The Chambermaid Wears Prada

There are elegant, streamlined clothes that began life on the sketchpad of designer Michael Kors. Then there are short, gymslip-style black jersey dresses by Gwen Stefani, the frontwoman of the punk-ska band No Doubt and creator of the clothing line L.A.M.B. So far, so fashion. But neither Kors’ nor Stefani’s designs are on the catwalk or in a shoot; rather, they are uniforms for staff of the trendy W Hotels chain. This summer, what you see while lounging around a resort could be as chic as anything you see in a store.

“I wanted to design a super-cute dress that I would be excited to have in my own closet, and approached it in the same way I think about my clothing for a tour,” Stefani said of her hotel uniform, which debuted early this year. “We’ve designed an outfit for these women to wear while on their own stage every night.”

Designing uniforms for restaurant employees and airline crews has long been a fashion sideline. Bruce Oldfield did it for McDonald’s staff last year; 40 years ago Emilio Pucci created a uniform for Braniff International Airways, as Julien Macdonald did, more recently, for British Airways.

Hotels have only recently come round to the idea, but they are making up for the lost style years. Alongside W Hotels, staff at the Hotel Monaco in Denver are sporting Cynthia Rowley this season, those at the Royalton New York are in Yohji Yamamoto, and at the Peninsula, Beverly Hills, they are in St John.

The motivation is simple: the desire to intensify competition. According to a 2008 PwC report, some 30 new hotel brands launched over the preceding 30 months. So brand image has become ever more important to differentiation. The choice of a hotel is as much a statement of taste as the choice of car, clothing or any other consumer goods.

“Uniforms are becoming much more important to the hotel industry now, as more hotels become ‘fashion’ brands themselves,” says Nicholas Oakwell, managing director of No Uniform, a uniform design company that counts Ibis Hotels, the Connaught in London, and Abode, the British boutique hotel chain, among its clients. “It’s about building customer appeal: the uniform tells a customer what the hotel is all about, especially since guests tend to be more fashion- and design-conscious now.”

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