Looking the Part

THE DAYS OF POLO SHIRTS, BULKY LAB COATS, and one-size-fits-all spa uniforms are on their way out. Spa directors are getting more creative with their staff's attire as they look for the right fit from a visual, thematic, and philosophical perspective. Increasingly, spa uniforms are perceived as just as important as a carefully considered spa menu and a multi-million-dollar interior—and sometimes just as hard to get right.

"Our search for spa uniforms was one of the biggest challenges in the whole spa development," says Karen Watson, spa manager for Skaná: The Spa at Turning Stone, a new 33,000-square-foot spa in Verona, NY, owned by the Oneida Indian Nation. "A lot of the cultural influences that are standard in the spa world—especially Asian—just didn't fit with our American Indian theme."

Red Mountain Spa chose Spa Uniforms's Tuscan style in rustic brown for female therapists.
Red Mountain Spa chose Spa Uniforms's Tuscan style in rustic brown for female therapists.

To get the combination of comfort, practicality, and theme that she wanted, Watson turned to a local company to develop custom pieces centered around various shades of blue, which is considered a spiritual and healing color by the Oneidas. All staff members wear khaki pants, but the top varies depending on the employee's role. Receptionists sport a polished look with a French blue button-down shirt. Massage therapists wear purple t-shirts made of microfiber, a high-tech fabric that keeps them cool while they're hard at work in the treatment room. Watson wanted the therapists' uniform to be a bit more formal for the public areas, so the company designed a cotton-polyester blend periwinkle tunic with three-quarters-length sleeves. It looks like it buttons up, but it actually has a hidden zipper to make it easy for therapists to slip on whenever they leave the room. Meanwhile, the salon staff is outfitted in stylish sage-green tunics with a diagonal zipper, lined with satin to soften the look. The spa attendants wear sage green shirts.

Jim Root, general manager of spa operations for Sea Island Resorts, focused less on practicality and more on sustainability when choosing uniforms for The Spa at Sea Island, a new 65,000-square-foot spa at The Cloister. The resort is located on a barrier island along the coast of Georgia that literally helps protect the environment, and in developing the spa, management made "green" choices at every step. That included choosing natural-fiber uniforms made of Hempcel, a combination of hemp (a crop that improves soil quality and requires no pesticides) and tencel (a fiber made from recycled wood pulp that makes the fabric more wrinkle resistant). "Uniforms have become more high-tech and less high-touch because people look at them from an operating perspective and want something that won't stain or doesn't require ironing," says Root. "But that just didn't resonate with me. We're supposed to be helping people slow down and relax."

Asian influences can be seen in the Indian-inspired uniforms of Kamalaa Spa in San Francisco (left) and Monique Mathieu's Tibet tunic (center). Fashion designer Vivienne Tam designed uniforms for the fall re-opening of The Mandarin Oriental flagship in Hong Kong (right).
Asian influences can be seen in the Indian-inspired uniforms of Kamalaa Spa in San Francisco (left) and Monique Mathieu's Tibet tunic (center). Fashion designer Vivienne Tam designed uniforms for the fall re-opening of The Mandarin Oriental flagship in Hong Kong (right).

With that in mind, he chose the loose-fitting Eco.logical collection from Fianna Spa Fashions in Arvada, CO, with a drawstring Capri pant in seafoam green and a maize-colored jacket and t-shirt, soft colors that fit in with the seaside location. The uniforms are comfortable for the staff—loose, cool, and breathable—and while they require a little more maintenance by therapists, Root says they don't mind the trade-off. "Massage therapists are a spiritual bunch, and they don't want to wear things that aren't natural."

Color and a flattering cut were the most important considerations for management at Red Mountain Spa (St. George, UT) when it came time to choose new uniforms to complement the new 6,500-square-foot dome-shaped Sagestone Spa, which opened last year. "Before, we didn't have cute uniforms," says spa manager Trisha Maynard. "We just issued employees a Red Mountain polo shirt, and they worked in their own pants." The new spa has non-traditional colors—chocolate, lime green, and sage—and Maynard had trouble finding uniforms that looked good in the new environment. After getting a look at the spa's color board, Noel Asmar, founder and CEO of Spa Uniforms, sent Maynard samples of jackets in rustic brown. They turned out to be perfect. Maynard chose tailored but roomy styles that "never look bad on anyone," including the Dolce style for the front desk staff, Tuscan for female therapists, and the Camp Shirt for male therapists, with pants to match. A seamstress made the final alterations to give the uniforms that perfect custom fit, but the staff is responsible for laundering the easy-care uniforms, which are made of a polyester/nylon and spandex blend.

