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Cintas Brings Rowley from the Runway to the Front Desk

To see the latest trends of the fashion titans, you used to have to book a flight to Paris or Milan. Now, all you have to do is book a room at a Kimptons Hotel Monaco because all the employees there are sporting exclusive designs by international fashion diva Cynthia Rowley.

Rowley, Michael Kors and Joseph Abboud are just some of the most recognizable and desirable designers who are blurring the boundaries of retail fashion and uniform function, thanks to uniform manufacturer Cintas.

Cintas is partnering with all these runway leaders to create designer-branded uniform lines for its clients, and its gaining a lot of the notoriety in the process. In fact, Cintas was featured on an episode of the NBC reality show The Apprentice as it developed an Embassy Suites apparel program on air with designer Lafayette 148 and Donald Trumps hopefuls. The fruits of the most recent Cintas collaboration are now on bellboys and desk clerks at every Hotel Monaco across the country.

Americas fascination with high fashion has been around for centuries, but relatively recent changes in the textile market are really what prompted the seeds of change, according to Ken Moore, senior national account manager at Cintas, who manages the Kimpton relationship there.

Innovation has been happening very quickly, and we can all relate that to our own wardrobes, says Moore. Five years ago, youd go to Ann Taylor or Banana Republic, and everything was cotton and wool, all natural fabrics. In the last several years, everythings become synthetic. It started in the retail womens wear market. Youve got these beautiful knits, the fabric is stretchy, and everything fits really well. The fabrics are soft, they feel like silk or cotton, and you can weave them anyway you want.

This shift in fabrication changed the uniform industry, says Moore, because uniform customers always have been clamoring for fabrics they could buy in the retail market. But most of those fabrics havent been adaptable, primarily because of durability issues.

Our customers would say, I got this great cotton shirt by Ralph Lauren or Izod, I want this for uniforms. Wed say, We can make it, but the fabric is never going to last in a uniform application.
The new synthetic fabrics came in and changed everything, says Moore. They look good, they feel good, theyre in the retail market, and our customers are wearing them. Now a customer can come in and say, I got this great garment from Ann Taylor. Its poly, and its beautiful; what about that for a uniform product? And we say, Great, it works! Its functional, its durable. Because poly, nylon and Lycra are typically going to be a lot more durable than cotton, he says.

It wasnt much of a leap then, says Moore, for customers to go from wanting fabrics from brands like Ann Taylor to wanting an exclusive brand of their own. Thats how the whole thing changed, says Moore. The light went on; all this stuff that wasnt applicable for our industry five years ago now all of the sudden is. The next step was a branded product. From a marketing perspective, brands are very powerful. So customers are saying, Lets do a brand!

The power of co-branding a hotel brand and a designer brand, for example has a synergistic effect. Each brand gives the other brand instant cache, creating an immediate, double-reinforced invitation to the target market.

From an operations standpoint, youre able to create something really aspirational for customers, says Moore. The front desk jobs are the ambassadors for the hotel, the customers first contact, and a branded uniform sends an immediate signal. Its instant credibility.

For attracting employees, a branded garment is a hiring advantage. What candidates will be wearing can determine whether they take the job or not. They see an ugly uniform and say, Im not wearing that. But a branded product takes an employee-centric approach. Youre the manager, youre trying to get your hotel fully staffed, theres a limited talent pool, and you say, Youre going to be wearing Ann Taylor or Ralph Lauren or Michael Kors. Theyre more inclined to take the job. Its the kind of clothing they already wear, and they wont be embarrassed when they go down to the bus stop or out to meet their friends for drinks or dinner after work.

No matter who the client is, the questions are the same, according to Moore. How can I make my brand stronger? How can I differentiate my product from my competitors? How can I retain good people? A good uniform is a big part of self-esteem and job pride for employees. If they take more pride in their job and uniform, they do a better job. All the branding and marketing people at hotel chains are saying, Weve got to do this! Thats where the whole momentum has come from.

A $3.5 billion global company serving industries from hospitality to healthcare, Cintas is leading the uniform industry into this trend. Its own corporate titan status makes it a comfortable partner for high-profile designers, whose range of capabilities allows for customized co-creation. Each designer brings his or her own strengths to the partnership, says Moore.

