Shortly after the new year, I received word that Alaska Airlines was unveiling a new line of uniforms for its employees as the company embraces its first brand refresh in over twenty-five years.
Upon hearing the news, I made a few keystrokes and contacted the marketing team of Luly Yang, the Seattle-based fashion designer who partnered with Alaska Airlines to develop a new collection of uniforms to be donned by the 20,000+ employees who faithfully serve the airline that features the face a jolly, smiling Eskimo on each of its tail fins.
Luly's team was exceedingly accommodating, a true pleasure to collaborate with (special thanks to Angeline—you're amazing!). Luly herself is a very charming lady, too. She and I enjoyed a pleasantly spirited conversation, discussing a wide range of topics related to travel, fashion, music, the arts, and of course, Alaska Airlines. From the moment we first greeted each other, it was apparent why Alaska chose Luly.
For an airline which was just declared the fifth-largest in the United States, following its acquisition and merger with Virgin America, it's no surprise that Alaska selected a charming creative such as Luly to spearhead a pivotal moment in it's colorful history.
If you have any interest in commercial aviation, fashion, or travel, then this interview is for you. This story provides details of one of the most fascinating individuals gracing the aviation stage today.
Don't have time to read? Listen to this interview on the go. Want to hear the interview? Then click on the video above. Without further ado, let's dive into the conversation.
Adrian D. Holmes >> I've read that you were raised by a family of artists, architects, and engineers, and that you were designing your own gowns and silhouettes by age six. Would you share with us how you first fell in love with the art you do so well today?
Luly Yang >> Well, six is a very young age. I remember art has always been an intuitive form of entertainment for our whole family. My mother is an art teacher in a college, my father is an electrical engineer, and my grandfather was an architect. So it was a part of our growing up environment, and was just a natural evolution that many of us became designers or ended up working in the field of design.
I still recall sketching dresses at a very young age with my cousin as a pastime. That's what we did over the weekends. There's just a natural love for it and it felt right.
Were you involved with art in grade school or any other extracurricular activities?
>> I was. I loved any class that involved art or sculpture. I love music as well. I studied piano from the time I was five, so art and music have played a big part in my life.
I've heard that fashion design hasn't been your only endeavor in life. If I'm not mistaken, I believe I read that in college you pursued a degree in graphic design?
>> Correct. I attended the University of Washington and studied graphic design. When I graduated, my first job was with an architectural firm, and I fell in love with architecture. I stayed in that field for a few years; but a few years later I realized that although I loved design and loved what I was doing, there was something I wanted to do more. I wanted to go back to that softness of fashion, the textiles, and to be able to work with people one-on-one.
I believe fashion design, and the product that fashion designers produce, is one of the more intimate products that touches people's lives. It really affects the human experience, and that was important to me. I had a great passion for creating wonderful, memorable experiences for people. Whether it's how we deliver our services, or how we design and communicate with our client, putting the right garment on them, I discovered through my design career that that was very important to me, that human experience.
Although graphics was wonderful (I still do it for myself, I still love it), I felt fashion was even that much closer. To this day, you can see graphics in some of my fashion inspirations, so it's still with me but it's now in a textile form.
I believe that fashion design . . . is one of the more intimate products that touches people's lives.
Even through your adventures in graphic design, I've heard that there's one particular dress that rekindled your passion for fashion?
>> Yes, I'm known for that Monarch dress! That was the first dress I made and designed that was publicly seen. Prior to that I made things for myself and designed for myself, so I never really showed my work.
I was invited to be a part of a show to benefit Art With Heart, an organization here in the Pacific Northwest. A group of graphic designers got together and we each made one dress out of paper. The first Monarch dress was actually made out of poster paper. It looks like metal; but a few years after that, it became my iconic look, so I made a textile version of it.
So how would you describe that moment? Would you describe as pivotal?
>> It was a pivotal moment. It was the catalyst for what I'm doing now. It was the beginning of my fashion career. That whole process of designing a product that comes alive when you place it on a living body was magical for me. When I saw the Monarch gown on the model in my small apartment, as she walked away and then came back, I saw the gown in motion and it gave me goosebumps. At that moment, I said I have to do this. I wanted to do this everyday. It's what woke me up to switch from architecture to fashion.
