Last month, Liberian-American designer Telfar Clemens announced his latest collaboration with a surprising partner—a fast-food chain. Telfar, whose trendy vegan leather It bags have taken the world by storm, teamed up with none other than White Castle—the original hamburger chain—to design new “100th-anniversary” uniforms for the restaurant’s 10,000 employees. “New,” however, isn’t entirely accurate; this is Telfar’s third partnership with White Castle since 2017, following a small capsule collection that dropped just last year. The brand partnership is an enduring one, born when Clemens hosted a 2015 afterparty at the White Castle Times Square location. This year’s collaboration does not include just the typical employee visors and shirts, but durags as well, a direct request from surveyed employees. Telfar’s bridging of high fashion and the so-called “low culture” of fast food is a promising development in the industry, but it’s not without context. Upon closer inspection, fashion and fast food have always been remarkably intertwined.
On a surface level, there are some instant connections. Food and fashion are both described as “fast” when the people who make them get paid less than a living wage; when they’re made by people who get paid decently, there are fancy French words you can use instead, like haute couture and cuisine. They are both industries centrally based on the principle of consumption—both literal or figurative. Pick your poison: for every fashion house under the LVMH conglomerate umbrella (Louis Vuitton, Dior, Marc Jacobs, Celine, Fendi), there’s a wine or spirit brand to go along with it—Dom Pérignon, Hennessy, Veuve Clicquot. These wires get crossed constantly in fashion for the simple fact of brand recognition for a primarily American consumer base. The recent “Vetements Burger” campaign—a publicity stunt that juxtaposed the luxury logo with junk food fare—is a perfect example of this and a foil to Telfar’s White Castle collaboration. While Telfar elevates the wage worker through practical clothing, Vetements—maybe inadvertently—mocks, condescends: Look at fast food, trying to be fashion.
The long-running open secret of modeling as an apparatus of eating disorder valorization lends a decidedly ironic element to food motifs in fashion. In an industry where “heroin chic” could just as easily, and just as controversially, have referenced anorexia over drug abuse, food, and fashion really do go hand in hand—until they don’t. Missouri-born designer Jeremy Scott lives in this sarcastic gray area and has brought his mission of camp and caricature to the Italian house of Moschino. Scott, whose celebrity collaborations (Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Madonna) read like every Spotify Pride playlist, has been bringing outrageous looks to Moschino since becoming its creative director in 2013. His first show at the legendary fashion house, Fall/Winter 2014, featured an ironic twist on another legacy brand: McDonald’s. The iconic American fast-food chain, an image associated with “low culture” on account of its vast accessibility, was elevated to the runway. Nine female Ronald McDonalds opened the show, clad in Chanel two-piece silhouettes that screamed in the recognizable red and yellow. Golden arches became a Moschino heart. One model, dressed in employee digs, carried a maxi bag on a plastic food court tray.
Within the early work of Jeremy Scott’s own eponymous line, the same mix of humor and irony is apparent. For Fall 2006, graphic tees were paired with gigantic bauble-style food jewelry—donut bangles that could moonlight as pool floaties, necklaces made of life-sized cookies, peppermint stripe pumps. The accessories suggested inspiration from Judith Leiber, a Hungarian-Jewish handbag maker known for her gaudy products, often cuisine-themed. You’ve probably seen the shot of Kim Kardashian dangling one of Leiber’s french fry purses that circulated a few years ago—one of Leiber’s many pieces that show, like Scott, a tongue in chic approach to foodie fashion.
But perhaps, the biggest blunders come when fashion attempts to criticize the fast-food industry for the same ills it participates equally in perpetuating. Vetements is guilty yet again. Drawing inspiration from the same source as Moschino, then-creative director Demna Gvasalia staged his Spring/Summer 2020 show at a French McDonald’s location. The vibe was vaguely dystopic, in a mundane sort of way; models stomped out in the garb of some middle-distance future police state, generically bureaucratic-looking ensembles, and plenty of hyper-branded graphic prints. Vogue called it Gvasalia’s attempt at “critiquing the crumbling social decay of late-stage capitalism” by using fast food as a symbol for permeating socioeconomic hopelessness. The “fashion is art” part of me applauds him, but the “that Vetements coat costs five thousand dollars” part of me knows the call-out is coming from inside the house. Every societal death rattle brought on by the fast-food industry—environmental destruction, elite wealth hoarding, you name it—is louder still from the fashion industry. Through the good, bad, and ugly, fashion and food, while different in so many regards, have the same practical function. A scapegoat is impossible.
This is why Telfar’s White Castle collaboration rings so true in this moment. It’s beautiful because it’s not attempting to hide complicity with critique, nor does it mock its recipients with some perceived absurdity of their deserving luxury items. There is nothing ironic nor anything self-serious, and thereby nothing contradictory, in Telfar’s revamped fast-food uniforms. They are simply well-made garments for hard-working people.