Image: Delta

When Delta tapped Zac Posen to design new uniforms for its employees, the American airline giant was hoping to “bring high fashion and function to a different kind of runway.” Known for keeping celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow, Naomi Campbell, Oprah, and Rihanna “in mermaid gowns on the red carpet,” as Vogue’s Nicole Phelps put it recently, Posen was enlisted by Delta to design a uniform collection for Delta’s flight attendants and airport customer service agents while also “advising on the uniform project for Delta’s ramp and ground support agents,” the airline said in a statement in 2018. 

Delta’s first uniform change in over a decade made headlines when the new plum-colored wares – from “high stretch, wrinkle and stain-resistant, waterproof, anti-static and deodorizing” dresses and skirts to blouses and sweaters – made their debut in May 2018 as part of what the New York Times has since categorized as a multi-million dollar rollout, following from a 3-year long design process, and complete with glossy imagery and a big-name designer to boot. 

However, the media attention surrounding Delta’s new “Passport Plum” uniforms would ultimately be eclipsed by other news that would follow less than a year later when the Atlanta-headquartered airline was named in a class action lawsuit centering exclusively on what employees called “defective and unreasonably dangerous” uniforms. 

Yes, the ugly (alleged) reality behind Delta’s fashionable new uniforms began to surface a year after their big launch when two Delta employees filed a proposed class action complaint against Land’s End – the company that Delta enlisted to manufacture the Posen-designed uniforms – in a New York federal court. 

According to their strongly-worded lawsuit, Monica DeCrescentis and Gwyneth Gilbert argued that Land’s End had run afoul of both federal and state law by manufacturing uniforms that “were not reasonably safe for their intended use and were defective as a matter of law with respect to their manufacture.” They asserted that wearing the uniforms – which they claim “contain chemical additives and finishes including chromium, antimony, mercury, formaldehyde, fluorine and bromine in excess of industry-accepted levels for garments” – caused them to suffer from “skin rashes, headaches, fatigue, breathing difficulties, hair loss, low white blood cell counts and nausea.”  

As a result, they sought damages of “no less than $5,000,000,” and the opportunity to enable some 64,000 other Delta employees to join in their lawsuit against Land’s End. 

That lawsuit would prove to be just the first in a web of striking class action lawsuits for Land’s End. In a subsequently initiated case, which was filed in October 2019 in a federal court in Land’s End’s home state of Wisconsin, prior plaintiff Ms. Gilbert was joined by fellow Delta employee Michael Marte, and together, they lodged claims of negligence, failure to label the uniforms, and violations of the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, among others, against Land’s End.

Less than three months later, Land’s End was hit with a third suit: a third similarly sweeping proposed class action filed on December 31 by Delta flight attendants Stephanie Andrews – and some 500 other current or former Delta employees – who argued that they have suffered from asthma, vocal cord dysfunction, difficulty breathing, coughing, hair loss, skin irritation, rashes, itchiness, fatigue, headaches, eye irritation and sinus irritation, among other ailments, as a direct result of the allegedly defective and dangerous uniforms. 

In addition to monetary damages to compensate them for their personal injury, pain and suffering, emotional distress and financial loss as tied to the uniforms, the named plaintiffs have asked the court – the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin – to require Land’s End to immediately and permanently recall all of the uniforms, while establishing and maintaining a monitoring program in connection with its uniform program. 

As the lawsuits facing Land’s End are multiplying, Delta maintains that the uniforms are “safe.” Meanwhile, there is another number that is growing: the number of employees that are swearing off the plum-hued wares entirely.  

Ekrem Dimbiloglu, the director of uniforms at Delta, told the New York Times early this month, “We believe the uniform is safe, but clearly there is a group that doesn’t.” That group – which consists of “thousands” of employees – has taken to wearing alternative black-and-white clothing while on the clock, something that Dimbiloglu says is problematic: “Having a subgroup of employees wearing black-and-white personal attire and having another group of employees wearing the uniforms just isn’t acceptable” … seeming from a branding perspective, as he explained, “We’ve got to be a unified force.”  

With that in mind, Dimbiloglu says that Delta is planning to “revamp” its uniforms by December 2021, a move that “will cost millions of dollars.”