Air New Zealand Is Looking For A New Uniform Designer. Here’s Who We Think Should Be In The Running.

By Dan Ahwa
Saying haere-ra to the Air New Zealand Trelise Cooper uniform. Photo / Supplied

A uniform that better reflects the times is on the cards for our national carrier.

It’s been 12 years since Trelise Cooper unleashed her polarising designs for Air New Zealand’s uniforms into the national zeitgeist, and this week the airline has confirmed it is now inviting expressions of interest for a new designer to give it a wardrobe overhaul.

From this week, applications are open until Sunday, May 14, after which Air New Zealand will invite selected designers to be a part of a competitive pitch process.

The successful designer is to be announced later this year, and new designs rolled out in 2025.

“After 12 years with our much-loved and iconic Trelise Cooper designs, it is time to revisit our uniform to ensure it accurately reflects our new environment, our vision for the future, and continues to meet the needs of our people, while embracing our enhanced sustainability aspirations,” says Air New Zealand chief customer and sales officer Leanne Geraghty.

“Our uniform is one of our most important brand assets. It is highly recognisable, setting us apart on the world stage. Throughout our history, it has always reflected Aotearoa at a moment in time and we want to ensure our new uniform continues that legacy. People feel a sense of pride when they see the Air New Zealand uniform, as do our people when they wear it, and it’s important to us to ensure that feeling never fades.”

Ground staff wearing the Trelise Cooper uniform. Photo / Supplied
Ground staff wearing the Trelise Cooper uniform. Photo / Supplied

Trelise Cooper’s uniform will now join an alumni of previous Air NZ uniform designers including Vinka Lucas, Zambesi, Nina Ricci, Isabel Harris for Thornton Hall, El Jay for Christian Dior, and Barbara Lee Design.

A uniform that also reflects our changing world is vital in ensuring the airline stays relevant in the public eye.

“Many airlines around the world have started to embrace diversity and inclusivity in their uniforms,” says The New Zealand Herald’s Travel editor Stephanie Holmes.

“Earlier this year, British Airways announced its first uniform update in almost 20 years, which is to include jumpsuits, hijabs and tunic options for their female staff. In 2021, US airline JetBlue expanded its policy to allow crew to select the uniform they were most comfortable in (pants or dress), regardless of their gender, with Alaska Airlines and Virgin Atlantic doing the same in 2022.

“Iceland’s Play Airlines has ditched high heels for its female crew, replacing them with sneakers — cooler and much more functional for a role that sees staff spending the majority of their time on their feet. I’d love to see Air New Zealand follow suit — and I’d suggest they should do it sooner than 2025, otherwise they risk appearing outdated in a world that’s moving quickly towards gender inclusivity.”

TEAL air stewardess wearing the El Jay for Christian Dior uniforms, in rotation from 1958-1961. Photo / Supplied
TEAL air stewardess wearing the El Jay for Christian Dior uniforms, in rotation from 1958-1961. Photo / Supplied

The current uniform has been hard to ignore over the years, with Trelise’s take on a koru motif rendered in three head-turning colourways — “twilight pink” for cabin crew, “godzone green” for ground staff and “sky blue” for ground and inflight managers.

At the time, the pattern was described by Māori academic Dr Rawiri Taonui as a misappropriation of cultural symbols. Supporters reasoned that the uniform offered optimism after the previous austerity of Zambesi’s designs worn between 2005-2011, described as “drab” in comparison.

The men’s waistcoat has also divided opinion between patriotic celebration and cultural cringe; a back panel featuring a kitschy collage artwork dedicated to all things Kiwiana — a tiki, a cartoon sheep, a 10-cent piece, a tuatara, a penguin, a chop on a fork, and the phrase “always blow on a pie” are motifs immortalised on the waistcoat.

The NAC uniform became known as the Jellybean or Lollipop and was worn between 1970-1976. Photo / Supplied
The NAC uniform became known as the Jellybean or Lollipop and was worn between 1970-1976. Photo / Supplied

Twelve years is a significant amount of time to have the same uniform, and Geraghty acknowledges it’s time to move forward.

“We are consulting and engaging with our uniform-wearing teams every step of the way to understand their needs and requirements to perform best at work,” she says. “We are committed to ensuring new designs reflect the Aotearoa of today and the future.

