April 16, 2021
When fast food forerunner White Castle asked its employees what they wanted in their newly redesigned uniforms, many asked for a doo-rag. So, the brand—famous for its hamburger sliders—commissioned the award-winning Liberian-American designer Telfar Clemens to create one.
Clemens first launched his label in 2005—making a name for himself with his androgynous garments and democratic approach to design, encapsulated by his tagline: “It’s not for you, it’s for everyone.” In 2017, Clemens won the top prize of $400,000 from the Council of Fashion Designers of America and the Vogue Fashion Fund, cementing his status as one of the country’s most significant designers.
This week, White Castle and Clemens unveiled the updated look as part of the burger joint’s 100th anniversary celebrations. For the occasion, photographer Elliott Jerome Brown Jr. captured employees wearing the outfits in an intimate portrait series that offers a glimpse into the their lives during the pandemic. Like much of Clemens’ work, the collection pushes the boundaries of inclusivity in fashion, making the case that fast-food workers—whose labor is wildly undervalued in the American market—deserve great design.
What’s more, Fast Company notes, Clemens has a longstanding relationship with White Castle. In 2015, while gearing up for New York Fashion Week, his after-party sponsor pulled out and his team rushed to find an alternative. They gave White Castle a call to see if the company might step in, partly because Clemens has always loved the chain.
Jamie Richardson, VP of marketing at White Castle, was on the other end of the line. “It was such an intriguing proposition,” he says. “We’re a family-owned company and didn’t have an enormous budget, but I suggested we have the after party at the White Castle on 8th Avenue in New York. He laughed, thinking I was joking.”
But Richardson wasn’t joking. On September 15, Clemens hosted an unforgettable party at the White Castle in Hell’s Kitchen, DJed by the cult musicians Joey LaBeija and Michael Magnan. There was a do-it-yourself bar, along with plenty of sliders. “The cool kids of New York showed up,” Richardson says. “I was there in my suit flicking the light switch up and down to create a disco.”
White Castle has used these uniforms ever since, but Clemens has made several updates. In 2018, he released a shirt with the word “family” on it and the year after, he released one that said “true.” Richardson says that White Castle updates its uniform every 18 months, which is typical in the fast-food sector, but he points out that brands usually takes this opportunity to highlight a new slogan or product. Rather than treating workers as a human billboard, White Castle worked with Clemens to make each update feel like a limited-edition drop.
The brand frequently surveys employees about the uniforms and these latest outfits reflect some of this feedback. Some said their aprons covered up their designer T-shirts, so White Castle asked Clemens to create an apron that would complement the outfit. Others asked for a doo-rag, a quintessentially African American hair accessory originally worn by enslaved people in the 19th century that went on to become a fashion statement in the Black Power movement in the 1960s. He designed one in White Castle’s iconic royal blue.
Clemens also created a limited-edition collection sold through his own brand, featuring a mashup of White Castle’s and Telfar’s logos, with proceeds going to the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Liberty and Justice Fund, which provides bail to imprisoned minors.
One quarter of White Castle’s workforce has been with the company for over a decade and, since these uniforms launched, employee engagement scores have tracked upward. As Richardson tells Fast Company: “We wandered into this relationship, but we’ve found that it’s a rich, creative partnership.”
Research contact: @FastCompany