Why Food Merch Is Having a Fashion Moment

From restaurants to specialty grocery stores, soon you'll be shopping at your favorite dining spots.
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Brian Atwood for Pietro Nolita. Photo: @bat_gio/Instagram

Brian Atwood for Pietro Nolita. Photo: @bat_gio/Instagram

Clothing and food make strange bedfellows, as anyone who has ever sampled edible underwear can tell you. If you were to poll some discerning tastemakers about the recently-released sneakers Saucony and Dunkin Donuts created together, you might elicit a similar response. Edible undies, per one Amazon reviewer, are a "rancid, rubbery mess." The Saucony x Dunkin Kinvara 9 sneakers, according to writer and brand consultant Chris Black, are "absolutely crazy."

"Doughnuts and running could not be more opposite," Black says. "They're literally the antithesis of each other."

And yet, as crazy as the project may seem, when the sneakers were made available to preorder online in March, they promptly sold out. Subsequent drops, released in Boston ahead of the city's marathon on April 16, went fast, too.

Best-selling fashion product is often impervious to the constraints of things like practicality, taste and a sense of financial responsibility, so there could feasibly be any number of explanations as to why this particular shoe sold so well, so quickly. But any reasoning wouldn't be complete without acknowledging that the Dunkin sneakers, intentionally or not, are another entry in a genre that is currently on the rise in fashion. Outwardly strange as it may seem, the convergence of fashion and restaurants is upon us; so-called "food merch" has arrived in a big way.

As evidence, see Kith's capsule collection with Michelin-starred Greenwich Village restaurant Carbone, or the thermals and tees sold by Mission Chinese, designated by GQ to be "as hot as its food." When salad chain Sweetgreen collaborated with James Beard Award winning chef Nancy Silverton, it commissioned a T-shirt bearing her likeness from New York label Deer Dana; it was a second helping of merch for anyone who had already purchased Sweetgreen's "Beets Don't Kale My Vibe" tee. Los Angeles's Sqirl upped its merch cred by pairing with streetwear brand Brain Dead, and Madison Avenue mainstay-turned-Italian-mini-empire Sant Ambroeus can claim two recent (and alliterative) fashion collaborators in Superga and Saturdays. Recently, noted menswear enthusiast Diplo posed on Instagram wearing a sweatshirt from supermarket chain Publix, and Kanye West revealed on Twitter that his most recent designs for Yeezy are inspired in part by "grocery store drip" — specifically that of Erewhon, a high-end natural foods market in LA.

Photo: @diplo/Instagram

Photo: @diplo/Instagram

So widespread has this trend become, that when optical brand Warby Parker played an April Fool's joke on the internet this year by announcing a faux-collab with the fast food chain Arby's, it didn't seem outside of the realm of possibility. "Collaboration has become such a big part of the fashion industry that it's happening everywhere, in every way that it can," says Black. "It's something different for both brands — the restaurant and the clothing — to do."

Restaurants across the globe have, of course, been selling merch and trinkets on their own for years, as seen on a generation of tourists who collected Hard Rock Cafe tees and a certain ilk of college coeds who seemingly received Señor Frog's merch upon matriculation. There is precedent for a crossover with legitimate fashion brands, too. Indie label Telfar, for example, has been working with White Castle for years, and the late Parisian boutique Colette collaborated with McDonald's back in 2015. The appeal of collections like those, and to a degree, merch made by restaurants themselves, often comes from an appreciation for irony and kitsch, not unlike the way in which it is currently chic to wear a thousand dollar designer piece made to look like a $10 Canal Street bootleg. 

However, these sorts of collaborations have trickled into the high-end market as well: Dimes, a trendy eatery on New York's Lower East Side, recently partnered with jewelry brand Loquet on a collection of lockets based on its menu that retail for over $350. In addition, Giovanna Battaglia Engelbert teased an upcoming collaboration between luxury shoe designer Brian Atwood and millennial pink Italian café Pietro Nolita, which already offers dine-in patrons T-shirts printed with the slogan "Pink as Fuck."

