Themed restaurants, cafés and bars are not a new idea — Polynesian-inspired tiki bars in the US marked the beginning of the category in the 1930s, and since then, countless eateries have sprung up with themes as diverse and eccentric as toilets, rainforests and Dolly Parton.
Fashion-related eateries, however, are a more recent trend, with designer houses and boutiques such as Armani, Dover Street Market and Ralph Lauren delving into the F&B industry. Restaurants whose names, decor and menus take inspiration from these luxury labels have opened on shopping streets as well as in office buildings or hotels owned by fashion houses in New York, London, Hong Kong and more.
Singapore itself recently played host to Chanel’s Coco Café in early April, albeit that the pop-up event placed more emphasis on introducing the new Rouge Coco lipgloss line than on the small selection of beverages served.
Who are the fashion fans and foodies that patronise these stylish joints? We try to parse out the five types of people you might encounter at different fashion cafés and restaurants.
Instagram @georisac/Felicia Yap
1. Vivienne Westwood Café (Shanghai): The Punk
Vivienne Westwood, flame-haired style doyenne and a key British designer during the glory days of the punk subculture in London, ventured into the F&B scene with the launch of her first themed café in Shanghai. The bustling Chinese city is not only an up-and-coming fashion capital, but also home to a diversity of countercultural tribes and a thriving underground music scene. Westwood herself is the epitome of cool to the many young Shanghainese people who admire the rebellious spirit embodied as much by the vocal activist as by her designs.
The café’s modus operandi is to cater to those seeking an irreverent edge even for their tea parties – menu options and tableware alike feature iconography taken from the Westwood label and from the zeitgeist of Cool Britannia: tartan, the Union Jack, and the Orb (the Saturn-like logo of the brand). It’s an altar to the lady and her brand at which the Punk comes to worship; upon its opening in 2015, the Shanghai Daily reported that “local fans thronged (the café) in the hope of close contact with the godmother of punk fashion.”
Don’t be surprised to observe modern-day clones of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen tucking into tiered trays of sandwiches, cupcakes, macarons, croissants and more -- after all, nothing precludes punks who dress subversively and act tough from having a sweet tooth. Fashion-forward Westwood acolytes gather at the café, outfitted in head-to-toe Punk finery with spiked chokers, dark lipstick and the brand’s vertiginous rocking horse ballerina shoes. The Punk sports multiple piercings and embellishes her leather jackets with copious studs, zippers, and safety pins where none are actually required. Beneath their (literally) thorny exteriors, the Punks find strength and belonging in their shared values of daring insubordination and defiant self-expression. They are only too happy to make yet another statement by choosing to discuss Jean Paul Gaultier, The Clash, and environmental protests at a café that pays homage to Dame Westwood in a country with an authoritarian government.
Felicia Yap/Bulgari Hotels
Il Ristorante is housed in the Bulgari Ginza Tower in Tokyo’s luxury shopping district, taking up four stories and sharing the building with the world’s largest Bulgari boutique. Serving fine Italian cuisine, the polished restaurant is helmed by Executive Chef Luca Fantin, who was named the Best Italian Chef in the World by the prestigious Italian culinary guide Identità Golose in 2014.
With its high ceilings, glittering chandeliers, and floor-to-ceiling windows providing an expansive view of the city, Il Ristorante typically attracts beautiful, well-heeled guests. It has retained its one Michelin star since it was first awarded in 2012, was named the top restaurant in the world in 2017 by Italian industry publication Gambero Rosso, and has been ranked in a list of the world’s top 50 best restaurants produced by the British magazine Restaurant. Naturally, the fine-dining establishment’s top billing has earned the loyalty of the Jet Set: sophisticated, globetrotting customers who are satisfied with only the best and are willing to shell out for it.
Glamorous, classy, and ostensibly flawless, members of the Jet Set turn heads everywhere their private Gulfstreams carry them. You can find them draped in haute couture and diamonds, clinking champagne glasses over Il Ristorante’s contemporary Italian cuisine and premium seasonal ingredients (e.g. white truffles from Alba, Italy). Like the tasteful and luxe apparel produced by the vestiary arm of the company, Bulgari’s culinary venture appeals to the refined palates of the Jet Set and satisfies their impossibly high standards.
