Tasty Treats: How The Fashion Industry Is Using Food As Art

·9-min read
Photo credit: Instagram
Photo credit: Instagram

Whenever I search ‘food’ in my albums, it’s not the day-to-day, bog-standard spag bol that comes up. Going to fashion events all over the world for over 15 years, I’ve amassed an album of the most extraordinary food; less meals, more installations. Five-foot-tall pyramid formations of prawns at an after-hours Ganni party in Copenhagen. A conceptual spread of mint green and pale pink wobbly blancmanges at a Prada dessert buffet, so perfect I wasn’t sure whether or not they were edible. And over the past decade, these Bacchanalian excesses have exploded in scale and creativity, bringing the worlds of fashion and food together in a deliciously appetising way.

It wasn’t always like this. Back in the early Noughties, when I first started working in fashion, dinners hosted by brands invariably involved a meagre portion of steamed fish alongside some limp spinach. These joyless meals reflected a world of low-carb fad diets and unattainable body standards, exemplified by a media-fuelled obsession with the yo-yo weight of celebrities such as Lindsay Lohan and Nicole Richie. There used to be an Instagram account called @shedidnteathat, poking fun at influencers using food as lifestyle props: impossibly thin girls holding giant hamburgers that were destined only for the ’gram. I, on the other hand, have always been the girl who did eat that.

My personal appetite for adventurous, curious and frequent eating was instilled in me from day dot. I grew up in a Chinese takeaway in London with two very foodie parents, who know if a fish is fresh by looking at its eyeballs, or if it’s been a good season for chives. On family trips to Hong Kong, we’d purposely squeeze in two extra meals (mid-morning dim sum and a post-dinner midnight feast) to sample more culinary delights. There’s perhaps even a correlation between the frenetic colour, print and embellishment- heavy traits of my wardrobe and my eating habits. Just as clothes are more than a pragmatic cover for the human body, food is not merely fuel.

Photo credit: JACK TAYLOR - Getty Images
Photo credit: JACK TAYLOR - Getty Images

One person who recognised this correlation and developed the relationship between the worlds of fashion and food is Laila Gohar. The New York- (by way of Egypt) based artist wouldn’t call herself a chef, but nevertheless uses food to create events, installations and ultimately experiences that just so happen to sit in the fashion space. ‘I would say fewer than 10 years ago, catering was very traditional,’ she explains. ‘Now, there’s such a saturation of images out there, brands are under pressure to be constantly putting things out in their world that allow people to, in turn, produce content. It pushes people creatively, and food happens to be another way for brands to demonstrate their identity. It serves the purpose of feeding, but beyond that it’s a form of expression.’

I’ve been lucky enough to experience Gohar’s work at two very different ends of the spectrum. The aforementioned prawn towers at a Ganni party were created by her, and we were all digging in, getting our hands dirty and spraying shrimp juice everywhere. Then there was Gohar’s beautiful table of pink-hued, crystal-mimicking sweets and treats, created for a Simone Rocha dinner in Paris. One is about an ingredient, the other ethereal aesthetics. Daisy Hoppen, founder of DH-PR, which represents the likes of Ganni, Molly Goddard and Shrimps, and organises several parties a year, also agrees that there are different considerations when catering for the fashion world. ‘There are two strands: there’s tasty food and there’s beautiful food. They both bring people together and bring a point of interest to what is otherwise a simple dinner.’

But there’s now also a deeper consideration to how food is used within fashion. When Coach sends oozing doughnuts to fashion editors, it’s to say that its bags are rooted in Americana – and a PBJ filling is part of that lifestyle. When Prada chooses a certain shade of pistachio to use in a dessert, it is an exact match with the one in its stores’ interior. At one particularly memorable Prada dinner, celebrities like Courtney Love could be seen grappling with a plate of langoustine legs, which almost felt like they were purposely selected for their trickiness – much like the complex and nuanced nature of their clothes.

When Hermès serve a seasonally-led lunch at its Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré rooftop garden, cooked by an in-house chef and presented on its own geometric crockery, it’s about understated elegance at every turn, and ensuring every detail is as considered as the technically difficult saddle stitch of its prized leather goods. But whether it’s centred on concept, taste or appearance, the ultimate end goal is to serve a memorable and enjoyable experience. ‘It’s important for me to create moments where people become like children,’ says Gohar. ‘People might walk into fashion spaces that feel intimidating, but when you bring playful food into these settings they act like an instant ice-breaker and the stiffness disappears for a moment.’

