Is Your Waiter Wearing a Bespoke Suit? How Restaurant Uniforms Got So Stylish.

When the subject of how people dress in restaurants is raised, it’s almost always focused on patrons. But this narrow focus leaves out a key part of the hospitality experience—the staff.

“I have a passion for food and for restaurants,” says the Los Angeles-based designer Denis Frison, whose family in Italy is active in the hotel business. “Every time I went to these big restaurants, I always felt that there was something wrong.”

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He realized that restaurants that spent lavishly on interiors would skimp on employee clothing, downgrading the overall experience. To address this disparity, Frison began pitching himself to design staff uniforms, landing the Italian fine dining chain Langosteria as his first client in 2014.

Restaurant uniforms have since become a side business for Frison, who has partnered with Brooklyn’s Saraghina Caffè and the reopened La Dolce Vita in Beverley Hills. He’s currently developing new uniforms for all locations of Wolfgang Puck’s Spago restaurant.

Frison, whose own label takes a contemporary approach to bespoke and made-to-measure clothing, says he approaches restaurant uniforms much as he would a new collection, complete with mood boards. “I just try to catch the spirit,” he tells Robb Report. “For me, it’s like designing a collection every time for these restaurants.”

This individualized approach has yielded uniforms tailored to each eatery’s environment and aesthetic. For the more casual Saraghina Caffè, Frison drew inspiration from the clothing worn by Italian waiters in the 1930s and ‘40s, complete with cropped vests, poplin shirts with short collars, pleated aprons, and handknit ties.

The custom corduroy uniforms Drake's made for the managers at London's St John's restaurant.
The custom corduroy uniforms Drake’s made for the managers at London’s St John’s restaurant.

For glitzy La Dolce Vita—which first opened in 1966 with Frank Sinatra as an investor—Frison recreated the peak lapel jackets that were worn by its staff in decades past, complete with deadstock uniform buttons discovered by the restaurant’s new owners. The jackets were cut from a beige-gold fabric chosen specifically for how it would look under the windowless dining room’s lights.

Across the pond, Savile Row bespoke tailor Cad & The Dandy has added the staff of two Michelin-starred London restaurants, Sketch and The Ledbury, to its client roster. Outfitting employees in such a high-turnaround industry with bespoke suits may sound excessive, but Cad & The Dandy co-founder James Sleater sees it as being in line with the overall experience of a three Michelin-starred establishment.

When you go there you expect to have the right things,” he says. “Whether that’s the cutlery, the glasses, or the plates. And you want the staff to be knowledgeable, smart, and elegant. And I think a part of that is having a restaurant that produces very beautiful items for its staff to wear.”

Beautiful as they may be, said items must be able to stand up to the rigors of a physically demanding job. In the case of The Ledbury, suits for staff were made from a plain weave, high-twist wool selected for its robustness and breathability, in a dark gray hue less likely to show wine stains or candle wax. Nevertheless, rips and tears occur, in which case staff members are able to send their garments back to Cad & The Dandy for repairs.

“It’s a good test for our tailoring,” Sleater says.

On a practical note, he believes that the benefits of a bespoke fit, including a higher armhole that allows for a greater range of movement, are especially applicable to restaurant work. “All these traditional things that we are applying to bespoke tailoring are relevant to making a uniform,” he says.

Other makers are drawing inspiration from the dining room for their own public-facing offering. Fellow Savile Row occupant Drake’s recently released a collection of ready-to-wear clothing made in collaboration with the acclaimed Smithfield restaurant St. John.

As well as intarsia-knit Shetland crewnecks marked by the restaurant’s porcine mascot and printed long-sleeved tees and totes testifying to its nose-to-tail ethos, it also incorporates subtle design touches imported from the hospitality world. For instance, the collection’s cotton moleskin chore jackets come equipped with removable buttons for easy laundering, a feature common to chef’s and butcher’s uniforms. The moleskin tasting gilet, meanwhile, is based on a garment favored by St. John co-founder Trevor Gulliver during his vineyard visits, and sports four outer pockets meant to hold notepads and corkscrews.

“It started off as a conversation between friends a few years ago, which evolved organically until we arrived at collaborating together,” says Drake’s creative director (and longtime St. John diner) Michael Hill of the collection’s genesis. “I believe that these things can’t be forced, they have to come from the heart and involve people, and subjects, that you truly care about. We’re confident that our relationship has been conveyed in the clothing.”

In addition, Drake’s outfitted St John’s managers in custom, coordinating chore jackets and trousers. Made from a mid-wale cotton corduroy that Hill considers “the perfect combination of comfort and strength—the sort of material that can handle any sort of service,” the matching pieces were also incorporated into the collection.

What seems apparent is that today’s diners are just as hungry for style and design, a craving that can be satisfied at the table and beyond.

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