Since launching your personal brand, what do you think has become your quintessential element of design? Or in other words, when a person sees one of your designs, what would prompt them to say, "That speaks Luly Yang"?
>> There are a few ways I would describe my work. Because I do couture, a lot of my inspiration comes from my clients, whether it's for one person or, as with Alaska Airlines, for 19,000. The whole design process is the same, and it starts with the human experience.
My designs, I believe, are soulful. I think they have a soul, and they are born by knowing who exactly I'm designing for, the character of that person or that particular company I'm designing for. For example, with Alaska, it's embedded: the fingerprint, the character, the personality, the history—all of that is soulfully and thoughtfully designed and put into the garment.
On the aesthetic side, I'm known for timeless designs that are not super trendy. You can look at it today and in ten years, it's still current. With pieces that are soulful, they will always be timeless, because they are thoughtfully designed. I think good design has to come with a very strong foundation of a place.
You recently linked arms with Alaska Airlines, and were offered quite the opportunity. Would you share with us about how that partnership came about?
>> Alaska called me about two-and-a-half years ago. They told me about the project, and I immediately became very interested in it. At the time, I was living in Austria. I was about to come back. It was great timing—I actually expedited my return for this project. I wanted to work on it, because Alaska is a special hometown company for me, because it is based in Seattle. I've known them for many years from the customer and passenger perspective. It's been a pretty amazing two years with the people who make up the company.
It's such an honor to design for a company that I respect so much, and that I want to play a part in their growth. They are growing so quickly right now. They are now merged with Virgin [America]. So how exciting is that for a designer to take part in that growth and in the evolution of a brand that I believe in? I mean, that feeling again, that magical moment that I had with the Monarch dress, happened again with Alaska. Once again, I feel I'm exactly where I should be doing exactly what I should be doing.
My next question's regarding the inspiration for the Alaska Airlines uniforms. You mentioned earlier that you draw your inspiration from the people you work with; but when we're talking about a major company with 19,000 employees, how do you reconcile all the information and the personalities, then present them in a uniform that embodies such a large and growing company?
>> Like I said, the foundation is really built by knowing the people. Aesthetically, as a designer, we always work with visuals. The key inspirations for the visual elements come from aerodynamic movement, or the way objects travel through space.
If you've seen the way people measure aerodynamic movement, there are actually beautiful illustrations and graphics that chart how objects travel. Similar to what they do in car design, they do that a lot in aviation. We looked at those lines, we took them, and introduced them in the collection. You see little bits of that fingerprint throughout the whole collection.
I think on the runway it's difficult to see, but in the [reveal video] you see the wrap dress the flight attendants are wearing, they have that curve in it, and the scarfs have that, too, if you were to open them. All those lines are coming from aerodynamic movement and travel through space. It's the little bit of graphics left in me!
Notice the dresses of the flight attendance—observe the subtle but tasteful curved patterns winnowing gracefully away from the center of each design. According to Luly, this element stems from keen observation of aerodynamic models drafted for the construction of airplanes. Photo courtesy of Alaska Airlines, Inc.
In your opinion, what do you think is the theme of the new Alaska Airlines uniform? I believe that inspiration and theme are two separate items. I believe that inspiration is what prompts creativity; themes keep creativity unified. So, if I were an Alaska Airlines, what is the central theme I'd observe?
>> Well, I can speak of a style-based theme. I call it West Coast Modern, which to me means professional, but polished comfort. It's not super dressy, nor overly formal. It's about flexibility—transitional clothing pieces—a line that moves with you. It takes you from East to West Coast, north to south, through different climates. There all designed to be layered, but it has a distinctive West Coast flair I feel.
I love, especially, the knitwear pieces of sweaters. We have a quarter-zip for men that I absolutely love. It's made in two different blue yarn colors that are really beautiful when you look at them up close. The hand feels so good, and the cardigans for both the men and women. Knitwear can be very professional, but also very comfortable. The employees are working hard, moving. They bend and lift quite a bit, so these are key pieces that will pull it all together, making it real flexible and transitional for them.
