherwise uninspired pieces.

5. Presentation pre-production Present potential garment looks before you sample. Even customers clamouring for fashion-forward workwear may recoil from a non-traditional look; innovating exposes you to more uncertainty. Part and parcel to creative work is fostering trust in your client; you shouldn’t be afraid to do something special, just be ready to dial it down if it reaches too far beyond your customer’s comfort zone. Be prepared for more than one preview; just price this boundary-breaking work accordingly.

6. Fit and finish Decorate cleanly and think about the final presentation of your pieces: the ‘retail’ experience is picking up a piece with the execution and feel of a high-end retail product. Take the time to make your garment look good: trim, steam, fold and package your pieces to delight your customer and their employees. Care and presentation can help turn a uniform into a coveted promotional product.

When wholesalers have similarly extensive catalogues, with roughly equal pricing, discounts or marginally better service won’t be enough to secure your sales. Creativity, however, particularly when you show your consideration through research into their needs, will make your business feel more like a partner than a generic product seller.

Argyle patterns, sweatbands and paratrooper logos

Nob Hill Bar and Grill (NHBG’s) is one of my favourite examples of a company that thinks of retail style and demographics when it decorates. Its main logo is this square affair, and though it appears on many of NHBG’s creations, they have come up with several variations of the logo for different uses, starting with the smaller ‘N/H’ device that is easier to reproduce in tight spaces.
[Image designed by Dave Tapp]

NHBG is located in areas with a young, hip, urban demographic and this demographic informs their garment selection and design. When argyle prints first started to trend, NHBG jumped into the fray with an argyle design in an off-centre cap placement and in this larger shirt design. They allowed me to design this large, light-stitching appliqué version for a hip placement on women’s tees for their waiting staff: truly retail-styled and high-quality.
[Photo: Celeste Schwartz]

The NHBG waitstaff had custom sweatbands as soon as they came into fashion, sporting a stripped down, but very identifiable version of the N/H device. [Photo: Celeste Schwartz]

Even the waist-aprons worn by the servers got a decoration upgrade when they were stitched with the slightly racy, but still on-brand ‘Paratrooper’ logo. Used both as a wide-format cap design and an apron design, this 6” wide design has lots of impact and the inclusion of the central N/H motif still harks back to the classic brand identity. Not every business can get away with something this risqué, but it’s perfect for this bar and grill.
[Image: the author]

The NHBG main logo is transformed by the addition of the New Mexico flag symbol – the Zia – at centre along with a perspective shift and 3D shading in this design by their designer, Dave Tapp.

My embroidered rendition is big and bold. Placed on a trending stretch-fit mesh-back cap, it was a great addition to the servers’ uniforms, and also destined to be desirable by the bar’s patrons.

Erich Campbell is an award-winning digitiser, embroidery columnist and educator, with 18 years’ experience both in production and the management of e-commerce properties. He is the partner relationship manager for DecoNetwork in the USA.