Many designers are used to working in a strictly retail capacity. A line of fashion is created, constructed and sent out to the retail stores for sale. Meanwhile, the designers are working on another line, which in turn is constructed and sent to the stores. The designers dont have to manage inventory.
But with a uniform program, inventory has to be managed something a retailer doesnt have the resources for doing. In the hospitality business, youve got as much as 100 percent annual turnover. Sometimes in limited service markets, with lower-end products, youve got 300 percent turnover. So when somebody calls from Sheraton in Oak Brook and says theyve lost a front desk agent, the need is there to ship a new garment to a new person at that hotel almost immediately. Michael Kors and other designers need a partner who understands the business, a conduit if you will, and can be accountable for the responsibility of getting that beautiful Michael Kors product to the hotel.

Thats where Cintas steps in, along with many other aspects of the business. It does all the fabric and finished goods testing, so if there are any issues with any pieces, Cintas takes the product back, not the designer, as part of its 100 percent satisfaction guarantee.

Cintas manufactures the uniforms to ensure durability. A designer piece might be a fragile garment. They get it to market, you buy it, and you wear it, and you go, This didnt last very long. In our business, we have to guarantee the garment will be durable and wear well. We cant afford to get product out there that wont keep on going.

Different parts of the supply chain are determined by a variety of factors. Sometimes we use ours, sometimes they use theirs; thats a business decision thats made together. Maybe they have a plant where they do a lot of production and agree its the right plant. Maybe its a price point issue, says Moore. Were global in our sourcing, and many times we use the same supply chain as the designers. This conception about our business that the uniform is a lesser-tailored garment, not as much needle, not as high a quality is the exact opposite of the truth.

Kimptons Hotel Monaco was a client of Cintas before well-known designers started partnering with the company, but the Rowley initiative drove the relationship with Cintas, according to Moore.

In some co-branding efforts, its a collaborative process. But in this case, Kimptons Hotel Monaco chose Cynthia Rowley. Theyre the branding and marketing experts. So theyre going to know what they want to do, how to position the product, what market theyre appealing to, says Moore.

Because Rowley is very whimsical in her design attitude, she was the ideal choice. All Club Monaco interiors are very eclectic, very bohemian, very baroque, a creative atmosphere, like Cirque du Soleil. Its a perfect match, says Moore.

After Kimptons Hotel Monaco chose Cynthia Rowley, it brought the project to Cintas. The core team included Moore, a Cintas internal designer, Cintas pattern makers, Rowley designers and executives from Hotel Monaco all working collaboratively. The development process took nine months.

Cynthia herself was involved in the whole process, says Moore, who enjoyed working with her very much. Designers are very right brain, very creative quite the opposite from most of us, a little quirky and eccentric. Shes very creative and special. Its fun working with creative people because they see things so differently.

Rowley presented just one design, which included a range of 20 uniforms based on the job function list provided to her. Generally, when you work with a big-name designer, you dont inhibit their creativity, says Moore.

Once the design was presented, Cintas got involved in the technical design aspect. Thats the critical part. You go into Cynthias Bleeker Street boutique in Soho and see clothes from size 2 to 14. If youre a 16 or above, too bad. Lots of designers design in a very limited range of size, says Moore. The challenge for Cintas was adapting the Rowley design to the full range of sizes of hotel employees, the average of which is a female size 12.

You look at the beautiful designs and say, How do I make this garment look good on everybody? We make sure the design is graded right, that it moves up and down from size 2 to size 24, and that it looks good in every size. We fit it on models; we grade the pattern. Thats what our customer expects from us, says Moore.

The Rowley color plan for Kimptons Hotel Monaco uses darker, richer tones for those in the high customer-interaction roles and lighter, more whimsical patterns for the less visible staff. For example, doormen are outfitted in deep plum corduroy, and front desk attendants wear graphite gray sateen. You can do corduroy in all poly now, which gives you a lighter, stretchier fabric. It fits people better, and it looks better, says Moore.

Back-of-the-house employees, like turndown attendants, wear cloud-patterned prints in blue and rose made of a beautiful poly with a soft hand, says Moore. Everything is what youd recognize as high-end fabrics from luxurious designers.

And of course, the Rowley signature appears on all pieces. Its never going to be Cintas, says Moore. Our brand is synonymous with great service, the trucks driving around. Its not synonymous with beautiful apparel, like Giorgio Armani. We take a back seat, and thats perfectly fine with us. Its all about our customer and their brand, not about our brand.

Above story first appeared in MADE TO MEASURE Magazine, Spring & Summer 2007 issue. All rights reserved. Photos appear by special permission.
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