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United enlists Brooks Brothers, other designers for new employee uniforms

Hoping to avoid the rash of problems associated with last year's uniform rollout at rival American Airlines, United Airlines has booked upscale clothier Brooks Brothers to make new outfits for its flight attendants and other employees.

The Chicago-based airline announced Thursday that Brooks Brothers, designer Tracy Reese and Carhartt will all have a hand in developing new uniforms for the more than 70,000 front-line employees, including pilots, flight attendants and customer service representatives.

The collaborative design efforts will bump existing uniform supplier Cintas off of United flights by 2020, a company spokeswoman said.

New York-based Brooks Brothers, long the uniform of Ivy Leaguers and the corporate elite, will design and manufacture clothing for all United pilots, as well as male flight attendants and customer service representatives.

For female flight attendants and customer service representatives, United has enlisted American fashion designer Tracy Reese to create the uniforms, which will also be manufactured by Brooks Brothers.

Carhartt, the 128-year-old Dearborn, Mich., manufacturer of rugged gear favored by blue-collar workers and hipsters, will outfit ramp service, technical and catering employees. Cintas will be responsible for distributing the Carhartt clothing and also for providing "a select number of employee-favored pieces," the airline said.

Additionally, United will partner with Tumi to provide luggage for its 24,000 flight attendants.

While new airline employee outfits might not ordinarily be big news, American Airlines is still grappling with the fallout from its ill-fated uniform rollout in September, which generated thousands of complaints from flight attendants and crew members, who said the clothing caused hives, wheezing, coughing, vertigo and headaches.

Two American Airlines flight attendants filed a lawsuit this month in U.S. District Court in Chicago against the manufacturer, California-based Twin Hill. The suit, which seeks class-action status, alleges the uniforms caused health problems for many employees.

"I don't know that there's anything different we're doing because of American, but we're definitely taking our time to do it right, get the proper feedback, and make sure we're producing and designing the best uniform possible," United spokeswoman Erin Benson said.

Benson said the airline will begin creating initial design and prototypes before starting "thorough wear tests."

Chicago Tribune's Lauren Zumbach contributed.

rchannick@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @RobertChannick

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