“This is just the start of the process, and we will be taking on board feedback from our teams to ensure the new uniform takes the diversity of people and the environments they work in across our network into consideration.”

Air NZ staff model Zambesi's uniforms at the launch in 2005. Photo / Greg Bowker
Air NZ staff model Zambesi's uniforms at the launch in 2005. Photo / Greg Bowker

Last month, Kiwibank revealed its new uniform upgrade with a 46-piece collection catering to all body types, accessibility, gender-neutrality, cultural and religious preferences. The bank engaged with not one but five New Zealand designers — Barkers, Jen Sievers, Kiri Nathan, Little Yellow Bird, and Standard Issue.

Air NZ’s uniform update also aims to align with the airline’s sustainability endeavours.

“Updating our uniforms will allow us to improve our sustainability outcomes, which will include supporting our priority of driving towards a circular economy,” says chief sustainability officer Kiri Hannifin. “As part of this work, we are also researching end-of-life solutions for our existing uniform to better understand how we can minimise as much as possible waste to landfill.”

When the conversation of engaging with a new designer first came up in 2018 (and was subsequently delayed due to timing challenges, followed by Covid-19), I was asked then what a fresh alternative could be.

“Given our international successes in music, arts, culture, politics and cuisine in particular, we deserve a sophisticated uniform for our national carrier that reflects that shift,” I explained at the time. “We’re not humble pie small-town New Zealanders anymore. We’re competing on a global scale on so many levels.”

Air NZ staff wearing the designs of Baraba Lee, 1992-2005. Photo / Supplied
Air NZ staff wearing the designs of Baraba Lee, 1992-2005. Photo / Supplied

Looking back at the airline’s heritage, I added the possibility of being inspired by previous uniforms from Nina Ricci and Zambesi.

“You always felt a sense of calm when you saw those clean lines and colours, especially helpful when you’re a nervous flyer. Maybe it’s time to think about that mood again.”

It’s a sentiment that feels even more relevant post-pandemic. Here, we take an updated look at the designers who might just have what it takes to be the next top Air New Zealand uniform designer.

Emilia Wickstead

Emilia’s understanding of looking polished from head to toe would be a great palate cleanser. She already has uniform experience under her belt, responsible for those worn by female waitstaff at London’s hip restaurant Chiltern Firehouse. There’s a crispness to her design that would help staff look cool and collected under pressure. The former Vogue staffer would also be good at offering a complementary styling guide for hair, makeup and grooming — right down to fingernail polish.

Untouched World

The B-certified corporation has long been a bastion of local luxury with its line of sustainable lifestyle garments. Its focus on renewable, natural textiles would offer plenty of comfort and support anywhere in the world, and its attention to a soft colour palette feels timeless.

Kiri knows how to create a unified look and her recent experience in creating uniforms for Kiwibank would put her in good stead. Having a designer that values te ao Māori influences and celebrates our unique identity would be a world-class proposition.

The brand has made significant leaps in terms of adapting to the market as evident with its Toolbox For Change initiative. Its parent company De Vere already creates eco-friendly uniforms for Auckland Transport, so they have the capability to create a uniform that combines the expertise of their business.

Juliette has a good understanding of creating a bespoke print that can work for all bodies and skin tones. A popular choice for professional women, there’s an easiness to Juliette’s designs that could offer style and comfort for all genders.

The designer has a strong affinity for colour and would offer a smart proposition that mixes her signature mix of soft dresses with sharp tailoring. She’s also had experience with menswear and designing a uniform for Sky City Grand. Kate would also offer strong guidelines around hair, makeup and grooming to complement an impeccable skirt suit or a tactile dress.

The knitwear stalwart has the design and technical know-how to create something interesting here, and could be the perfect complementary knitwear collaborator to a headline act.

The designer Maggie Hewitt recently relocated to Sydney and has had vast international experience. As a sustainable fashion advocate, she ticks that box, and has a distinctive aesthetic that works across many genders. She has experience with uniforms too, working with Auckland’s QT hotel on some of it’s staff uniforms.

Left of field, Huffer is a household name and it would be interesting to see what a uniform proposition would look like from them. Given so much of our lives now revolves around flexibility and hybrid working, translating this concept to a versatile uniform that mixes casual with formal could be an interesting task from the brand.

Stylish and sustainably made cabin luggage is an essential complement, and this Pōneke-based brand is one to consider.

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