Dressed for dinner

Janet Fitch checks out what the waiting staff are wearing at the hippest restaurants and bars as the fashion cognoscenti come to town for London Fashion Week

Today sees the start of London Fashion Week when overseas and UK press and buyers flock to the capital to see (and to be seen in) the latest British designer fashion and accessories. However tiring and long their days may be, the fashion crew are party animals whose up-to-date fashion eyes are focused on the latest clubs, restaurants and bars that offer the right “now” experience.

For fashion folk, there is no greater put-down than “Oh dear, that’s not very ‘now’.” And, increasingly, with the barrage of information on style – whether it’s your make-up, your car, your home, or where you choose to take your holiday – everyone follows the media trends.

Eating out has never been more fashionable, and it’s hard to keep track of the new restaurants and bars that open each week. More and more, as in New York, apart from classic places like The Ivy and The Caprice, there are the new places to be seen in and see. Every six months London Fashion Week publishes an excellent little guidebook, which includes the hottest list of hotels, restaurants, bars, clubs and shops. This time the list has changed a lot in a very short time.

Opening a new bar is a serious business, there’s too much competition and anywhere that is not right in every detail is unlikely to take off. Excellent food is, of course, important, but just as important is the way a place looks and, vitally, what the staff are like. That includes what they look like, and so attention is increasingly being focused on what they are wearing, with staff uniforms or outfits often being specially designed for specific venues.

There are precedents for this – as anyone old enough to remember the Lyons Corner Houses will tell you. There the Nippies dispensed tea and scones with fast efficiency, wearing their Nippy uniforms. The Perfect Nippy, dressed in black with white cap and apron was required to have “her cap correctly worn, teeth well cared for, well polished shoes, medium heels for comfort, no conspicuous use of make-up, all buttons sewn on with red cotton, dress clean and tidy and hands clean, with nails well manicured”. ©

The waitresses at Harry’s Bar, the exclusive London dining club, have long had uniforms subtly reminiscent of nanny, and The School Dinners Club is very popular still for male outings. But the new breed of cool restaurants, bars and hotels (for hotel bars seem to have replaced night clubs as the places to go) need staff to be impeccably turned out.

London’s latest contemporary hotel, One Aldwych, epitomises this philosophy. This hotel, its calming interior masterminded by owner Gordon Campbell Gray, a shrewd perfectionist who claims to be laid back, is a skillful blend of cool modern with traditional charm. It has smiling young staff wearing clothes by Richard James, the tailor who combines the best tradition of Savile Row with a thoroughly modern look beloved of fashion stylists. “One Aldwych offers luxury service,” says Campbell Gray, “so staff are the first priority. I want staff who smile and are unsnobbish and classless – no grumpy old doormen in pantomime costumes who expect a tip every time they get you a taxi. For staff uniforms comfort is important, a comfortable person works better. The staff must recognisably belong here – you shouldn’t have to ask if someone works here.”

Doormen wear charcoal grey suits with mandarin-collared jackets. Reception and bar staff wear collared suits with lilac shirts and ties. Staff in the separate restaurant, Axis, wear black suits with cream shirts, and beige ties or scarves for the women. All of them look good: at ease and efficient, but not threateningly smart.

One Lombard Street, a former bank, is now converted into what must be one of the most elegant dining spaces in London. The airy circular bar is presided over by Steve Robb, ex-Embargo and Quaglino’s, who mixes a mean cocktail. The warm white interiors by the owners, Soren and Katrine Jessen, are complemented by staff wearing black trousers, long black aprons or black suits with bright shirts by Ozwald Boateng, who is holding a fashion show there tonight to kick off London Fashion Week. ©

The choice of Boateng as designer makes perfect sense – his bespoke suits are the most desirable for a city gent to be seen in, and One Lombard Street is right opposite the Bank of England and next to Mansion House. As well as the brasserie, a new fine dining restaurant opens on 25 September where a painting of the Rape of Europa after Titian by Lohan Emmanuel will hang. The colours in the painting – blue, brick red and gold are reflected throughout the building and in the staff uniforms which vary according to the area they work in – blue for the brasserie, red and gold for the restaurant.

