Zoodles—Now With a Piping Hot Side of Merch
Why are downtown restaurants like Sant Ambroeus and Cha Cha Matcha making Nikes and designer sunglasses?
In October, Cha Cha Matcha, a chainlet of Instagram-optimized cafés that attracts influencer aspirants for whom green tea powder-based drinks are a form of soft power, posted to that platform an image of a pair of Nike Air Force 1s in a bubblegum-pink hue that matched its stores’ parti-colored terrazzo floors. A promotion for their newest shop on Lafayette Street in Noho, the original post read in part, “We did a collab with @nike.” It was a startling image, not least because the Nike cosign is so prized among actual apparel designers, to say nothing of a café that pumps Biggie Smalls as its clientele compose artful images of $5 coconut matcha lattes.
It was also the latest in a sequence of collaborations between high-profile brands and a certain subset of downtown New York City restaurant, namely those which have managed to transcend the fuzzy barrier between hospitality enterprise and self-contained brand of their own. Last year, Nike released a version of its SB Dunk High Pro with a denim upper as a collaboration with Momofuku, aping the aprons worn by that restaurant’s staff. In 2014, that same silhouette was treated in a nappy gray suede and an ice-blue sole meant to evoke the neon window sign of Eddie Huang’s Baohaus (Huang has gotten where the getting is good, putting his name and a black steel shell toe on a pair of Adidas Superstar 80s two years later). Last fall, Kith composed a range of tees and sweatshirts for Carbone, creating a brief golden age when you could overpay for a steroidal veal parm and have it served to you by waitstaff dressed like they just blew all their bar mitzvah money on new Yeezy wardrobe.
This strain of product is less about commerce than it is an exercise in cultural cachet, a secret handshake between a-alikes, or brands that have determined appearing to be a-alikes would be mutually beneficial. There are few places that better understand cultural cachet in Manhattan than Sant Ambroeus, the Milanese export that put down roots in New York City 30 years ago and has since become its own kind of creative canteen, opening up urbane trattorias in Manhattan’s nodes of style and affluence, which is to say power. (When the Loews Regency Hotel, the progenitor of the power breakfast, underwent a $100 million renovation in 2013, it brought in Sant Ambroeus to run service.) There are outposts in the West Village (where Raf Simons first toasted Coke Zeros with Calvin Klein), on Madison Avenue near the Breuer, and even in Sotheby’s headquarters. But since 2013, the one on Lafayette Street in Soho has become a locus of fashion industry nabobs and assorted hangers-on. It’s a branded crowbar’s throw from Supreme, a neat geography that has informed the restaurant group’s own foray into the fertile plain of fashion collaborations, a discipline for which Supreme has set out a 25-year-long map.
Alireza Niroomand, Sant Ambroeus’s creative director, acknowledged as much on a recent Thursday morning there, as the dining room filled with soigné women taking pitch meetings on speakerphone while pecking at their uovo organico or cornetti, and the director of US PR for Net-a-Porter posed for an Instagram story while reps from Agolde and Citizens of Humanity sat nearby.
“The funny thing is, I wasn’t that familiar with that world before I started here,” Niroomand said. “Being across the street from Supreme was a bit of an inspiration.” Many of Sant Ambroeus’s collaborations have been with its Soho neighbors, and its location has made it into something like a ventricle of the beating heart of streetwear’s red zone, with Palace, Off-White, and BAPE all nearby. “It’s such a hub for the art and the fashion world that naturally it became a reality. It’s not me sitting in an office saying, ‘I’m going to reach out to this brand.’ It’s more friends who come here, and it just happens like this: ‘Let’s do something together.’” Last year, one of those somethings was with Supreme: a three-way collaboration on a deck with one of those friends, Mark Gonzales, a patron saint of skateboarding who has dipped his own trucks into the fashion circuit.
Niroomand, with his neat beard and genteel Cremieux suiting, is a familiar presence at the Soho branch, schmoozing with the clientele, 80% of whom he says are regulars, and gliding through the dining room like the benevolent magistrate of a Lombardian principality. Adjacency to the industry has led to a bit of transference. Last holiday season, he appeared with Karlie Kloss in a Kate Spade campaign. “The West Village is a bit more of a discreet scene, but here it became like a living room. I call it ‘the lab.’ I like the clubby part of it. In this neighborhood you can't avoid it: all the offices are here, so it makes it easy for us. But sometimes I do pinch myself and say, ‘Wow, all these people are here.’” As if on cue, a rap on the window announced the arrival of Stefano Tonchi, W’s editor-in-chief, whom Niroomand rose to greet and install in a corner table.
Sant Ambroeus has notched more collaborations with high-profile fashion labels—nearly a dozen since 2015—than those labels have launched themselves: optical frames with Oliver Peoples, bathing trunks with Frescobol Carioca, canvas sneakers with Superga, and sweatshirts with Saturdays and Kitsune in the restaurant’s soft shade of poached salmon. Last month, they did windbreakers with KWAY and a pair of Puma Suedes, with the puma silhouette on the heel tab supplanted by the restaurant’s dove logo. They’ve got something going with Le Labo and Billionaire Boys Club after that, and Niroomand told me he was expecting renderings from Sebago in the afternoon, for a boat shoe to launch next summer at their Southampton outpost. It’s a high number for any brand, least of all for one that isn’t actually in the apparel business.
Once a novelty in fashion, collaborations have become their own form of currency, metastasized into a necessary test of relevance by a consumer base that supplicates before them like a brand-pocked Jacob’s Ladder offering a direct route to God. Successful collabs appeal because of a winkingly high-low effect, a jarring surreality that disorients and delights in the same breath. Palace’s recent collaboration with Polo; Kith and Versace; Gucci and the Yankees; Tommy Hilfiger and seemingly everybody—these collabs are marked by their cognitive dissonance, the jamais vu sensation of something not in its right place, and all the more mysterial for it, like a minting error in a nickel.
Niroomand stressed that apparel collaborations are nowhere near the core of Sant Ambroeus’s business, but rather an elegant and effective form of communication. “It’s a good way to stay relevant in the restaurant scene, because there's so much going on in New York,” he said. “I don’t think we need to do it, but it definitely helps. The clientele dictates; here they’re so receptive; it’s such a millennial crowd, it’s very easy to engage with them. For example, people like Stefano Tonchi care less about collaborations than a younger crowd, who get really excited when we do them. It’s more than just a restaurant, it’s a lifestyle brand.”
That lifestyle is an extension of fashion’s luxury creep, the notion that a well-lived life should invariably make room for a widening multiverse of brands. Collaborations represent an acceptance that the idea of the single-brand consumer has reached the end of its usefulness. In its place, we’ve reached a kind of power sharing treaty, like a streetwear NATO. That this dynamic has widened further still, to include restaurants, only makes sense. At some point, you’ve got to eat.