Rag trade sews up the image market: Janet Robson on the role of uniform clothing in corporate identity

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The Independent Online
SHOP assistants have been wearing it for decades, and so have air hostesses. Bank cashiers started more recently, and now electricity linemen are getting into it. No, not Marks & Spencer underwear, but company clothing.

Workwear may not be the most glamorous sector of the rag trade, but it is surprisingly buoyant, supporting between 500 and 600 suppliers in the UK. Although unemployment has reduced the number of staff to be clad, the recession does not seem to have diminished the commitment of managers to spending on company clothing.

In a survey carried out last year by Cleaning Tokens, the dry-cleaning voucher company, 89 per cent of respondents said they were maintaining or increasing their workwear budgets, while 69 per cent had redesigned or upgraded workwear within the past two years.

There are practical reasons for putting staff into company clothes - to allow them to be spotted easily by customers, or for health and safety reasons. But there is more to it than that. After all, no one has much trouble identifying bank cashiers, yet all the high street banks have outfits.

Workwear is no longer solely a practical consideration; it has become part of corporate identity. Thomas Cook, the international travel company, unveiled its new look at Euro Disney last November and has a department devoted to devising and maintaining its global corporate image.

The new look has taken about a year to research, design, test and agree. Alexis Coles, public relations manager at Thomas Cook, explained why company clothes matter. 'In the travel industry nearly every company has a uniform, and in this business we have to project a very efficient image.'

There is certainly sense in her rationale. Anyone who has donned their best suit for a job interview knows that smart clothes are psychologically linked with professionalism and competence.

But the clothes are not just for the customer's benefit. 'It's a good way to help staff do their jobs better,' said Ken Birch, the sales director of Threadneedle, the company which produced Thomas Cook's new garb.

'Effective company clothing makes people look professional, helps build teams within companies and is usually of financial benefit to the staff, too.'

Another adopting a corporate look is Manweb, the regional electricity company for the North-west. Before privatisation, no electricity company bothered about corporate identity. Shop staff usually had a uniform, but the field workers were provided with a motley collection of protective clothing, often of poor quality.

Barry Judd took over the job of improving the clothing for most of Manweb's field staff in 1990. At that time, he said, 'Many of our staff, particularly those engaged in overhead-line activities, turned up for work in a vast variety of clothing and were often likened, even by the management, to a band of gypsies.' Although staff often did not wear the protective clothing they were given, no effort had been made to find out why.

Mr Birch thinks it is essential that the staff who wear company clothes are involved in the design process. 'The most important thing is that clothes are fit for purposes,' he said. 'Our designers go out into the workplace and it takes six to eight months to build up from the functional requirements to creating a wardrobe that most people will like.'

In Manweb's case, the design process included testing fabrics for linemen, who have to plough their way through heavy vegetation and deal with coils of wire. 'Our first venture into this market produced many suits which were torn from top to bottom on the first day,' Mr Judd said.

Privatisation has been a boon to the company clothing industry - some of the biggest contracts are for former nationalised companies, such as British Telecom and the electricity and water companies.

Some are forecasting that the National Health Service could be the next biggest growth sector as hospitals take on trust status. After all, you would not want to be operated on by a surgeon whose mask and tunic weren't colour- co-ordinated, would you?

(Photograph omitted)