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Asmar points out that the values and culture of hotels, with their emphasis on costuming and polished professionalism, is having an effect on the spa industry. "It's forcing spa [employees] to dress the part," she says. One leader in the luxury hotel industry, Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, is taking things to an even higher level. International fashion designer Vivienne Tam, a Hong Kong native who lives in New York City, was hired to create spa uniforms for the re-opening of its flagship property in Hong Kong last fall. The spa and the uniforms were designed to evoke 1930s Shanghai, a bygone era of opulence, warmth, and sensuality. The female concierge wears a black burnt-out fabric jacket influenced by Tam's own collection and loose jersey cotton pants, which create movement and flow. The male concierge wears a jacket with a Mao collar and loose trousers, while female therapists wear a flowing and loosely fitted baby-doll style dress on top that's very fashionable. As befits an urban spa, the uniforms are black.

While many spas avoid cotton because it absorbs oil more easily, The Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong specifically asked Tam to use it for the comfort of its therapists. "The only other specification we gave Vivienne was to have a practical uniform that the team can move in," says Sheavaun Porter, director of communications. "The roles within the spa are very practically oriented, and hence, we need clothing we can move freely in and also breathe in."

Yeah Baby allows you to customize the style, fabric, and color of the uniforms.
Yeah Baby allows you to customize the style, fabric, and color of the uniforms.

If you can't afford your own designer, there are still plenty of fashionable options available. French designer Monique Mathieu has a background in haute couture and creates elegantly tailored uniforms that appear in upscale spas found in Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, The Ritz-Carlton, and The Peninsula in New York City. "I take my inspiration from the runway," says Mathieu, whose company has offices in Paris and Fort Lauderdale, FL. Her current Asian-influenced collection is neat and crisp, but she sees things moving towards a more classic European look. Mathieu relies on interesting fabrics and details like buttons to "make" the garment. Functionality is important. She uses stretch material on the sides to create a nice shape and movement. According to Mathieu, champagne and black are popular colors, as is the clean look of white.

If you want to create your own customized look, Los Angeles-based Yeah Baby has a program that allows you to choose the style, fabric, and color you want with low minimums—typically 48 pieces of one style. You can choose from the company's existing styles or share your own ideas. Fabric choices include Spa Dry, a microfiber fabric similar to what athletes wear, with one layer to absorb sweat and another to wick it away from the body. "Cotton/poly blends are being replaced because they fade very quickly and don't release the oil," says vice president Lawrence Grum.

Spa apparel is one of the fastest growing divisions of Top Hat Imagewear, which also provides uniforms for hotels, restaurants, and casinos.
Spa apparel is one of the fastest growing divisions of Top Hat Imagewear, which also provides uniforms for hotels, restaurants, and casinos.

Many spas are turning to Kashwére, a Los Angeles-based company known for its plush chenille-like robes and throws, to outfit receptionists in zip-up sports jackets that can be worn over thin tees. The Spa at Salish Lodge (Snoqualmie, WA) and Sanctuary Spa (Redwood City, CA; Los Gatos, CA; San Diego; and Corte Madera, CA) ordered the thick, soft jackets in black. "Having a cute uniform is so important to the employees," says Chris Roman, a former spa director who is now Kashwére's executive vice president. "It changes their morale."

Of course, you can always do the easy thing and just tell your employees to grab something black from their closet and report for work, like G Spa at the Gansevoort Hotel, a hip spa and lounge in New York City's meatpacking district. It wouldn't be the right look for The Spa at Sea Island, but, as Root says, "the important thing is that whatever you choose, the uniforms reflect who you are." And nothing could be more Manhattan than all black.

A spa guide for About.com, Anitra Brown is also a writer and journalist whose work has appeared in Gourmet, New York, Robb Report, and more. For more of her spa coverage, check out www.spas.about.com.

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