We talked to the founder of a New York City–based uniform design firm about how she got her start, the one job she walked away from, and sartorial trends in the hospitality business.
In this series, we explore what it takes to land—and work—the world’s coolest travel jobs. Previous installments featured interviews with a ski map cartographer, a wildlife photographer, and a member of Doctors Without Borders. Up next: a hospitality uniform designer.
When Kim Nguyen does her job well, her work blends seamlessly into the environment for which it was created. As the founder of Kimmie Kakes, a uniform company based in New York City, she has clothed workers from prestigious hotels (Four Seasons, W, The Nomad), high-end restaurants (Nobu, Eleven Madison Park) behemoth cruise lines (Carnival), and more. From the bellhops to the bartenders, the housekeepers to the boiler-room engineers, she designs head-to-toe looks that complement the overall brand aesthetic. We called Nguyen at her office in NYC’s famed Garment District to find out how she got her foot in the door with some of the biggest names in the travel world.
You studied fashion design at FIT. How did you get started in hospitality?
“I was one of the first cocktail waitresses at the Royalton Hotel in New York City. I didn’t know how hip it was back then; I just got lucky. From there, I worked with Keith McNally, Brian McNally, André Balazs—all these top restaurateurs and hoteliers. At Balthazar, I was Keith’s right-hand person, because I was very organized and knew how to get things done. I had a passion for the restaurant and hotel industry—everything from the furniture to the tabletops to the color schemes. [Over the years], I helped Brian open the Delano in Miami. I partnered with André on Sunset Beach in Shelter Island and helped him open The Standard in L.A. The Standard had a great diner back then, and I put together the yellow-and-white uniforms for the staff. That was my first taste of uniform design.”
So that’s when you decided to launch your own uniform company?
“No, it took awhile. I opened my own restaurant in L.A. called Lucky Duck, but it only lasted two years because we opened right when 9/11 happened. It was the bottom-out time of my life, but also a soul-searching time. My marriage fell apart, so I took a sabbatical and lived in Vietnam for a year. It helped me regroup. And while I was there, chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Gray Kunz got ahold of me about a new project in Ho Chi Minh City. I worked with them, I worked with [club owner] Amy Sacco, doing uniforms for her, and that’s when I decided to start my own uniform business. I launched the company on credit cards 13 years ago and the rest is history.”
Walk me through the design process work from start to finish.
“We start out with a client sending us renderings from the architect and the design team. I do a lot of research on the neighborhood and neighboring hotels, the architecture, the interior design, the exterior design, the color scheme of the furniture, the walls, flooring, tile, wood, all of that. I even research the era that the building is from—say, if it has art deco flourishes on the exterior but the interior is modern and sleek. Once we see those designs, we come up with inspiration boards. The client selects a direction based on the mood boards, and then we go into sketches and sample making with selected fabrics. The client views all samples on fit models and signs off before we go into production on the uniforms. We also create look-books, which help managers with reordering, and offer an alterations service once the uniforms are delivered.”
What is the most challenging aspect of your work?
“Dealing with too many decision makers on designs. Everyone has their own opinion and you have to appease all parties in order to make the finished product.”
How many people are we talking about?
“It depends on the hotel, but there are a lot of cooks in the kitchen. I’m often dealing with the creative director, a whole design team, the hotel owner, and corporate management if it’s a larger brand like the Four Seasons. Sometimes you even have CEOs, CFOs, and the biggest investors in uniform meetings. They care what their employees are wearing.”
You must find yourself playing mediator sometimes. How do you make everyone come together on a single vision?
“That is the most difficult thing about my job—dealing with so many personalities and opinions. I just have to present what I think is right and play devil’s advocate when necessary. ‘I understand your idea, but I would like to show you this because it’s a better fit on many different bodies’ or ‘I know you like this dress, but a woman has to be able to wear a bra with it.’ I have to be very diplomatic. In all my years in the business, I’ve only walked away from one job and I don’t regret it.”
“Basically, they were so mean and they threatened me. The industry is so small, they said, ‘If you walk away from this job, you’ll lose all of your hotels.’ I said, ‘You know what? I’m really sorry, but I just can’t do this.’ I returned the design fee, turned over all of the work I had done up to that point, and walked away. It was the first and only time in my career I did that.”
Because you knew you could never make the client happy?
“Yes. And nothing was worth making me feel this way. I still believe I did the right thing, and I don’t miss the business that I lost. Every job is like a relationship. If you know there’s just no way you’re going to make that person happy, why stay?”
When designing for a client, how often do you find yourself being the voice of reason? Explaining that not every waitress is a size 2 or that a fabric is too stiff and uncomfortable for a housekeeper to work efficiently?
“A lot more in the past. Because housekeepers are suing for sexual harassment now, it’s getting a lot easier. Clients are listening to their employees more. There are also a lot of rules and regulations nowadays about housekeeping wearing dresses; people are more educated about uniforms. With all the bending, shirts and pants make more sense.”
Is a cocktail waitress outfit the one uniform that is still allowed to be overtly sexy?
“Sexy but in a very elegant way. What you can get away with really depends on the location.”
What makes a uniform great?
“A great uniform does not stick out like a sore thumb; it should complement the design of a hotel or restaurant. It has to fit great. And it has to last. A lot of our clients have been wearing their uniforms for five, six, sometimes 10 years. A great uniform is not trendy. It’s timeless.”
