Spotting a chef outside of a restaurant or kitchen is, as Damian from "Mean Girls" would say, "like seeing a dog walk on its hind legs," and for good reason: The classic chef's uniform — traditionally comprised of a double-breasted jacket, printed (or matching) pants and a tall chef's hat called a toque — is rooted in culinary history, dating back as early as Victorian times and worn by professionals across all levels within the food industry, from fast-casual establishments to Michelin-rated restaurants. But while most chefs hold a strong sense of pride in wearing their uniforms in the kitchen, it's not exactly the same when worn outside of working hours.
Tilit, a New York-based fashion brand run by husband-and-wife duo Alex McCrery and Jenny Goodman, is here to change that by revamping and expanding upon the uniform of the food and hospitality industries.
McCrery, who had gone from working as a chef at multiple businesses to taking on private clients over a two-decade career, would often find himself at markets or grocery stores while on the job. "Wearing the traditional uniform just felt really silly," he says. "I started looking for other options and other colleagues were wearing things that were basically streetwear, but it didn't really have the functionality that's necessary or more comfortable for when you're in the kitchen."
Goodman also recalls chefs becoming more conscious of what they wore back in the early 2000s, when open kitchen layouts became more popular in restaurants. However, the uniforms provided by major brands were largely generic and made from poor quality materials. "They're usually 100-percent polyester and washed with horrible chemicals that are bad for the skin," says Goodman. "They're really cheap, commodity products."
"The people who were making the clothes were not people who were wearing them," adds McCrery. "And they weren't really listening to the people who were wearing the clothes. We've always wanted to do for chefwear what Carhartt did for construction workers."
After crowdsourcing from within their circle of industry friends — specifically about what bothered them about their uniforms and how to transform them into something that they would feel proud and comfortable wearing — the two launched Tilit with a chef shirt, a pair of pants and an apron in 2012. "We thought about using functional materials but in a new way that hadn't really been thought of before," explains Goodman, like making their bestselling apron from a washable, breathable wax cotton that's easy to wipe down. Its neck straps are adjustable, detachable and easy to replace if they're worn down. (Indeed, during our interview at Tilit's Lower East Side studio, a pair of straps were being updated on a customer's four-year-old apron.)
The chef shirt is designed as a cross between a traditional chef coat and dishwasher (or porter) shirt. It's single-breasted, button-down, made from lightweight twill with vents under the arms and boasts a tab at the back of the neck to hold an apron strap in place. The latter is a small but mighty improvement to what's usually available across the market, as well as a design signature for Tilit, says Goodman.
Naturally, the industry, which McCrery describes as "super nomadic," took notice. "Chefs are constantly moving around," he notes. "People saw it, liked it, told their friends, went to another restaurant and told their friends there. We've had chefs start with a single purchase and then encourage their entire team to buy, or encourage their owner to buy for their own team. We've been really fortunate that it spread primarily organically."
In 2013, Chase awarded them with a business grant of $100,000, which allowed McCrery and Goodman to increase Tilit's inventory — a major growing pain for the young brand. "We were totally self-funded to start the business," says Goodman. "One of the hard parts is that we sell out of things and we didn't have enough cash to keep stuff on the shelves, so we were losing out on sales. The grant from Chase was a game-changer for us."
Five years later, Tilit outfits thousands of food and hospitality businesses — from a small café with 12 staffers to larger hotel franchises, such as The Standard and Soho House — with custom uniforms, whether it's a particular color or material choice or a one-of-a-kind print design. "About six months into launching, Contra [a restaurant in New York] opened and they were the first custom client," recalls McCrery. "It hadn't really dawned on us at all before that we could do design for a team. That opened a huge door at the time and is actually the majority of our business now."
Around 40 percent of Tilit's business comes from online sales, and while they work with a small group of retail distributors, Goodman likes to think that the brand has gone somewhat global. "We have a customer who is a chef at this luxury, temporary lodge in the Arctic," she says. "He is literally wearing our clothes in the Arctic, so I would say we're all over the place."
Tilit's breadth of designs has also grown over the years, as McCrery and Goodman hope to create for almost every role within the food, drink and hospitality industry. In July, they'll release an oyster shucking apron — complete with slash-resistant pockets — as well as a bag that's tailored to bartenders and mixologists in the fall. Although Tilit is meant for professionals and enthusiasts alike, a slew of offerings can easily be included in any wardrobe, like its recently launched jumpsuit, a kitchen workshirt in an on-trend Hawaiian print or a worker coat, which takes inspiration from a menswear chore coat. "We try to bring things that can really cross over to mainstream," says Goodman. "You wear it to work and then go out for drinks or dinner and look like, you know, everybody else."