All change at the bank

Barclays staff can wave goodbye to holiday camp uniforms. On Monday the firm launched a range of `corporatewear'. By Melanie Rickey
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The Independent Online
When it comes to deciding what to wear for work in the morning, 11 million of the 22 million members of the British work-force have little choice - they wear a uniform. From the Avon Lady to the milkman and even the mortgage broker, uniforms are part of everyday life. But what do you do when staff begin to moan about their uniforms? At Barclays Bank the rumblings began over a year ago with staff complaining they felt like the turquoise (or Barclays Blue if you please) equivalent of a Butlin's Red Coat.

Instead of dismissing their gripes Barclays sat up, took notice and cottoned on to the biggest trend within the workwear industry: corporatewear. In 1996 the corporate clothing industry, (ie clothing which is supplied by the employer) was worth pounds 380m, a 90 per cent increase since 1988. A leading supplier of such clothes is Vermillion, a company with a century of experience, which supplies the police, rail companies and even the Kuwait national guard with work-wear. Barclays enlisted the services of Vermillion and its consultant designer, Jeff Banks, television personality and founder of the Warehouse chain, who was responsible for redesigning the uniforms at Bally Shoes, Abbey National, American Express and Coventry Building Society. Half a million people a day go to work wearing a Jeff Banks designed outfit and that number will increase by 18,000 when front-line Barclays staff get their new look.

Banks worked directly on the collection for four months, attending uniform committees, creating new fabrics and prints, and sourcing buttons and other accessories. The end result however, took a year to come to fruition and will not be worn by staff until August.

The clothes have been put together into a glossy mail order catalogue with stringent company rules such as "garments MUST NOT be altered or customised", "blouses MUST NOT be worn untucked if they show beneath the jacket" and so on.

So is corporatewear just a fancy Nineties name for a uniform? Banks says not. "The concept is based around a kind of corporate wardrobe. Men and women can choose clothes that suit their personal tastes, rather than being forced to wear a set outfit," he says. For Barclays that meant completely redefining what a uniform was about. Mike Folley, head of personnel and service development, found that customers and staff alike wanted a more professional, less cloned look, which he describes as "standard, not standardisation". This translates in real terms to a mini working wardrobe, consisting of a series of hard-wearing garments which have to last two years to be worth the pounds 4m Barclays will have invested in the range by 1998.

The base colour is dark navy, and for both sexes there is plain navy or a turquoise pinstripe option, which is where the Barclays Blue has been incorporated. All the clothes will feature the Barclays eagle insignia embroidered in gold. Women have the choice of two jackets, three skirts, five blouses, or a dress as an alternative to one bottom half and one blouse. In addition there is maternity wear, and a sari and a variation on the shalwar kameez "for ladies with religious require-ments". Men can choose from a single- or double-breasted jacket, three kinds of trousers (including chinos for mufti Fridays), five shirts and three ties. "Men are so woeful about change - I was really careful," Banks says.

Banks enjoyed putting into action the needs and wants of the Barclays staff. "They were as much the design team as I was. I listened and I translated what they needed into clothes that would work for both them and the company," he says. There is no denying that if staff take a more active role in the way they appear at work it helps morale and confidence. It also takes the competitive element out of dressing. Barclays has replaced the term "uniform" with "corporatewear", and as more and more companies look to update their image for the millennium, it could be a term with which we become increasingly familiar.