Meet the hippest guys in hospo

By Zoe Walker

From crisp smocks to a slick of red lippy, waitstaff at Auckland's hippest joints are serving up a side order of style

Specifically designed uniforms for The Diner restaurant wait staff in Ponsonby. Photo / Babiche Martens
Specifically designed uniforms for The Diner restaurant wait staff in Ponsonby. Photo / Babiche Martens

Dressing for dinner comes with its own set of considerations, but it's the waitstaff who are upping the style at several new Auckland restaurants.

As increasingly sophisticated customers demand more from their dining experiences, stylish restaurants and bars are showing off their attention to detail - and their hip factor - with what waitstaff wear becoming as important as the decor, the music, the lighting, the cutlery and the plates. And why not? The restaurant floor is a nightly runway and it's a challenge that we would love to see more fashion designers take up.

Traditionally, hospitality uniforms have been black and white, classic to the point of insignificance. At fine-dining restaurants such as The French Cafe or Meredith's, the uniforms speak of elegance and professionalism, matching the surrounds and the food, and deliberately understated and unobtrusive.

More and more casual dining establishments around town, however, are using more fashion-focused uniforms to add something extra to their restaurant's style repertoire.

The challenge, and probably why there aren't more designer collaborations, is making the uniform functional for a restaurant and kitchen, and work for a variety of body types.

Restaurateur Mimi Gilmour, who co-owns the Mexico restaurants and is part of the group behind the bar Britomart Country Club, believes function matters above all else, but a good uniform brings together all elements.

"To present a cohesive focus and therefore look is an extremely important aspect of any hospitality venue - it's what distinguishes you from the rest," she says. "Functionality is almost more important [than a cohesive look] - talent lies in making something look fabulous and function efficiently."

Overseas, several fashion designers have created uniforms for hotel staff and airlines, with restaurant collaborations a rarer, but popular, concept. New York pioneered the idea of food meeting fashion, with Dolce & Gabbana-designed uniforms at restaurant Cafeteria in 1998 and Narciso Rodriguez at Del Posto in 2005.

Designer Charlotte Ronson has outfitted servers at neighbourhood Soho restaurant Delicatessen, while Maria Cornejo of the brand Zero + Maria Cornejo has worked her magic at Morimoto, and the staff at hot spot Carbone wear vintage-style vests and tuxedos designed by Zac Posen.

As part of a revamp last year, the owners at New York's Gramercy Park Hotel Rose Bar turned to under-the-radar French designer Sophie Theallet to create waitress uniforms - sexy cocktail bias-cut wrap dresses in stain-proof red silk (inspired by the red felt on the Rose Bar's pool table).

The hotel and bar's owner, Aby Rosen, said that in the dresses, the staff "shed their personality - which is in their own clothes - and put on a uniform that is the character of the space."

San Francisco restaurant Saison has collaborated with Levi's on custom-made uniforms - or wardrobe, as global design director Orondava Mumford prefers to call it.

He said the collaboration worked as "functional workwear wardrobe for the modern pioneers of this unique, open-kitchen environment", with practical pieces that would work in or out of the dining room.

In Sydney, past designer collaborations have included Kirrily Johnston for Bondi icon Icebergs and T-shirts from Ksubi founder Dan Single at North Bondi Italian Food.

Last year, Gary Bigeni designed uniforms for Paddington restaurant Claude's.

Owner and chef Chui Lee Luk said: "Clothing for waiters is no longer simply black and white. Gary's clothing makes the waiters look good but in an understated way that reflects the elegance of the restaurant."

As the New Zealand restaurant scene grows, so too does the attention given to the uniforms. When The Hip Group's The Store opened in Britomart in January, people commented on the chic European look of the uniforms - simple white three-quarter-sleeve smocks worn with aprons and sneakers for women and black collarless shirts and dark pants for men.

The uniform extends to the group's other establishments in the area, with black smocks worn at bistro Ortolano.

Sourced from overseas, they were partly inspired by the elegance and simplicity of the uniforms at The French Cafe, and match the elegant, natural interiors of the restaurants' organic linens, brick walls, lattice detailing and greenery.

That idea of uniforms subtly reflecting the tone or theme of the restaurant is evident elsewhere too.

At Ponsonby's The Blue Breeze Inn, the retro-Pasifika look - walls of coconut shells, a palm-painted roof and neon Tiki - extends to the uniforms, with waitstaff and owner Mark Wallbank outfitted in groovy Hawaiian shirts.

Down the road at Late Night Diner, waitstaff wear casual white tees and shirts teamed with thin black ties or classic braces, reflecting the restaurant's 1950s American diner inspiration.

Co-owner Tony McGregor says: "A restaurant's uniform can be choreographed, eclectic or regimented. The style should reflect the style of service and experience you are aiming to deliver."

McGregor believes a good uniform should bring out a sense of pride in staff, reinforcing dress standards.

He describes the slick look of the staff at Coco's Cantina, with their "uniform" of bright red lipstick, as "a sexy dame in an urban, edgy environment".

Mimi Gilmour's hip establishments are also having a style makeover too, with collaborations with fashion brands at Mexico and Britomart Country Club.

At bustling Mexico, staff members will soon team their signature Frida Kahlo-inspired floral headbands with special aprons created by fashion label Salasai. "As everything else at Mexico is seemingly chaotic, we have decided to go reasonably simplistic with the aprons, using raw natural material in our Mexican red."

At Britomart Country Club, the preppy uniforms are by Australian brand Vanishing Elephant, with casually tailored separates worn with a canvas apron, printed bow ties and Vans sneakers, reflecting the "country club" aesthetic - "prim and proper".

The plan is to update the uniform each season. "Every little bit helps to form the end result," Gilmour says. "Sometimes it's the little things that make the difference."


FASHIONABLE FOODIES

Where fashion and food meet: Our top stylish staff picks are...

1. Ortolana and The Store, Britomart

Simply elegant black and white smocks and button-up shirts.

2. The Blue Breeze Inn, Ponsonby

Friendly staff in fun and friendly Hawaiian shirts.

3. The Food Truck Garage, City Works Depot

Casual food served by waitstaff in classic raglan tees.

4. Britomart Country Club

The lucky barstaff are kitted out in pieces from Vanishing Elephant.

5. Coco's Cantina, K' Rd

The only obvious uniformity of staff here is red lipstick, and it works.

- VIVA

- NZ Herald

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