The Story Behind the Uniform

Most folks on the front lines of the hospitality business go to work each day and grab an ill-fitting pair of black polyester uniform pants off of a linen-service rack. Imagine instead a curated collection of functional apparel designed for the job but dripping with style. That’s the approach at Southall, thanks to longtime clothier and legendary stylemaker Debe Dohrer.

Whether it’s Kuhl and Tom Beckbe on the outfitters, a handmade Otis James hat on a valet, or a bespoke neckerchief on the spa concierge, every look is well conceived. And each has options to choose from, depending on the mood.

Having spent a career dressing professional athletes, performing artists and others operating on the big stage, she understands the importance that clothing plays in psychology. A year ago, she set out to develop a one-of-a-kind aesthetic for the Southall staff, cohesive and unique across dozens of departments. It needed to be unexpected, an expression of the timeless and the innovative, and speak to the place and its personality. Could there be a common thread woven between a farmhand and a sommelier?

“We’re talking about 300+ employees, and three to four looks each… it’s a huge undertaking, and a level of detail that I’ve never seen implemented on this scale,” she explains. “But it’s more powerful than any one of us knows. Clothing drives people’s mindsets; it changes the whole game.”

She cites examples from her years in the apparel industry of people overcoming mental health struggles, or physical limitations, simply by having their needs heard and gaining the gift of confidence by virtue of what they’re wearing.

“It makes them feel part of the team, it gives them purpose. I want to empower housekeeping, because if they feel great, they embrace what they do and spread joy to guests,” she says. “Everyone has to be top of their game. We have a tailor here at Southall that works with individuals when needed, because an easy alteration can make the difference.”

Dohrer’s resources and influences stretch from Broadway wardrobe designers to Italian suitmakers, and bridge the spectrum between fine Japanese kinsugi stitchery, bridle leather and heavy canvas tent cloth. Railroad stripes that nod to the line that ran through the farm a century ago, and the ecrus, olives, lavenders and plums that punctuate the Southall landscape and interior palette, all make their appearances in subtle and brave ways. Logos might be cleverly revealed, or not used at all.

“This is my vibe. You get to throw on a sack coat and look really cool,” Dohrer says. “People are seeing these items and wanting to buy them, and that is such a profound honor to me.”

An internal fashion show in October brought the entire staff together to unveil the collection, with each department working the runway to joyous fanfare. If the spirit in the room was any indication, it was the successful culmination of months of visioning, testing, refining and then revealing — the kind of collective effort that tends to deliver something great.

It was an evolution, she says, in the understanding of how items and people will function, in the establishment of an identity. And in the infusion of the core sensibilities of Southall.

“In an ocean of black polyester, this is something different, an element that is distinct and special,” “It’s more ecologically sound, and utilizes less harmful cleaning products. It’s beautiful, and it makes people feel at home. That’s the spirit of Southall at its essence.”