When the aesthetics of a sweatshirt sold by KFC earn praise from editors at Esquire, it may be a sign we've entered a brave, new world that is genuinely finger lickin' good. Black, who helped develop hats and shirts for Morgenstern's Ice Cream through his company Public Announcement, says he's noticed an uptick in the quality of food merch available, designed both in partnership with fashion brands and without. He deems merch from Sqirl and fellow LA eatery Botanica especially strong. "Whether you love the restaurant or not, you're attracted to the merchandise because it looks good," he says. "That is pretty powerful for a restaurant, because that's not its business."

Photo: @sqirlla/Instagram

Photo: @sqirlla/Instagram

Even food merch that isn't particularly design-savvy can serve a purpose. "Restaurants have, like many other parts of culture, become obsessed with identity and branding, such that what and where you eat says something about who you are," Rachel Tashjian, fashion features editor at Garage Magazine, explains. "People like to show off that they belong to tribes, and a Kith x Carbone shirt is one way to do that."

Tashjian is herself the owner of an Eataly mini-cooler she wears as a fanny pack. "Obviously, the appeal is that I'm carrying a crossbody bag with the Eataly logo on it," she says. "It's silly and chic, which is, I believe, the ethos of our sartorial times." And, she jokes, "My money stays ice cold!"

Speaking of money, that is certainly a motivating force here, too; logo'd fashion is a proven commodity. In recent years, the lucrative merch machine has cycled through pop stars like Kanye West and Justin Bieber, trickled down to YouTube-bred "talent" like Jake Paul — who plastered his grammatically questionable slogan, "It's Everyday Bro," across a variety of items eagerly snatched up by fans — and has now hit a class of niche stars, spawning what the New York Times calls "micromerch."

Even fashion conglomerate Kering, not normally positioned as a consumer-facing brand, was thrown into the merch melee when Balenciaga, one of the houses under its charge, debuted a hoodie branded with the logo of its parent company last year. With a winning track record like that, it's no wonder purveyors of food are getting in on the action.

"Restaurants seem like a natural progression, because I think there's a mutual respect and admiration between those two businesses," Black says. "They kind of coexist."

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That was the case for the Sant Ambroeus and Saturdays partnership, according to Alireza Niroomand, creative director at Sant Ambroeus. He says that collaboration — Saturdays' core sweatshirt done in Sant Ambroeus' signature pink, with "Saturdays" written in Italian across the front — was conceived during a meal with the surf brand's co-founder Morgan Collett, a personal friend. The product addresses other business goals, too, beyond working with a pal. "We rely on each other to attract customers," he says. "I believe it sets Sant Ambroeus [apart] as a lifestyle brand of its own."

Photo: @saturdaysnyc/Instagram

Photo: @saturdaysnyc/Instagram

Collett agrees. "It allows for us to expose our brand to people who may have never heard of us, and vice versa," he says. "Sant Ambroeus is a New York City institution and represents a sense of community, just like Saturdays."

While Niroomand says Sant Ambroeus is interested in future fashion collaborations "as long as they are not forced," Black, for one, thinks restaurants should look within if they want their goods to outlast this current food merch moment.

"I want what the restaurant is actually making either for the employees or to sell to the customers," he says. "A collaboration with streetwear, to me, takes the whole fun out of it. Then it becomes a commodity for teenagers, like everything else."

It's unclear whether it was teens who snatched up the Saucony x Dunkin Kinvara 9's. But, press materials said there were "less than 2,000" pairs available for sale at $110 each, potentially a decent revenue stream for what could otherwise be written off as a novelty product or publicity stunt. It almost guarantees this is not the last, or the wackiest, food merch we'll see in the near future from brands with or without organic links to the restauranting world. After all, if fashion runs on anything — other than, apparently, Dunkin — it's milking a trend to the very last drop.

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