Wardrobes for front-of-house staff at restaurants and bars are becoming more informal. But as Ellen Himelfarb finds, the new loose looks are empowering the workers who wear them
The owners of Luca, a new "Britalian" trattoria set in London's cobbled Clerkenwell streetscape, wanted to convey a sense of calm in their smart, amber-lit space. One of the ways they've achieved this is with selvedge denim. Staff at the restaurant wear jet-black selvedge jeans from the independent British label Folk, paired with an oaty-toned cotton shirt and finished with a waist apron to keep the look simple. "That's important," says restaurateur co-owner Johnny Smith, "because the Folk look is clean and we didn't want to put an apron over the shirt."
The ensemble reflects Smith's approach to fine dining in London: high-quality classics with a modern twist. When he and partners Daniel Willis and Isaac McHale launched Luca's predecessor the Clove Club in 2013, they commissioned pale-grey shirts and dark-indigo selvedge denim in a bespoke chino cut from the Japanese streetwear retailer Beams Plus. The pinstriped aprons (and matching breadbasket cloths) came from Welsh tailor Timothy Everest. Together they amount to the sartorial representation of the location, a grand, grey-stone East London vestry hall updated with salvaged wood and teal-blue subway tile – and, of course, of the modern British menu.
"Daniel and I were keen from day one to get the ambiance right, from the music to the decor to the uniforms," says Smith. "We set out to create a restaurant for our generation."
If you've ever clocked the G-Star aprons at the fashionable Jane restaurant in Antwerp, or the casual shirt sleeves at Noma in Copenhagen, you'll have noticed the easy, light approach to fine-dining uniforms is a global trend. As Michelin-starred restaurants do away with tablecloths, they're also abolishing neckties. "More and more formal restaurants are informalizing their uniforms, because they want to break people's stereotypes about what's expected from that restaurant," says Smith. "It's quite a calculated statement."
You'll see it in the global proliferation of Japanese-designed workwear, pinafores, loose cotton waistcoats and cross-bib aprons – adding up to a front-of- house look seemingly lifted off the pages of Kinfolk magazine, the Danish-based arbiter of the low-urban lifestyle. But perhaps more than anywhere, London restaurants are brands with commercial clout, and uniforms are a platform for prestige collaborations. In this back-to-basics era, food and fashion partnerships are doubling down.
The flamboyant restaurant Sketch became a symbol for London excess when it opened 15 years ago. Yet when its recent dining-room redesign was underway, with interiors by India Mahdavi and art by David Shrigley, leisurewear designer Richard Nicoll was commissioned to create the uniforms. Nicoll, who died last year, delivered cotton T-shirt dresses for the women and boiler suits for the men, all in utilitarian pale grey. They made a statement that Sketch had moved on from its buttoned-up power-lunching beginnings. And at the celeb stomping ground the Chiltern Firehouse, where chef Nuno Mendes wears a dark-wash cotton apron fastened with a tan leather strap, owner André Balazs hired Emilia Wickstead – a British designer of clean, simple silhouettes – to fashion open-backed short-sleeved blue jumpsuits for the hosts.
London creatives are a tight-knit crowd and often partnerships are formed over a pint at the pub or around the kitchen table. Skye Gyngell commissioned her good friend Maureen Doherty, founder of casual clothier Egg, to do the staff uniforms for her elegant Spring restaurant in Somerset House – though Doherty's Breton shirts and unbuttoned vests come off less classy, more part-time mime. Granger & Co., a small chain of healthy, Australian-inspired cafés, did it better with slouchy chambray shirts by Sydney label Jac & Jack, a collab it announces right on the menus.
Sure enough, the market for a style-led front-of-house has opened the door to entrepreneurs who focus exclusively on uniform design. Jane Porter, a former fashion buyer, founded Studio 104 to keep London's high-end hotels looking sharp and relevant. Barristas seeking old-fashioned aprons in waxed canvas or leather will find a half dozen makers with workshops in east or south London. And this year Granger & Co. switched allegiance to the Uniform Studio, purveyor of chic, modern livery that blurs the line between master and servant. "Workers want to look a certain way, too," says Lois Hill, who founded the clothing company with a line of tuxedo vests and pussy-bow blouses for Kettner's, a now-closed iconic brasserie in Soho.
A former stylist and costume designer, Hill had lost interest in the fashion industry's demand for seasonal change and saw a market for functional, hard-wearing classics that happen to tie in nicely with the current café culture and hipster zeitgeist: "There wasn't that much competition in the industry. And not much good design either." She says she's inspired by Bauhaus "form follows function" ideology and 18th-century French workwear – like the blue workman's jacket with pockets, worn by the late photographer Bill Cunningham. These values surely endeared her to the staff at the new Design Museum, who commissioned a range of fitted dark denim aprons for the café, shop and exhibitions. And Hill's cigarette pants for the shop girls at Anya Hindmarch and shift dresses for Soho House have had a hand in making front-of-house work acceptably cool.
She likens it to brand ambassadorship – no different from a celebrity pitchman. "Increasingly, my clients are a step ahead now," she says. "They want to feel like they're on trend."
Visit tgam.ca/newsletters to sign up for the Globe Style e-newsletter, your weekly digital guide to the players and trends influencing fashion, design and entertaining, plus shopping tips and inspiration for living well. And follow Globe Style on Instagram @globestyle.