Felicia Yap/Ralph Lauren
While it may have come as a shock when all-American behemoth Ralph Lauren announced that its flagship store on the New York shopping mecca of Fifth Avenue would be closing its shutters, perhaps a bigger surprise is that the brand’s adjacent Polo Bar not only remains open but is in fact still going strong. From the time it opened in January 2015, much of the buzz surrounding the bar has centred around the fact that it is highly challenging to get a reservation -- and that’s if you call a month in advance. Frequented by A-list celebrities, it seems almost like a private members’ club. New York Magazine sardonically labelled it “not for plebeians”, but who is it for, then? Probably WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) -- the Ivy League-educated, wealthy New England types who occupy the upper echelons of economic, social and political domains.
The exclusivity of the restaurant and the patriotism of the brand behind it are second nature to the moneyed fraternities of WASPs. These elites play polo, shop preppy brands like Brooks Brothers and J.Crew, and enjoy the kind of “classic New York establishments” that the bar cites as its inspiration. Polo Bar is indeed a picture of country club luxury, with its mahogany-toned, wood-panelled bar room, leather banquettes, and brass-topped bar. A reminder of the restaurant’s name and of quintessential WASP hobbies, equestrian motifs abound in the form of tchotchkes, paintings of horses, photographs of jockeys, cocktail swizzle sticks shaped like miniature mallets, and the use of saddles and helmets as décor. Polo Bar is at once intimate and ritzy, the kind of environment that WASPs feel most at ease in whether making business deals, reconnecting with pedigreed family friends, or surreptitiously trying to one-up each other.
Instagram @jaykim.jpg/Felicia Yap
Founded by avant-garde fashion designer Rei Kawakubo (of Comme des Garçons) and her husband Adrian Joffe, multi-label boutique Dover Street Market is known for the variety of effortlessly cool styles it retails as well as for its creative store displays that make the space seem more like an art installation than a shop. While journalists and young designers alike have admitted that shopping at the boutique can be an “intimidating” experience, the café that it houses tells a whole other story.
“We wanted to create a place where people felt at home, somewhere that people came back to often and (where) the quality of the food shone,” said Rose Carrarini, Joffe’s sister and the eponym of Rose Bakery who co-owns it with her husband. This laidback philosophy is reflected in the café’s homely setting, with plain wooden furniture and paned windows overlooking the streets of Haymarket. The menu echoes culinary simplicity, offering dainty breakfast and tea favourites such as quiches, salads, scones, eggs, muffins, pancakes, and Welsh tea cakes.
It is the bakery’s unpretentious set-up and focus on good, comforting food that attracts patrons like the Tea-Taker. A relaxed figure who enjoys savouring the little joys in life, the Tea-Taker is committed to “stealth luxury”, valuing authenticity and quality over patent displays of extravagance. He or she has no qualms about snapping up cutting-edge, eclectic pieces from the boutique and then settling in for a leisurely, old-fashioned English tea-time. Drawn like magnets to anything artistic, well-made and effortlessly cool, Tea-Takers form the majority of the bakery’s customer base along with the odd member of the sartorial cognoscenti. The bakery is the perfect place for the observant Tea-Taker to people-watch, particularly during biannual London Fashion Weeks, with industry superstars such as Belgian designer Raf Simons, celebrity milliner Stephen Jones, and Vogue critic Sarah Mower descending on the humble bakery for their satisfying fill of scones and tea.
GQ Bar Dubai/Felicia Yap
An offshoot of the international men’s magazine, the GQ Bar is located at the swanky JW Marriott Marquis in one of the world’s wealthiest cities. Framed covers of previous issues plaster the walls, inviting diners to gaze upon the handsome visages of stars including leading man Idris Elba (a contender for the role of the next James Bond), British model David Gandy, and Hollywood heartthrob Ryan Gosling. The bar’s slick furnishings and high ceilings provide a smart, modern backdrop for urbane city-slickers to socialise.
Among them is The Debonair, outfitted in suits from luxury menswear brands such as Giorgio Armani and Hugo Boss, his feet clad in hand-crafted leather shoes by the likes of Berluti and Salvatore Ferragamo. A fixture at the bar’s Cigar & Cognac evenings, the Debonair’s personal heroes are successful, well-groomed men who wield their charisma as weapons: George Clooney, Jude Law, and the fictional Bond himself. He considers himself a discerning gentleman, indulging in classic cocktails (shaken, not stirred) while regaling his companions with tales of his suave super-spy escapades, or impressing the next Bond Girl with his sophistication and understated style.
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