Quaglino’s theatrical interiors, by CD Partnership, are highlighted by Jasper Conran’s staff costumes – jokey period French waiter-style and the much loved cigarette girl outfits. Jasper Conran is showing on the London catwalk again for the first time in two years and has designed costumes for a production of Donizetti’s Mary Stuart at English National Opera this autumn.

Teatro is a smart member’s club with restaurant in Shaftesbury Avenue. It’s a laid back looking place, designed by United Designers, the minimalist interior brought to life by warming touches of colour. Lee Chapman, who runs Teatro, loves Red or Dead’s clothes and asked Wayne Hemingway to design for the staff.

“Red or Dead is a good name with street cred. I wanted the staff to look smart and disciplined and expect to change colours and cuts. I wanted the girls to wear very short skirts, but was soon told that’s impractical – too much dropped cutlery to pick up. Staff clothes need to be practical, not too glamourous, and shouldn’t compete with the guests, or attract too much attention,” says Hemingway.

Hemingway had not designed for a restaurant before, but loved the project. He talked to waiters and his own shop workers about their main priorities which were comfort and clothes that weren’t revealing.

Tamarind is the fashion crew’s favourite Indian restaurant and with its warm interior by Emily Todhunter it eschews any obvious Indian motifs except for the exquisite and brightly coloured silk shalwar kameez worn by the receptionists.

Momo, the funky Moroccan restaurant and bar in Heddon Street, has shirts designed by Laurent Guinchi (one of the waiters) and Momo himself. Designs are changed regularly, the new one due in October. Women wear T-shirts or sexy black gauze tops with the Momo logo, and all wear black combat trousers and any shoes, including trainers, as long as they are black.

In contrast, there is the elegant and exclusive new club Home House, scheduled to open in November, a newly restored former 18th century palazzo designed by Robert Adam for the Countess of Home in Portland Place. Uniforms are designed by John Morgan, associate editor of GQ, Times columnist and author of Debretts New Guide to Etiquette and Modern Manners. He says, “It’s important to marry practicality with style. I wanted the male staff, including barmen, to have stiff collars, but they can’t be too stiff for comfort. A slavish reproduction of 18th century style would be pretentious, but I’ve taken some of the original Lady Home-style – like white Nehru jackets with gold braid, and echoed the sort of liveries the staff would have worn in the Thirties when the Courtaulds owned the house, using the house colours of lilac, green and silver. The presentation conveys the luxurious levels of service.”

Elsewhere, the story continues. Staff at the Metropolitan Hotel and Bar in Park Lane wear Donna Karan’s DKNY range. And at Nobu, the hotel’s first floor Japanese restaurant, staff are, appropriately, dressed by Issey Miyake. Even where there is no official policy of commissioning designer clothes, as in Groupe Chez Gérard, there is a definite strategy that the way the staff look must reflect the concept of the restaurant. Proving the right clothes are no frivolity, but make sound commercial sense.

London Fashion Week runs from 25-29 September. Hotline 01203426412. Public days run from 30 September to 3 October. Call 0171-413 1421 for details.


One Aldwych, London WC2

Tel: 0171-300 1000

One Lombard Street, London EC3

Tel: 0171-929 6611

Quaglino’s, 16 Bury Street, London SW1

Tel: 0171-930 6767

Momo, 25 Heddon Street, London W1

Tel: 0171-434 4040

Teatro, 93-107 Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1 Tel: 0171-494 3040

Tamarind, 20 Queen Street, London W1

Tel: 0171-629 3561

Home House: Enquiries to Brian Clivas, Home House, Portman Square, London W1

Tel: 0171-467 5400

The London Fashion Book

If you want to mug up more on the London Fashion scene, Andrew Tucker’s London Fashion Book, gives the lowdown on what to look out for in fashionable areas of London like Soho, Notting Hill, Knightsbridge, and the East End. There are profiles of London designers, grouped together under headings like ‘Haute Hippies’, New Savile Row or Modern Classics.

The book is rather confusingly laid out, and the maps and typography a bit irritating, but Andrew Tucker’s well-informed and readable text, his unerring eye for what’s in and many of the photographs easily make up for this.

The London Fashion book by Andrew Tucker is published by Thames and Hudson on 28 September, priced 18.95, hardback.

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