Uniforms and workwear are becoming more and more informal as suppliers react to a soaring demand for colourful and simple outfits. Kathy Bowry reports on this year's relaxed yet edgy designs for both front and back of house.
According to Ian Mitchell, director of workwear brand Tibard: "We have seen some interesting demand changes emerge over the past 18 months. Our manufacturing has not only increased in volume as the industry continues its very strong recovery, but it has also increased in variety. We are seeing clothing that our customers would simply not have considered viable as uniform items moving through our factory, at quite substantial levels of volume."
He tells The Caterer: "A few years ago, we would never have expected our restaurant chain customers to be asking for T-shirts. Traditionally these have been seen as very informal garments; fine for a café, informal dining, takeaways or fast-food outlets, but not for formal or service dining. However, times have changed, and T-shirts are fast replacing traditional shirts and blouses as the main choice for front-of-house wear.
"It isn't difficult to understand why T-shirts are so popular. For a start, these are not just T-shirts. They are personalised to the customer's brand through screen printing. So they look good - informal but 'smart', in the more modern sense of the word. We supply over 10,000 T-shirts a month to our customers; 2013 levels were only around 3,000."
However, there is one product line where he has seen manufacturing demand really explode over the past two years - aprons. "While they have always been popular items due to their low cost and one-size-fits-all appeal, recently we are seeing more attention paid by customers to getting their apron their way."
Hospitality clothing supplier Oliver Harvey director Rick Shonfeld says this scenario is mirrored at his company and that the leader of this change is denim. "We have seen incredible demand for our denim apron range since launching our limited-edition denim collection last year, and we have recently launched a bib and waist range and we can't keep up with demand.
"Denim is so popular because it fits with the style of many types of restaurant, whether that's a modern, stripped-back eatery or a homely country pub. Denim has a rustic authenticity that fits."
As for trends back of house, looking back over the past few years, he says: "Plenty of restaurants did and still do let chefs buy their own work clothing, and even those that did buy for the brigade rarely invested more than was required. Chefs would wear the same jacket, trousers and aprons, but these were often just functional decisions with the uniform not offering much relationship to the restaurant itself.
"Increasingly, the kitchen is being opened up and is viewable by the customers, so the lines between front and back of house are merging. Wide open passes are popular, and some restaurants are losing the dividing walls completely and having their chefs fully on view.
"The trend towards a formal chef-uniform policy often comes in the form of branded aprons and jackets, with restaurant logos embroidered on the uniform to create, well, uniformity. Many restaurants also specify the apron's colour, design and features to further enhance aesthetics and function to fit with their restaurant."
Vissi, too, is seeing a run on aprons and has introduced a contrast bib apron in six bright colourways, along with an on-trend heavyweight denim apron and other denim garments. The company has also added four new denim shades to its best-selling apron range, which now boasts 50 colours.
Helen Harker, design manager for uniform supplier Simon Jersey, talks about the recent cult of restaurants needing to stamp their personality on work clothing and, like her competitors at Tibard and Oliver Harvey, she remarks on the upsurge in ultra-casual workwear chic: "With the increase of ever-more quirky venues, we're seeing some clear trends in uniform purchases. For example, in many casual venues it's become the norm to see waiting staff wearing dark or black denim trousers, usually paired with Converse trainers and a printed T-shirt.
"However, in venues that are aiming to attract a sophisticated crowd, the major trend is towards retro-inspired looks and styling. Inspired by this, we launched our Boutique Hotel collection. Based around a palette of chic grey, black, white and dark denim, it includes garments suitable for everyone, from front to back of house, and includes braces, bow ties and leather money pouches - all designed to hint at old-fashioned service.
"With kitchen teams now likely to be visible to customers, chefs' jackets are available in a wide range of colours to match the company branding and can be personalised with the restaurant logo," says Harker. However, it's not all about colour: the right fabric choices will go a long way towards keeping the team looking and feeling their best: "We've just introduced a new range of chefs jackets using Coolmax fabric that wicks moisture away from the skin, helping the kitchen staff stay cooler and more comfortable."
