Rajo Laurel’s office in his Barangay Poblacion, Makati City headquarters is an unassuming high-ceiling concrete room of creative space. A cantilevered staircase leads to a mezzanine that has become his library. On one side, the work never stops. Bookmarked periodicals and books lay organized on the stairs and on a table under, which means that the man dubbed as the Wonder Boy of Philippine Fashion is gestating once again for concepts. A series of binders hint some of these ideas, including the designs for an upcoming hotel’s uniforms.
While Laurel’s fame has been propelled by couture, he is also one of the most sought-after designers for your everyday uniforms. He has done it for schools and for brands like Max’s, Shakeys, and Cebu Pacific Air. For hotels, he’s been doing it for 13 years. His designs for at least a dozen hotel brands in the Philippines and within Asia, from the salakot doorman’s hat of Raffles Makati to the uniforms worn by the crew of Sofitel Philippine Plaza Manila’s restaurant, Spiral, in its 2012 resurrection, has made him a household name of sort among properties. The man behind the uniforms at Solaire Resort and Casino will design those of City of Dreams Manila just across the street.
The involvement of big shot designers like Laurel in hotel uniforms speaks a lot about the investments put in by companies on clothes. After all, it’s an “armor”, says Laurel, “It makes employees function better. It makes them feel better.” Studies in the U.S. support this belief. A 2000 study on employees of Las Vegas casino resorts revealed that uniforms can increase a worker’s self-confidence and improve credibility. An American research in 2011 about the hotel industry also linked uniforms with employee performance.
Uniform designs require a higher dosage of practicality than high fashion since it is worn every day for work. It is also largely an extension of the brand. “It sends a tangible effect on the culture and philosophy of the corporation,” says Laurel. He is primarily interested in understanding the branding aspect before the technical details of fabrics and ornaments are brought up. The challenge for the designer is to relay the messages that an organization wants to convey through clothes that would be worn for a long time. He immerses himself with the brand through questions and, oftentimes, experiences the property himself. “Once I have a clearer understanding of the brand, then it’s easier for me to approach it with a creative mind,” he says.
Laurel had his first taste of designing uniforms for a hotel in 2001 with Westin Philippine Plaza, which was revamping its look. His initial projects in this field involved learning some hard truths about designing a practical piece like the uniform, such as cultural norms. “Case in point here in the Philippines: women dislike exposing their armpits. It’s funny, but it’s true. The armpit is very, very sensitive,” he says. On the other hand, the macho culture among Filipino men calls for uniforms with minimal designs since overly designed uniforms risk being seen as feminized.”
Designing for a hotel that is yet to open requires a different approach than doing an already-operating property. “Post-opening design is a little bit easier because the hotel is physically there. You’re able to imagine what you want to do in this particular environment. It’s also easy to change the feel because of the parameters that you’re using,” he says.
In designing the uniforms of Spiral, though, Laurel had further considerations than simply the existing parameters of Sofitel. In 2011, the highly popular buffet restaurant was devastated by Typhoon Pedring, prompting management to close it for a year as the hotel went througha PHP710-million renovation. “What happened with Spiral was that you gave a woman a complete makeover. Basically, she went through a very devastating experience. How do you help her become beautiful once again?” Laurel said.
Meanwhile, pre-opening requires greater imagination since few elements have been finalized about the interior and branding of the property-to-be. Details are prone to change at the last minute, such as carpet color and some interior design elements. This risks contradicting the aesthetics of the already approved uniform design.
Laurel worked closely with James Bevans, hotel manager of Raffles Makati and Fairmont Makati, in designing the uniforms for both properties before they opened in December 2012. Bevans says Laurel was particularly keen on fitting the uniform with the environment. “He took a lot of inspiration from the hotel’s interiors and would sketch as soon as he found an object or treatment he liked,” Bevans explains. “As a result, the embroidery in the uniforms of Fairmont Lounge attendants was designed to complement a carpet he spotted in the lounge. His philosophy of weaving in elements from the surroundings into his designs is also evident in the garments worn by the servers in Writers Bar and Spectrum.”
A designer piece
Successful uniforms don’t necessarily mean they last longer than usual. For the most part, the highly cyclical nature of fashion means uniform designs will eventually lose their charm after a few years. Yet there are hotel uniforms that extend their supposed lifetime as they’ve become classics, such as the iconic immaculate pillbox hat of The Peninsula bellboys, which has been there since its Hong Kong hotel opened in 1928.
How does Laurel then measure good design? He says he puts on the shoes of the wearer and asks himself whether he or close relatives could personally wear the uniform.
Still, a uniform is only as good as how it is carried by the wearer. While designers can help in instructing the appropriate manner to carry the uniform, organizations also need to step in to communicate the value of the investment. “It’s also important that you share to your employees what investment the corporation has made with them and for them,” says Laurel. “It’s not just a shirt. It’s a Rajo Laurel piece. Why are they investing in you? Because you’re special.” Bevans concurs, “They claim that it makes them feel like a million bucks.”
This article was printed in Hospitality News’ July 25, 2014 Issue with the original title “Hotel Couture”.