If I'm not mistaken, Alaska Airlines hosted a big reveal party recently where they invited employees and their families to see the brand new uniforms up close and personally. How do you think the reception was at the event?
>> I thought it was very positive. I know in the video, I don't think it captures the complete environment and energy in the room; but there were 2,000 employees and there was so much positive during the show, where employees supported their fellow colleagues on stage. When they came off the stage, the thirty-eight models split up ito four corners and then the 2,000 employees went and joined them to look at them.
When they got to touch and feel, it's actually much better. The runway is really dramatic, but that's staged. Once you get down to it on the ground level, that's where the connection happens, and the understanding.
So what are some of your favorite American destinations and why? Then what are some of your favorite international destinations and why?
>> I do love different places for different reasons, so it's difficult for me to say one place. I love Seattle—that's why I'm still living here—but I actually love Laguna Beach down in California. I went there once for the first time a few years ago, and I loved the casual feel about it. It seems like when I arrived there, my heart rate dropped ten beats in a minute. I step onto the beach, and I'm relaxed.
I think I'm kind of a beach person. I don't live near one, but that's where I tend to escape to when I do have free time. Anywhere coastal—coastal cities with waterfront that connects to the ocean.
I'm from Taiwan originally, so I love the fact that I'm in Seattle, and I'm on the ocean, so if I just walk over to the waterfront and dip my finger in, I'm touching Asia where my ancestors are from. Everything touches each other. The water connects us all. So that's why for me, coastal cities on the ocean are what I love. I like all beach towns. That's my prerequisite, I guess: have a beach or an ocean!
Another place I'd love to go to are the Hawaiian islands. It's actually not hard for us in Seattle. I can hop on [a plane] on Thursday, get there and spend three days there, then hop back and go back to work. It's like paradise, really, and it's not far away. It's only a five-and-a-half hour flight from here.
Because my blog does focus a lot on music, I would like to ask a couple of musical questions. Do you have any favorite styles for genres of music? If so, do you have any favorite artists or song titles? Any go-to jams for when you're working and creating?
>> I have a pretty diverse and eclectic taste when it comes to music. I like everything from classical to contemporary electronic music. I love pop, too, and recently during the preparation for the reveal fashion show, I found myself listening to Disney animation music.
I think part of being an innovative and good designer is keeping that childhood curiosity always alive. Not ever just accepting things as they are, but thinking, "What else can we do differently?" If you've seen Trolls, and heard the song "Can't Stop the Feeling" by Justin Timberlake, that song is a song that picks me up whenever I wake up really, really tired in the morning. I think a lot of children's animation movies have the most beautiful musical voices. They're really fun, they're uplifting, and playful. I also like a lot of other genres as well.
I always say the music can fill a room. If you try to watch a movie without the sound, it's missing a huge environmental inspiration from it; but if you walk into a room and you turn on the music, it immediately fills the room with the mood that the music creates. So in our design studio, we always have music on. Depending on what we're working on, we'll adjust the music to the mood.
One last question: what advice or encouragement would you give to my young readers and followers who might be interested in pursuing their dreams in the arts, or fashion, or really industry for that matter?
>> I say follow what your heart tells you and find your magic. Find that magic I found in the middle of my career. It could happen at any moment when you least expect it. It's like when you find love for the first time, you don't expect it. Then when you find that, you need to just pursue it. No matter what other people say, you just have to go for it.
Be brave about it. Know that it's going to hurt, even though it's your passion. Sometimes it's going to be really hard. Whenever challenges hit you, your love and passion for what you do is going to help you through.
Do you have any final thoughts you'd like to share or anything you wish to tell the world?
>> I hope that everyone finds so much joy in what they do every day, as I do mine. I feel very blessed. I do what I love every day. I feel blessed that I can influence and affect people in the way they feel about themselves in a positive way. I hope that feeling, in turn, will allow them to live happier lives, and allow them to pass that energy on.
Thank you so much for joining me today.
>> It's so lovely to get to know you and to speak with you about something that we're so passionate about. It's always inspirational to connect with people who have the same passion.
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