Do you follow runway shows just to see if there are design elements you might want to borrow at some point? Or is ready-to-wear irrelevant to what you do?
“Yeah, I follow them. I’ll notice the exposed zippers, or cool pleating on a skirt, or the cut of a dress. We work a lot with scarves, hats, and other accessories that really pull a look together. We do custom belts and leather bracelets. If you do classic clothes and add edgier, trendier accessories, it’s a lot easier to change over for 100 people than a whole uniform.”
Some boutique hotels, like the 21c Museum Hotels, have done away with uniforms entirely. Why do you think uniforms are still important in hospitality?
“It ties everything together. If you have a great uniform that fits well and the fabric feels good, employees feel great when they put it on. Their whole attitudes change. They smile more.”
What is something you’ve consistently heard clients ask for in a uniform design that you try to steer them away from it because it’s too formal or too stuffy?
“With the stuffiness, I avoid ties on guys. You can look crisp without one. I’m doing a lot with aprons, too. It’s more about ‘comfort-casual’ these days. Most of my clients get that—except for the four-star restaurants. I also try to suggest three or four outfits, including separates, for full-time front desk workers. Instead of doing a dress five days a week, why not give them a shirt and a pant and a dress option? They can change it up throughout the week.”
Do most hotels dedicate their uniform budget to the front of house?
“A lot of people put the money on the front desk, bellman, doorman, restaurant, and other first-impression areas. They skimp on housekeeping because those jobs aren’t interfacing with the clients as much.”
You supply uniforms for 40,000 employees at Carnival Cruises. How did that contract come about?
“The years 2008 and 2009 were a huge wake-up call. The phone stopped ringing and there was a complete dive in business. But then I got a call from The Cosmopolitan, the only hotel opening in Las Vegas. Because it was a publicly owned company, they wanted me to submit an RFI [request for information]. I had to get together 20 pages of background on my company, telling them how much revenue I do in a year, who my clients are, who my competitors are, if I’m profitable, all of that. This was a 3,000-room hotel opening in three months; they needed to make sure I had enough bank to take on the project. So I flew my models to Vegas, did the whole pitch, and I got the job—contingent on them coming to New York and seeing my operation and inventory. I now had just 2.5 months to produce about 12,000 garments. It was a $1.5 million-dollar contract. And I did it! I delivered on time, if not early, and everybody loved it. And I was a newcomer! I beat out the biggest uniform companies in the industry, and I’d only been in business maybe five years. Well, a vice president of Carnival Cruises came to the opening of the Cosmopolitan and asked the CEO who did their uniforms. He thought they were very cool. And that’s when I got the phone call: ‘Hi, Kim. My name is Mark. I wanted to see if you’re interested in overhauling the uniforms for Carnival Cruises.’ I was just like, wow, I can’t believe this is happening.”
What was the scope of the project?
“The process took about a year. I probably went through 1,000 samples and 300 different designs—for cruise photographers, housekeepers, restaurant staff, the shore guides that tour people around, front desk, you name it. We ended up with 150 styles in every size, so you can imagine the inventory system I had to set up. They tested me for six months, and we spent an extra three months just putting my styles through heavy-duty laundering because the clothing had to hold up under a certain heat. Only after I passed all the tests did they give me a contract. Now I’m on my sixth year with them.”
Was there any point during those first six months that you worried you couldn’t scale up fast enough to finish the job?
“No, because I’d done the Cosmo. But this was 10 times bigger. I had to come up with millions of dollars to inventory everything. My husband and I sold our house. We put everything we had into this contract.”
Whoa. And you didn’t have any doubts at the time? Like, what if it all fell apart?
“I definitely did, because it was our livelihood. We sold the only thing we owned. I just couldn’t get a loan; I didn’t have enough collateral. But we negotiated such a good contract, we decided there was no way we were going to lose money. When I started with Carnival, they said I’d be working on two or three ships. Now I’m up to 26 Carnival ships. It just kept scaling up. But I never get too comfortable. I run my business in a lean, mean way because I’m very scared of what happened in 2008.”
How many people are on your team today?
“I have about 15, and then I work with 50 to 150 people at the factories I’m copartners with. They’re all in New York City’s Garment Center. Then I have factories in China and Vietnam that I work with for Carnival; the profit margin is lower but the volume makes up for it.”
How do you do your due diligence with overseas factories?
“I visit the factories in person and look at the other brands using them. Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors, and other highly exposed designers are not going to put their clothes in a factory that isn’t [up to standard].”
What is your dream makeover project? Like the one hospitality brand whose uniforms you’d like to overhaul from start to finish?
“Soho House. I really love their interior design and the rooms, but they lack cohesion between locations. There’s an opportunity to do something great with each hotel, while creating an overall brand identity.”
Are airlines something you’ve tried to break into?
“No. That’s a whole different ball game. You don’t have as much leeway, because you’re designing for the inside of an airplane. They all look the same. It’s kinda boring. I prefer boutique-y hotels and restaurants.”
You’ve talked about wanting to open your own hotel someday. What would it look like?
“It’d be by the water somewhere, either on the West Coast or in Southeast Asia. It’d have a very warm, cozy, soulful feeling, like stepping into someone’s beautiful home, with 40 rooms max. And it has to have really, really, really soft sheets.”
What would the uniforms look like?
“Relaxed, casual, comfy—more like resort wear. No ties!”