Why Your Favourite Restaurant Wants To Sell You A Rare T-shirt

Finlay Renwick
Photo credit: Esquire

From Esquire

There are a few items on my fashion 'grail' list: a dark green seersucker or cord (maybe both?) suit from Drake's; a pair of black leather Paraboots; approximately 183 different Universal Works Bakers jackets, and something nylon from Prada. But on the more affordable, and rare, side of things is a 2015 Lonely Bao Man t-shirt from BAO, the Taiwanese restaurant that is best known for its delicious steamed buns and the hungry queue that regularly snakes around Soho (and Borough and Fitzrovia), drawing in discerning pilgrims in much the same way that the nearby Supreme and Palace stores do monied provincial teenagers in North Face puffer jackets.

Buns and sake and minimalist wooden decor aside, BAO also has a very good logo, a spare outline of a melancholy man hunched over a steamed bun designed by artist, and the restaurant's Food Art Director, Erchen Chang. The aforementioned Lonely Bao Man is stamped onto its street-facing Soho window and the chests of the white lab coat-style uniforms worn by its staff.

"We first began with the tote bag." says Shing Tat Chung, co-founder of BAO and Xu in neighbouring Chinatown. "We soon had people all over the world taking pictures of them. It was really nice when we were travelling and spotted someone wearing the tote, so we decided to make more BAO merchandise." The first t-shirt was a limited edition crying man (the grail). "We want to have fun, but also tell the story of the lonely man."

"A lot of people resonate with the BAO man. Whether it’s the feeling of stuffing themselves or the sense of sorrow and loneliness. Everyone deep down feels lonely."



Merchandise, which includes an annual collaboration with Carhartt and limited edition artwork, has proven so popular for BAO that it's in the process of setting up a permanent site for it, which will be called 'Convenience Store' with all profits being donated to a relief fund for BAO staff during the coronavirus pandemic. "We are looking at offering a constant stream of merch that will feature a shirt design, a tote bag and a hat that will be available all year round." says Tat Chung. "We then want to release new designs for the shirts on a limited run basis. This will challenge us to come up with new designs and keep things creatively appealing and new."

Photo credit: Xu

Beginning with the fashionable resurrection of the band t-shirt, sometime around 2015, we are now living in a moment of merch, the more obscure the better. Where once it was cool to have Balenciaga emblazoned across your t-shirt or sweatshirt, it is now far more impressive to advertise something more local: a museum, an independent store or, yes, a restaurant. A 2019 article by the Wall Street Journal posed the question: "Is the souvenir cap the ultimate humblebrag?" Dad hats bought from niche galleries or country clubs that serve as a status symbol. A wink to those who know.

"A t-shirt is a democratic item of clothing." says Trevor Gulliver who, along with the chef Fergus Henderson, founded the pioneering nose-to-tail restaurant St. John in Smithfield 25 years ago. In his previous life, Gulliver was part of a collective that designed both the original Iron Maiden and the 'Frankie Says Relax' t-shirts. You may have seen them around.

Photo credit: Fairfax Media - Getty Images

"It's funny to think we inadvertently contributed to this thing we now call 'merch'" he says with a chuckle down the phone.

The St. John logo, a "very benign looking pig" that Henderson discovered in a reference book, is now an instantly recognisable insignia for an institution that has stayed the course of the tumultuous London restaurant scene, but, despite Gulliver's background, t-shirts were never part of the initial plan. "For us, cliche as it sounds, it's always been about the food. What we produce in the kitchen, the bakery and out on the restaurant floor."

In fact, the first piece of merchandise that St. John produced wasn't a t-shirt, but a replica of the small, square ceramic ashtrays that, pre-smoking ban, diners would find on the tables of the restaurant. "I reckon we had thousands stolen!" says Gulliver with some pride.

Photo credit: St. John

T-shirts, when they did arrive, weren't for sale. "We used to hand them out to visiting chefs or friends as mementos, people coming over to work in the kitchen from Australia or America. I think they act as a lovely parting gift, to show where you've been. Eventually we decided to sell them in small runs and I'm glad we did. We're never going to be that place that sells the monogrammed pillowcases or a curated hamper. We make them [t-shirts] because they're fun to do and they seem to make people happy." To celebrate its 25th anniversary, St. John collaborated with a trio of YBA artists on a highly limited edition series of t-shirts. "They're all people who have supported us since the beginning," says Gulliver. "I only want to work with my friends."

The restaurant even got a high fashion shoutout when, for his spring/summer 2020 show, the Japanese designer Junya Watanabe sent models down the Paris runway sporting white staff work jackets and tote bags finished with the St. John pig. The show also featured pieces with branding from Noble Fine Liquor on Broadway Market in Hackney, an apparent favourite hangout for Watanabe whenever he visits London.

During a trip to Paris a couple of years ago, Jack Carlson, the young founder of New York new-prep brand Rowing Blazers, stopped off for a drink in one his favourite bars, Harry's, the old world institution that sits in the shadow of the Place Vendôme and is said to be the birthplace of the Bloody Mary. Ernest Hemingway, Coco Chanel, Ian Fleming, Rita Haworth and the Duke of Windsor have all stooped through its doorway and into the dimly-lit and dark wood-panelled room that hasn't changed much in 100 years. Carlson, a longtime fan of bar and restaurant merchandise, got chatting with the man pouring his drinks and asked if they had ever made any Harry's merch in the past.

After breaking through the language barrier, he was presented with a V-neck lambswool golf jumper from the ‘90s. "Apparently the bar had them made a while ago, and still had a couple left." Carlson says. "Of course, I bought it! It became a favourite, and I always received compliments and questions when I wore it. That gave me the idea of reaching out to the bar to see if we could bring it back. I spoke with Franz-Arthur, the great-grandson of Harry, who runs the bar today and is about my age. He was all for bringing back the sweater, along with some additional merch as well! We’ve also become good friends along the way."

Photo credit: Rowing Blazers

Since then Carlson and Harry's have collaborated on an ongoing series of t-shirts, rugby jerseys, caps, and v-neck sweaters featuring a bar fly, the original Harry's logo. The t-shirt and caps sell out within a couple of days each time they're re-stocked.

"There’s something very nostalgic about merchandise and I think nostalgia is the most powerful force in guiding us to decide what to wear." says Carlson. "There’s an in-the-know kind of signalling aspect to it too. A kind of mark of worldliness."

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