Inflight couture: How Etihad Airways made a fashion statement with new staff uniforms

Inspired by 1950s glamour, the Italian haute couture designer Ettore Bilotta has reinvented the Etihad cabin crew outfit featuring elegant berets, print scarves and pencil skirts. The chic, sleek designs are more fashion than uniform.

Etihad Airways showcased its new uniform for cabin crews after also unveiling its first Airbus A380 and Boeing 787 aircraft bearing the new livery ‘Facets of Abu Dhabi’. Lee Hoagland / The National
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When it comes to innovation, Etihad Airways likes to do it differently.

In May, the airline decided to create a sort of hotel in the sky by revamping the upper deck of the world's biggest passenger plane – the Airbus A380. Now it has decided to match that by refurbishing staff uniforms.

Inspired by the glamour and mystique of the 1950s, the Italian haute couture designer Ettore Bilotta has reinvented the Etihad cabin crew look. Elegant berets, print scarves and pencil skirts; the new designs scream stylishness and they look more like fashion statements than uniform.

Here, Mr Bilotta talks about his latest designs and his source of inspiration.

How did the idea of changing the cabin crew outfit came about?

When Etihad was launched in 2003, they asked me to design their uniform. Since those years, the design was considered very elegant and won some awards. From the beginning, were inspired to design a semi-oriental style that is a mix between oriental and modern design. Then, after Etihad decided to change its image to celebrate the company's 10-year anniversary, they tasked me to design the uniform. Again the spirit of glamour and elegance was emphasised.

Was there any specific concept that the cabin crew outfit had to convey?

The very important concept of the new uniform was inspiration. It was important that the new uniform is not too rigid or so typical. It was important to create a uniform with style, or something that appears to be not a uniform but a dress. This was the challenge and the ideas with the new uniform. In fact, you don’t see any logo, except on the hat. You don’t see it otherwise on the outfit.

It was also important that the uniform would suit people from different cultures, since Etihad’s crew members come from different countries. It had to suit everybody.

Where did you get your ideas and inspiration from?

The general inspiration came from the 1950s and its movie stars. The inspiration for the women's outfit was the American actress Lauren Bacall. For the men, it was inspired by Clark Gable of Gone With The Wind fame. However, the print in the scarf was inspired by ideas from the 1970s. It was a combination of the idea of beauty of the Fifties and some inspiration of textile from the Seventies – same with the coat.

How many sketches did you make?

I created many designs for different figures such as the cabin manager – both male and female – the butler and the food and beverage manager. We designed over 300 sketches. We had to present many sketches until we arrived at the final ones. There were one or two selected by the company. The colours also played another factor, as they had to have the internal colours of the new aircraft.

What was the greatest challenge that you faced this time?

The greatest challenge was creativity. We had to combine the style, the elegance, the glamour along with elements of the practical needs of the staff that work in the airline. It had to be comfortable. Also, females in the in-flight crew were not allowed to wear trousers, because the element of femininity had to be emphasised. It was only allowed for ground staff.

Were there any interesting ideas that you had to discard?

We had so many ideas that we had to let go of and so many designs to come up with. It was hard to arrive at a final one that was agreed upon.

Are the Etihad uniform design briefs the only ones you have undertaken?

Before Etihad I didn’t design uniforms for other companies in the corporate sphere. I am a designer of haute couture, so Etihad was the first airline for us to design the uniform for in 2003 and in 2014.

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