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Wednesday, 14 September 2011 13:31

Finding a custom fit, 2,000 times over

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Deep in the labyrinthine basement at Harrah’s, in an ordinary hallway sits an extraordinary room. There’s a service counter and a door, and it seems, at first blush, like a standard work-and-storage room — a few shelves, some sewing machines on desks and a row or two of wardrobe racks.

The room that holds the wardrobe department is, however, TARDIS-like: it’s bigger on the inside.

And Arlene Reagan truly couldn’t be prouder.

Come in and look straight upwards, and before you unfolds an entire story of snaking racks, filled with skirts and shirts and raincoats and blazers and specially-tailored dresses and elaborate Asian-inspired costumes — the image of Harrah’s Cherokee, expressed in clothes.

This is Reagan’s domain. She’s the wardrobe supervisor, and on her automated racks are the uniforms of 47 different departments, enough to dress anyone from size zero to 26.

Every last person who dons a uniform for Harrah’s crosses Reagan’s threshold. No oversized shirts or misshapen pants miss her inspecting eye. Unlike many uniformed companies, employees here get fitted before hitting the floor. Some such as beverage severs who roam the gaming floors, cocktail tray in hand, get a custom tailored fitting, a uniform melded to their precise shape. Front desk clerks, in dry-clean-only suits, get the same courtesy.

Everyone else leaves the wardrobe room with what Reagan calls a street fit, an outfit that fits like you’d buy it yourself.

And with employees rotating in and out in a never-ending cycle — there’s a new hire class every week — the job in wardrobe is never done. The department closes for six hours each day, from midnight to 6 a.m. Otherwise, Reagan, her two seamstresses and five clerks are busily fixing and fitting for 18 hours a day.

They sew on buttons and hem pants and skirts and resize for those on the up or down swing of a weight-loss plan. A handmade dress hangs on a rack next to a sewing machine, modified for maternity after a beverage server announced her pregnancy.

Then there’s the testing. Of the 47 departments, Reagan helps managers pick new uniforms every few years. They bring in vendors, have a fashion show and then they test.

When clothing 2,000, it’s tempting fate to take the manufacturer at its word.

“We would look for the construction, the durability, we would run it past a stain test,” says Reagan. “If it was a beverage server garment, we would take everything that they would come into contact with and we spill it.” Coke, coffee, vodka, grape juice, cleaner. And then they wash it. Does it shrink or pill or stretch or otherwise react weirdly? Is it uglier post-wash?

For the seamstresses and clerks, it’s a constant education. With nearly four dozen departments and numerous different uniforms in each, an encyclopedic knowledge of how each works is essential.

Reagan came to the job when the casino opened in 1997 with a home economics degree, a remnant of days past, and experience making traditional Native American costumes. Plus, she’d just been sewing her whole life.

She has a warm, motherly air and a practical, cheerful demeanor. She’s reminiscent of Julia Childs, forthright and merry, and like the famed cook, came to her career later in life, after seeing her children through high school.

A lot of her clerks and seamstresses came from the now-diminished manufacturing sector that once employed many behind a sewing machine. There’s not much turnover here, but with those skills becoming harder to come by, finding their eventual replacements may prove challenging.

Though Harrah’s is entering ever-new iterations of itself, Reagan has watched the company’s outfits move rather more cyclically over the last 14 years, much like fashion in the wider world.

“It kind-of goes in a cycle,” she says, offering an example. “When we started out in beverage, they were in a dress, then after that they were in a bustier, then they were in a jacket, now we’re looking again back at a bustier.”

The current beverage dress du jour is somewhere between dress and bustier, a cropped jacket and tailored A-line skirt.

The looks have come and gone over the years, but Reagan’s business has barely changed.

As with any job, she’s learned tricks to make it better. There’s now a chute for dry clean clothes. The clerks have learned an assembly line to fly through routine repairs.

The best part of the job, she says, is the people. And while everyone says that about their job, when Reagan says it, it is truly believable.

She makes people look good, because good-looking people work better and better-working people make the company better.

“You get paid for being nice,” says Reagan. What, she asks, could be better?

 

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