The food world has thrown open its doors over the last two decades. We no longer need haughty Michelin-starred restaurants to eat well, and fashion has reflected this shift. Ganni has repeatedly used the universally-loved pizza as both sustenance at late-night parties and home-delivery packages for fashion editors to enjoy. And a slice of pizza with a beer is precisely what you’d imagine a Ganni girl having in one of its wrap-style, infinitely wearable dresses.

Social media is obviously a big part of fashion’s conversation with food. The days of posing with meals purely for the grid might be gone, but the look of what we eat and post are still undeniably driven by aesthetics. It’s hard to resist the visual appeal of ‘dessert creator’ Lexie Park’s extraordinary edible jelly art, created under the moniker Eat Nunchi. Once upon a time, Park – a self- taught chef – worked in fashion and had her own clothing line until she found more creative freedom within food.

‘It is a very similar mindset. You are working in seasons, you’re working with textures and colours,’ she says. And so, with a highly attuned eye, she applies a cute pastel palette to cakes made from layered jelly, which have earned her commissions from the likes of Nike and Skims. While Park benefited from starting Eat Nunchi just before the pandemic, with her cakes going viral just as the world was locking down, she also recognises the pitfalls of being a social-media food brand, where crazes are often ephemeral and copycats spring up in an instant. For now, Park is riding a wave with Eat Nunchi, but, ‘I might do something opposite and go all-black goth or something,’ she laughs.

If fashion’s response to the pandemic was a proliferation of WFH tracksuits, then the food equivalent was getting back to basics. In the depths of lockdown, Hoppen orchestrated a three-way conversation between Golfar, chef Max Rocha (brother of designer Simone Rocha) and Frederik Bille Brahe (the chef brother of Danish jewellery designer Sophie Bille Brahe). They were all asked for their personal takes on bread and butter, which in turn sparked a micro Instagram butter trend that highlighted a thirst to return to lo-fi food and simple pleasures. ‘What do you really want to eat in the dead of the January?’ says Hoppen now. ‘It wouldn’t have been right to be gifting caviar and champagne in lockdown.’ And after years of fashion-industry people coming home during fashion week starving and having to order second dinners to appease their hunger, brands have finally twigged that we all just want to be fed. At a MyTheresa dinner, there will invariably be big heaped platters of fries – because after a long day of shows and appointments, there is nothing more pleasing than fried food.

Carbs have enjoyed a social-media renaissance that is in stark contrast to the days of wellness influencers posting endless pics of #SmoothieBowl. When I posted a photo of myself eating a plate of Fendi logo pasta (made especially to mark the occasion of its show), the surge of giddy, appreciative responses spoke to the overall positivity around people who eat freely, and in turn allow their bodies to be freed. Look at the popularity of model and influencer Caroline Vreeland’s posts when she indulges in wine and giant plates of spaghetti, which led to a collaboration with lingerie brand Kiki de Montparnasse featuring pasta motifs. On a broader level, you could definitely tie the open celebration of decadence in relation to food with the increased presence of diverse body shapes in fashion – across shows, campaigns and in celebrity ambassador choices.

Now that we’re out and about again, eating in restaurants and going to physical events, how do food and fashion work in tandem with one another to reflect a post-pandemic world? Dior’s 30 Montaigne – a new, experience-based 10,000 sq m Paris space – is not just a store, but a café, garden, museum and restaurant, Monsieur Dior, which is complete with houndstooth-clad chairs and delicate French cuisine. Then there’s Gucci Garden museum in Florence, which partnered with three- Michelin-starred chef Massimo Bottura to create Gucci Osteria, where you can dine on scallops with Siracusa lemon and red- prawn risotto. It’s a contemporary spin on Italian cuisine, much like creative director Alessandro Michele’s reinterpretation of Gucci codes. And, of course, you can always tuck into a towering burger at the popular Ralph’s, inside the Ralph Lauren flagship store in Paris – the first example of a designer entering the food business and heralding an age of eateries that are a natural extension of the brand, serving genuinely delicious cuisine.

No matter what trends, restaurants, concepts and tastes are conjured up in the ever-shifting worlds of food and fashion, there are some things that don’t change. For me, there is still nothing more satisfying during fashion week than getting together with a group of industry friends, having meals that are invariably Asian, possibly in not very chic settings, and where your clothes may come away with a distinct whiff of chilli oil. These gatherings are the antidotes to what we do in our seemingly glamorous day jobs; meals that are the antithesis of anything that is ‘tasteful’ and instead are just tasty. And I will always be the girl who clears her plate, asks for more and then slopes off – possibly to have a second midnight dinner.

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