“stuck in my head” is a new essay series celebrating the most specific moments in fashion history that we’re pretty sure will stay etched in our minds forever, from movie costumes to runway missteps and advertising campaigns of our youth. . Here, staff writer stephanie eckardt reflects on new york city’s hip, short-lived cafe. Read Senior News Editor Kyle Munzenrieder’s deep dive into the underrated impact of Irish pop musician Róisín Murphy’s fashion here.
there was nothing practical about the night in 1994 when naomi campbell, elle macpherson and claudia schiffer walked through a paper curtain as the kool-aid man. It was December in New York City, and Schiffer was wearing a crop top and miniskirt. they were at a construction site, and campbell and macpherson were wearing heels and dresses. when it came time for a photo shoot, they all wore standard helmets, a perfect epitome of their wacky role at the formerly themed restaurant known as the cafe de la moda.
Reading: The fashion cafe
Seventeen years later, the ill-fated establishment would be named one of the biggest brand mistakes of all time. “The connection between models and food was not obvious, and ‘fashion’ was not a subject that made people hungry,” Matt Haig wrote in his 2011 book Brand Failures. Even then, he was a critic. Familiar: “You can never generalize,” Schiffer told a reporter in 1995. “I love chocolate. we love so many different things.”
It’s not always a flop when food and fashion intersect: think about how ralph lauren and rachel comey staged shows like dinner parties, the success of kids’ candy bars, or the long tradition of department store restaurants. but there was something about the specific type of glamor that dominated the industry in the ’90s that made the two concepts seem totally incongruous. today, the illogicality behind the trendy café is precisely what makes it a joy to revisit. and as long as you weren’t hungry, the same was true at its peak.
Aesthetically, the fashion café was pure kitsch. Rockefeller Center’s flagship looked just as slick as the Hard Rock Cafe a few blocks away. Its entrance was shaped like a giant camera shutter, and the dining room had case after case of fashion memorabilia like Madonna’s Jean Paul Gaultier cone bra. but aside from those features, it could have been any other diner. there were stalls and murals with clichés of the big apple like the chrysler building.
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For tourists, the trendy cafe was actually a restaurant. its menu was seven pages long and simply slapped the names of supermodels onto otherwise average burgers, fried waffles, pizzas, salads, and steaks. It was basic enough to host National Canned and Fried Food Month events. Campbell, Macpheron, and Schiffer were the faces, but the business plan was really about accessibility. “With something like this, you can’t get too deep into fashion,” Tommaso Buti, then 28-year-old CEO, told New York magazine. “The public is not as educated and not as interested. they want to see more of the glamor and entertainment of fashion.” according to buti, what they really wanted was to eat naomi’s fish and chips in the company of less and less collectible fashion memorabilia, like a wacky professor dress worn by jada pinkett smith.
for celebrities, it was a different story. The Café de la Moda also had an upscale side, hosting extravagant parties without food attended by guests like Prince. “The hipper-than-you-trendy crowd stood out like Donna Karan in a kmart away from the posh streets of downtown,” the associated press reported when it launched in the spring of 1995. But the industry didn’t seem to take into account that its The location, right across the street from the Women’s National Republican Club in the center of town, was far from elegant. (Today, the store space houses a banana republic.)
the grand opening of the fashion cafe was the highlight of fashion week that season. Gianni and Donatella Versace, Tyra Banks, Veronica Webb, Beverly Peele and Eileen Ford were all on the guest list. so were various celebrities such as stephen baldwin, david copperfield, the wayans brothers, jon stewart, matt lauer, rupaul and molly ringwald. It was the only non-runway event the MTV style house bothered to cover, and Roberto Cavalli promoted his New York debut dinner three times to avoid a scheduling conflict. “We would have loved to have it after Roberto’s show on Friday night, but who doesn’t go to the fashion cafe?” Lauren Ezersky, who planned the event, told the Times. “If we had dinner on Friday, I could have skipped my own party.”
Three months later, things were going so well that Christy Turlington decided to join. The restaurant erected a talking “spokes mannequin” in her likeness, and Campbell, Schiffer and MacPherson, naturally, threw another party to celebrate. (If there’s one thing the trendy cafe excelled at, it was throwing parties for itself—there was even one for that wacky professor outfit.) including London, Jakarta and New Orleans.
behind the scenes, buti and his co-owner, his brother francesco, were fighting. At first, its legal problems were relatively simple, and four of the decade’s biggest supermodels easily distracted the public from copyright and trademark lawsuits in the restaurant’s name. in 1998, that was no longer the case. the butis were not paying taxes, rent, utility rates, or unemployment insurance premiums, and the government had noticed. Meanwhile, Tommaso was making headlines for spending $20,000 on her birthday party and renting an apartment that cost $25,000 a month.
That year, the original trendy cafe closed and Turlington left it. By December, Buti faced a total of $15 million in lawsuits from its partners. He settled for $350,000 (and celebrated with Donald Trump). Schiffer made it out just in time, while Campbell and MacPherson stayed behind to frame Tommaso for stealing $10,000 a day. But he and Francesco had much bigger concerns: By the year 2000, they were arrested and charged with 51 federal counts, including fraud, money laundering, and conspiracy.
Today, merchandising, featuring a very ’90s star design on a white, black or red background, is all that remains. In its first four months, the trendy cafe reportedly sold more than 28,000 T-shirts. two years later, the gift shop was still going strong, ranking at the top of the “restaurants where the garnish is a t-shirt” list of the time. every once in a while, one of them makes a comeback, showing up on depop, grailed, or ebay.
if it weren’t for the mismanagement of the buti brothers, would the fashion cafe still exist today? probably not. Since then, models have learned the art of turning a personal brand into a lucrative side job or non-profit powerhouse. (turlington among them: he founded every mom account in 2010, which inspired karlie kloss to launch kode with klossy in 2015).
and yet a return could be on the cards for a crossover of fashion and tourism. We will have to wait until after the pandemic to see if Tyra Banks has better luck with its Disneyland-inspired theme park, where “anyone can walk in and feel like a model.” Calm down: he has learned from the mistakes of the fashion café. “They really missed the mark with that,” the part-time Stanford Business School professor said in announcing Modelland. She’s already figured out the merchandise to begin with.
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