Hours after the indie fashion house Telfar presented its Spring/Summer 2016 collection during New York Fashion Week, the brand hosted an afterparty at an unexpected venue: a White Castle in Hell’s Kitchen.
White Castle had been a recurring theme for the brand’s founder, Telfar Clemens, for years, and the iconic slider chain has even catered his fashion shows. “There is a White Castle a block from the apartment where I was born and still live in Queens — that was where my parents would take us if we had been good,” Clemens says. “When I was a teenager I DJed to pay for my [early fashion] collections, and that White Castle was the only thing in my neighborhood that was open past 3 a.m.”
Shortly thereafter, Clemens, together with his creative designer Babak Radboy, was invited to design new unisex uniforms for the chain’s 400-plus locations. The designers celebrated by creating a White Castle-themed streetwear collection for their own brand, featuring $120 T-shirts and $220 hoodies that have sold out online (proceeds went to a human rights charity). And they’re not alone: Today, in a culture where the conversation about food extends far beyond just what’s on the plate, restaurants and fashion designers are increasingly coming together to infiltrate people’s wardrobes.
Food and restaurant brands have long produced kitschy logoed apparel, often worn by staffers or purchased by customers as souvenirs. But in recent years, food’s importance in pop culture has ascended, leading to culinary shows on prime time television and feature profiles of chefs in fashion and style magazines. Accordingly, the average person’s culinary-related wardrobe is no longer limited to a T-shirt from that kitschy diner they went to on vacation, or a baseball cap bearing the logo from the pizzeria that sponsored their coed softball team.
Now, chefs, restaurants, and food brands from Coca-Cola and Taco Bell to Momofuku and Mission Chinese Food are producing not just food and drink, but also high-quality, limited-run apparel and household items. Through in-house productions, savvy marketing agencies, or partnerships with luxe fashion brands, food companies are creating merch their customers are actually willing to pay for in order to rep their obsessions. “It’s just a simple example of something that’s been around years and years,” says John Stanton, professor of food marketing at St. Joseph’s University. “Focus on something other than product you’re selling and let that speak to the audience.”
Taco Bell’s collaboration with Forever 21 resulted in logo-drenched tees, bodysuits, and hoodies, while chef Danny Bowien’s Mission Chinese hawks trendy neon and block-lettered tops on its website. Mall pretzel brand Auntie Anne’s, in honor of its 30th birthday, collaborated with Threadless for pretzel-inspired T-shirts, and Broad City artist Mike Perry for a pretzel-adorned fanny pack. Uniqlo — which is often referred to as “the Japanese Gap” — partnered with eight Japanese ramen shops, including chains Ramen Setagaya and Ippudo, for a T-shirt line. A recent collaboration between Heineken and legendary Japanese streetwear brand A Bathing Ape included T-shirts, outerwear, and matching beer carriers sold at a pop-up at Japanese restaurant Izakaya in Manhattan’s East Village.
“Food and fashion are parallel,” says Coltrane Curtis of Team Epiphany, the marketing agency that spearheads Heineken’s fashion collaborations. “People will wait for hours to eat at Tim Ho Wan,” he points out, equating waiting in line for hard-to-score dim sum to sneakerheads who camp out to snag the latest pair of hyped shoes.
“Our clothing is communication of who we are, our ideals and view of the world,” says fashion psychologist Kate Nightingale. That echoes a statement on food, proposed three centuries ago by French epicure Brillat-Savarin: “Tell me what you eat and I shall tell you what you are.” Accordingly, people are repping their restaurant obsessions not only by clamoring to get into the new hot restaurant and showing off their latest meals on Instagram, but also by scooping up limited-edition Momofuku-branded Nike sneakers.
But consumers seem just as eager to rep mass-market brands like McDonald’s and Coca-Cola — deeply American brands with logos so instantly recognizable, they’ve taken on cultural icon status. (A 2015 study by branding firm Siegel & Gale ranked McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and Pepsi among the top 10 most memorable logos globally, and the Golden Arches have even appeared on accessories and apparel for high-end fashion house Moschino.) KFC, which has resurfaced Colonel Sanders in its ad campaigns over the few past years, leaned into its famous brand iconography for its recent fashion line. The limited-edition collection of orange “Fried Chicken USA” sweaters, red-and-white ringer T-shirts, and pillows featuring the Colonel’s face sold out in hours and sparked incredulous headlines like “Wait, Is It Possible That KFC’s New Merch Line Does Not Suck?”
Some of this merch is clearly pandering to today’s millennial breed of ironic humor: For an April Fool’s Day ploy, Arby’s and Warby Parker merged unlikely forces and actually sold meat-inspired glasses frames, while Auntie Anne’s 30th anniversary collection includes a pretzel shower curtain. Other joint ventures, like Coca-Cola’s collaborations with A Bathing Ape and KITH, are obvious bait for hypebeasts, trend-obsessed streetwear obsessives hungry to scoop up limited-release items for their collections (or to fetch inflated resale prices).
But these food-fashion ventures are ultimately all about marketing. Marketing research has repeatedly found that millennials are disconnected from traditional advertising, meaning brands have had to devise alternative ways of reaching the giant demographic. “It’s not advertising that’s interruptive — we’re just sharing something,” says Steve Kelly, director of media and digital for KFC U.S., of the brand’s recent fashion line, noting that the collection got people excited to wear the brand like a “bunch of walking billboards.”
Debuting a line of clothing or sneakers seems to be a guaranteed way for brands from Dunkin’ Donuts to Milk Bar to generate both social media hype and coverage from more traditional media outlets — and such collabs hit a sweet spot that can land them valuable bits of editorial real estate from both fashion-forward publications like Esquire and Hypebeast, as well as food websites like Eater or Food & Wine.
Ultimately, these food-fashion collaborations can do triple duty: by serving as new sources of revenue for the brands, attracting a dose of fresh publicity, and turning fans into moving advertisements. Even items that are never made available for sale to the public, like Arby’s “Meat Sweats” — hoodies and sweatpants adorned with zoomed-in imagery of roast beef and other proteins — generate valuable cultural cache for the brands involved.
“The biggest power we think you can have as a brand is becoming more synonymous with culture,” says Kelly of KFC. “Think about fried chicken — being bold enough to put ‘Fried Chicken USA’ on a sweatshirt and think people would see that and think about [your brand]. That’s powerful.”
Male model photo: Tom Kelley Archive; Female model photo: George Marks via Getty.
Matt Sedacca is a writer based in New York City.
Editor: Whitney Filloon