Behind The Seams With Virgin Australia's Uniform Designer

Virgin Australia cabin crew standing in front of the aircraft

2.43min read

Published 18 January 2016


While passengers dress for comfort, flight attendants are renowned for their impeccable appearance at 35,000 feet. Have you ever wondered how an airline wardrobe is designed? Australian fashion designer Juli Grbac was responsible for the new concept Virgin Australia uniform collection in 2010, adding a professional edge to the brand’s vibrant and fun personality. After the launch of the brand-new Flight Manager and Cabin Supervisor uniforms on January 6, Juli sat down with us for a behind-the-seams look at one of Australia’s most recognised uniforms.

 Virgin Australia cabin crew standing in front of the aircraft
Juli Grbac (middle) with Cabin Supervisors in the new charcoal grey uniform.

With a portfolio that includes her eponymous label and the distinction of being the inaugural winner of the first season of Project Runway Australia in 2008, Brisbane-based Juli already had a fashionable career before she was invited to pitch for the Virgin Australia uniform redesign in 2010. Alongside many established and internationally recognised Australian fashion designers, Juli had just two weeks to wow a boardroom panel of 10 with her sartorial vision for Virgin Australia.

The brief was just for design sketches, but Juli made samples, created a vision board and arranged a photo shoot with a photographer and model to showcase her creations. Needless to say, her chutzpah (Juli once told Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson that the patent red shoes were “tacky”) and astute research of the brand led to her successful bid. Just seven months later, the new Virgin Australia uniform wardrobe of over 200 individual pieces debuted on the first VA flight to Abu Dhabi in 2011.

“That was unheard of,” Juli says of the design process from concept to delivery.

“We actually did it in seven months. No one’s ever done that. Qantas took two years and that’s what you normally do, so we managed to do wear trials, fabric trials, everything within that time.”

 Virgin Australia flight attendant standing in the aisle
The exclusive shade of red is known as 'Virgin Girl's red'.

With such a tight timeframe, there were quite a few challenges delivering a uniform collection as opposed to a ready-to-wear collection. For starters, Juli had to design a flattering uniform for sizes six to 33 with pieces that would not only clothe the cabin crew, but all the support staff as well.

“Cabin crew, ground crew, pit crew – everything! I never thought I’d be designing high-vis,” Juli laughs. “To design something that will suit everybody, that’s probably the most challenging but that’s what I love.”

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Each piece has the designer’s attention to detail, with practical accommodations such as sleeve slits in the red dress to allow flight attendants to stow luggage in the overhead lockers with ease and ventilation panels for the pit crew vests to aesthetic details such as extra seams in the women’s jacket to accentuate the waist.

Virgin Australia cabin crew standing in front of the aircraft
The Cabin Supervisor uniform is dark charcoal with a red belt and a new scarf for the females, and a three-piece charcoal suit with a black shirt for the male Cabin Supervisors.

With the Virgin Australia colour palette of red, purple, grey, black and white to work with, Juli had fabric dyed in a blue-based shade of red that’s exclusive to Virgin Australia and a more universally flattering tone than the more orange-based Virgin red. Even the fabrics were considered, with materials that repel liquids and wick the sweat away from the body to keep the crew cool under pressure.

“Cabin crew, some of them are gone for five days at a time and the last thing they’re going to want to do is dry-clean, so we have to assume they’re going to wash everything apart from the jackets,” Juli explains.  “Everything has to be colourfast, minimal ironing.”

Five years on, with the launch of the new Flight Manager and Cabin Supervisor uniforms for Virgin Australia international and domestic cabin crews respectively, Juli has still has ‘pinch-me’ moments when she sees her designs on the billboard on the way to the airport.

“I probably get more excitement when I actually see the girls wearing it. They all love the red dress. And with the purple scarf it’s just so striking. I’ve had great feedback, it’s been amazing.”

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