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Dress Code: Business Couture in the Philippines

The uniforms of Manila’s nine-to-fivers are anything but standard issue

She’s sashaying around the hotel lobby, dressed impeccably in a full-length dress with an up-to-there slit that rivals that Angelina Jolie moment at the 2012 Oscars. Her makeup’s subtle but suits what she’s wearing, and south of her ankles are sleek stiletto pumps. At first glance you might assume that this woman is at the hotel to attend a fancy party. She is, after all, appropriately done up for one. But notice the nametag pinned to her dress and you’ll learn she isn’t a guest, but one of Raffles Makati’s staffers.

In the Philippines’ Metro Manila area, Raffles Makati is the new kid on the block. Just a few years old, the opulent all-suite hotel is the first luxury property to open in the capital region in about 15 years. But when it comes to a fashionable workforce, Raffles follows in the footsteps of its more established peers around the city. Here in Manila, most hotels adopt high-style presentations, outfitting some of their nine-to-fivers in eye-catching ensembles better suited for an extravagant ball or costume gala.

A uniform at Raffles

“I believe that it is innate in our culture to put our best foot forward, and in this manner first impressions count,” says Rajo Laurel, a Philippine fashion designer who designed the uniforms at Raffles and other local hotels. Here, ladies—dress in cropped, terno-sleeved blouses over high-waisted, high-slit skirts with embroidered waistbands—do double duty at Raffles, where they don’t just act as greeters but also represent the Filipinos’ commitment to fashion. This is, of course, the country from which shoe hoarder Imelda Marcos hails. “The greeters are the ones who have the most elegant uniforms,” Laurel adds. “They are required to provide that wow factor.”

The same goes at the Mandarin Oriental, where breakfast starts with a hello from staffers dressed in figure-hugging short-sleeved dresses that stretch just above the ankles, skirts boasting that ever-popular high slit.

And at Makati Shangri-La’s brand-new Mediterranean restaurant Sage, the uniforms—another one of Rajo Laurel’s projects—lose the slit in favor of a structured, buttoned-up style. Inside, the eatery’s interior design philosophy is inspired by the cut of the perfect suit: Some of the prints that decorate the two floors mimic herringbone or pinstripe. So Laurel dressed the staff in sharp shirts and pencil skirts with contrasting bright blue cummerbunds. Sage’s hostesses are of course more elaborately dressed, with asymmetrical trumpet skirts made voluminous with wide pleats—a style that’s more design-forward than the more traditional attire typically seen in other hotels.

Uniforms at Sofitel

At the Sofitel Philippine Plaza Manila, a balance between tradition and modernity is evident in the uniforms. The hotel’s “Lobby Ambassadors” are styled in taffeta Maria Clara gowns—loose-fitting dresses historically worn by Filipinas in the 19th century, usually made with pineapple fabric. The Sofitel’s interpretation, however, is a lot more fitted than the original and is made more striking with metallic embroidery.

The Sofitel Philippine Plaza Manila

Rajo Laurel also worked on the Sofitel’s evening uniform at the hotel’s Spiral restaurant. Unlike the Maria Clara gowns, there’s nothing visually reminiscent about these dresses, which are colorblocked in black and cream and designed with just one sheer sleeve. To the uninitiated, this sexier look may appear like an unrealistic uniform, especially if you’re running around a restaurant. But Laurel insists otherwise. “I strive for a balance of high design and functionality. It may appear impractical, but we make sure that the employees are comfortable and are able to do their work properly,” he explains. “And for them to really shine and stand out.”