Malaysia Airlines’ contemplation on revamping its iconic sarong kebaya uniform worn by its cabin crew saw many Malaysians expressing their love for the current uniform, according to details shared by social media intelligence company CARMA.
The airline’s operators had initially sent out a survey to its Enrich members hoping to get a feel of their opinions of adding a “modest twist to the iconic kebaya” and the survey also asked Enrich members if female cabin crew should be given an option of donning a hijab on both international and domestic flights.
Most recently, British airways made the first change in its uniform in nearly 20 years. What makes the revamped uniform inclusive is the tunic and hijab option that was designed for the global carrier’s employees.
A national carrier often is seen as the pride and joy of a country and the uniform plays a great role in the branding of the carrier given a great uniform can express the essence of your brand by subtly projecting its brand values, shared Jessalynn Chen, Managing Director of Labbrand Singapore.
Moreover, the uniform is used to dress real people of all ages, shapes and sizes, and it can build or break business culture through both function and practicality. Chen explained that in customer-facing businesses such as with the airline industry and national carriers, the uniform stands for the country and the personality of the Malaysia Airlines brand.
What to consider when rethinking your uniform?
When rebranding a national carrier’s uniform, the key is in questioning the drivers of change.
Moreover, the brand positioning and personality of the actual airline brand should ideally be a consideration in addition to the image that the nation wishes to project both domestically and internationally, said Dominic Mason, managing director of Sedgwick Richardson. He shared:
As is evident from the social media reaction in the article, national carrier uniforms tend to be a lightning rod for discussion and debate.
When revamping the outfit, being sensitive to local culture and religious beliefs is also crucial. Last but not least, it is important that the employees, especially the flight attendants, are part of the process because they need to feel proud as ambassadors for the brand and the nation, said Mason.
Echoing similar sentiments to Mason, Sutapa Bhattacharya, managing Director of DIA brands added that uniforms should first and foremost be designed not only for style but also comfort and safety and be based on employee needs. However, when it comes to airlines, and that too, national airlines, there is also the aspect of carrying the country brand's identity. Hence, why most airlines do not generally change their uniform frequently.
“There has always been a certain degree of glamor associated with the role of an "air hostess". However, this concept of glamor is changing to more comfortable designs for women in other areas of work,” she said, adding:
The real question is - what is the purpose of the change? Is this to provide more comfort? If the current uniform still works for the airline staff, why change it?
Potential areas of change
Rather than dive straight into changing of the kebaya, which clearly, the Malaysian public feel strongly about, the company can integrate areas of sustainable supply and ethical sourcing of its outfits, shared Chen.
“Employees are the living window to the brand and being emotionally connected to what they wear helps them identify with the brand. Naturally, if they feel comfortable and develop a sense of pride in how they look then it’s going to have a positive, energetic effect on how they interact with both colleagues and customers delivering the poise of quality service,” Chen added. Moreover, Malaysia Airlines can also consult various audiences such as staff members, and Muslim community leaders to provide progressive yet relevant ways to demonstrate how to look ‘modest’ – given this has been an area of contention previously.
“Ultimately, inclusiveness, diversity and belonging are inextricably linked, and must coexist to create the best employee experience possible,” she added.
Rebranding also doesn’t always have to be an overhaul, Mason explained. “The trick lies in the subtle tweaking of what already exists. Making the existing kebaya design more contemporary, and possibly refreshing it with accessories,” he said.
At the end of the day, the kebaya also represents the culture and heritage of Malaysia and is unique among other nations, Bhattacharya added. As such, respect for the attire is key as it dates back to early 1960s.
For example, when Singapore Airlines refreshed their uniform, the brand kept the kebaya but enhanced its Singaporean identity in the batik motif by introducing the national flowers. “Ultimately, the key factors to consider are the employees' own comfort and needs for the job and that the representation of the country brand is enhanced, not diluted,” she added.
The kebaya uniform was first worn by Malaysia-Singapore Airlines (MSA) by cabin crew, and Malaysia Airlines later created its own uniform when it began operations in 1972. A local designer was chosen from among nine submissions, and the design featured a Kebaya top complemented by a skirt. The design of the kebaya is heavily inspired by local flowers and batik prints.
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