Nisbets has aprons for back-of-house staff, including the smart, full-length Chesapeake apron, available in both black and indigo. "The bold pinstripe makes a real style statement, while the tough denim polycotton fabric and modern details, such as metal adjustable neck buckles and a large mobile phone pocket, makes this a practical apron," explains Tim Jones, Nisbets brand development executive for Chef Works.
For front-of-house staff, the Manhattan money pocket apron is available in an attractive textured grey that is designed to create a subtle contrast between the more traditional black and white uniforms, while working well for both men and women. Made from 100% cotton, it has several pockets - both riveted and zippered - for carrying notepads, pens and mobile phones. Coloured double-breasted chef jackets from Chef Works come in hues including orange, red, merlot, lime, berry, blue and grey and Nisbets, like many leading suppliers, also offers a bespoke personalisation and embroidery service.
Michael Conway, managing director of Clothes2order, also records a trend towards what he describes as the casualisation of uniforms for front-of-house staff. "Although we supply formal shirts, waistcoats and ties, we're receiving more and more orders for T-shirts and polo shirts, particularly from US and Mexican-style restaurants and quick-service outlets such as noodle bars, which seem to be faring particularly well at the moment and are springing up all over the country.
"Visiting a quality burger restaurant is made to feel like going to a trendy New York hang-out rather than a formal dining experience. A laid-back look for the staff helps to emphasise that effect. Staff tend to wear high-quality, cool brands, such as American Apparel, which we supply printed with the venue's logo or slogan.
"We're also seeing a growing interest in bright colours, with popular new brands such as Asquith & Fox focusing on a wide, vibrant colour range for polo shirts and chinos. We've been able to capitalise on the trend by focusing on speed and flexibility alongside a significant investment programme to increase our production capacity and enhance our e-commerce operations.
"The restaurant industry has been one of our biggest growth markets over the past 18 months," he adds.
Nevertheless, formal workwear is still very much in demand and all the major suppliers have a wide range. New developments are also being pushed forward. Vissi's new formal events range starts at a reasonable price of £20 for skirts and trousers are from £11.95.
Simon Jersey has launched a limited collection of new dresses featuring some of its top prints. Three exclusive designs are available including Grey Shards, Blue Watercolour and Black and White Squares, all made from lightweight, cool, crÁªpe fabric. Each knee-length dress features a rounded neckline, short sleeves and a co-ordinating tie-belt.
The prints are already available in Simon Jersey's range of blouses and the dresses have been launched to provide an alternative uniform option. Simon Jersey's Harker, says: "Our cool crÁªpe blouses are some of the most popular garments in our catalogue, especially among front-of-house and reception teams."
Top tips from Nisbets
- Think health and safety Ill-fitting, baggy uniforms are likely to drag in food or become trapped in equipment. Keep clothing fitted to eliminate risks.
- Appearance is important Your customers expect to be served and catered for by smart, modern-looking staff, wearing clean and professional uniforms.
- Functionality is crucial Choose clothing based on the demands of your outlet and the job role of the wearer. Cool-vent fabric systems, that allow heat and moisture to move away from the body and cool air to filter in, are essential for hot kitchen environments.
- Consider comfort Employees should feel comfortable in what they are wearing, as uniforms are often worn for long periods of time.
- Choose appropriately Consider the key factors important to your outlet, whether that be style, cost/budget, choice of fabric, colour or durability.
- Take care Look after your uniforms and follow the suggested care instructions to help keep them looking good for as long as possible.
Aprons fashioned for the catwalk
Dennys Brands has collaborated with fashion media styling students from the London College of Fashion on an exciting project, which challenged the students to unleash their imaginations.
Dennys Brands managing director Nick Jubert says: "The challenge we set the students was to style the aprons in an exciting way using two mediums: photography and film. We were intrigued to see how they would transform and reinterpret the Dennys 40-colour apron range.
"The results have been incredible. We have been very impressed with the professionalism of the students. Many of the concepts are unique and exciting and challenge the way we have photographed our apron ranges in the past."
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