It’s one of the clichés of apartment-hunting. Say “doorman,” and immediately everyone gets the same picture: black suit, white gloves, epaulets, probably some gold braid or a chauffeur-like cap. Stuffy. Traditional.
What if it didn’t have to be that way?
For a certain subset of co-op and condo residents, it isn’t. They’re thinking outside the box and ushering in a new trend in doorman uniforms.
Take the Butterfield House, a Greenwich Village co-op on 12th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. In 2014, a water main broke outside the building and flooded the basement, lobby, and the parking garage. On top of the massive renovations now required, the building had lost all of its doormen’s uniforms.
“Coming out of that situation, we had a major renovation – almost restoration, if you like, of the building,” says Martin Atkin, board president at the Butterfield. “We were fortunate that in the two years prior to the flood, we were [actually] working with the architectural historian and a preservationist in order to do a very thorough lobby renovation.”
The renovation was finished by the summer, but the issue of the uniforms hadn’t been resolved. During construction, the staff members had been wearing whatever they wanted. Now that the building had a new look, it was time to extend that image to the building’s staff.
“It was important to us at that point to also reconsider the uniforms,” says Atkin. “We looked at standard uniforms, and even maybe less standard uniforms for buildings of all types, and we just were not satisfied with the quality or the sort of vibe. It never felt appropriate to have uniforms with braiding on them in a mid-century building. So we determined that a different approach would be to simply buy very nice business suits for our [doormen].”
The Butterfield House is not alone. Many buildings are moving toward a less formal, more modern sense of style for their front lines. The movement is taking place in “the more hip buildings, probably where the people who are on the board and the residents are younger and are not used to the traditional uniforms,” says Gerard J. Picaso, director of the Gerard J. Picaso division of Halstead Property. In new buildings – and even in established ones where the population is starting to skew younger – these ideas are having an effect on the aesthetics. Just as younger people dress themselves differently, they’re now dressing their homes differently.
“Each building tries to have a personality,” observes Marc Kotler, senior vice president of the New Development Group at FirstService Residential. “Sometimes it’s a function of the neighborhood: the Upper East Side is more traditional, maybe hats or white gloves. [Then we] may have a building in Tribeca or the Highline [that wants] to personify a type of cool, [so] they’ll use something that is not traditional: a simple suit, black on black, gray on gray, maybe no tie.”
It involves curb appeal. “How do you want your building perceived?” asks Picaso. “Do you want it perceived as a modern building?” Agrees Adrienne Albert, CEO of The Marketing Directors, an advisory for developers and a sales/marketing/leasing team for their properties: “They may have the ‘Armani look’ under a suit. Whatever the branding is of the building, we want to carry that everywhere. Most of the newer buildings are just that – new and fresh and exciting.”
“Avantgarding” the Gates
So where is Albert seeing less formal uniforms? “Any neighborhood that is more avant-garde: Tribeca, SoHo, the East Village – even [the Financial District] is becoming more modern. Chelsea certainly, the Highline. The Upper West Side is not as trendy, but you may find more of a suit [there] rather than something that looks like a military uniform.”
That assertion is being borne out by uniform manufacturers. “My father started [our company] 30 years ago. Back then there were a lot of different colors; over time it’s changed,” observes Matthew Schackett, vice president of Forest Uniforms. “We really do make a suit, [but] the style of the suit is a custom look. A lot of buildings had buttons and a standing collar. Everything has moved to a civilian suit look,” including buildings in what property managers describe as more “traditional” neighborhoods, such as the Upper East Side.
“We’ve moved away from a lot of brighter colors. It used to be a much bigger thing, the difference between summer and winter uniforms. In the summer, you’d see shades of green and blue; buildings have drifted away from that to more of a year-round uniform – more grays, blacks, shades of navy.” The shift hasn’t affected how the company operates, however. Manufacturing is still done on the premises, on Elizabeth Street, near Chinatown.
While the trends may be mostly aesthetic, there is definitely a case to be made for practicality. Broker Bruce Robertson, with the Corcoran Group, explains the problem he saw with “old-school” uniforms at a building in which he used to live, a co-op on Lexington Avenue. “Someone got the idea of having the doorman wear white gloves, to be more like their Park Avenue neighbors,” he recalls. “It lasted about two weeks.” Robertson is “seeing a more fashion forward approach in new condos, because it’s the total package. Properties are being designed and outfitted to attract certain consumers. The buildings themselves become a luxury brand and all that entails including staff fashion.”
Although this trend will probably continue in new buildings, the consensus seems to be that in older buildings, it still needs a catalyst. For the Butterfield House, it was catastrophic flooding, but for many, it’s a much less dramatic series of events. “A lot of the times the new uniforms are associated with a change in the décor,” says Picaso, “or a modernization, or an overhaul of the lobby – new finishes, new desk. [They say,] ‘While we’re at it, why don’t we change the uniforms?’ It’s usually a board-only decision. That’s why the board is elected. The only time it may not be is when they have a decorating committee and the decorating committee is doing something with the lobby and the hallway.”
Schackett, the uniform manufacturer, agrees. “Downtown, they open [a] building in just a plain black suit, and then as they fill the building, and people begin to buy the units, they reassess the uniform. That’s when, usually, they move to something more traditional. [But] any time there’s construction, uniforms are next. Redoing the lobby is a precursor.”
And yet, sometimes change can occur for the simplest of reasons. Notes Picaso: “In some cases, people in the building are tired of looking at the older-style uniforms.”