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Uniformly Chic

Black shirts. Slits. Sarongs. Designer labels? Staff at new and trendy restaurants, hotels and other hot spots are wearing it all, to convey mood, not just denote service.

July 09, 1998|JILL GERSTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Love your outfit."

Front-desk clerks don't usually receive such compliments, but the staff at the Mondrian Hotel in West Hollywood is used to having their casually chic guests tell them how crazy they are about their casually chic uniforms.

Who wouldn't cast an admiring glance at the hotel's lissome young staffers striding around in perfectly cut, creamy beige suits and little white T-shirts?

The same reaction occurs when patrons at New York's hot new Moroccan restaurant, Chez Es Saada, get a glimpse of its dazzlingly attractive waitresses wearing languid watercolor floral dresses with thigh-baring slits designed by Badgley Mischka.

Like the old gray mare, uniforms ain't what they used to be.

Nowadays, details seem to be the obsession of restaurants and hotels catering to hip, discriminating customers who know their white asparagus and Porthault sheets and feel most at home in an ambience that is both cozy hangout and of-the-minute hot spot.

Undistinguished, conventional garb--boxy jackets, bow ties, blah colors--that proclaimed "waiter" or "concierge" and blended into the background has given way at several trendy watering holes to fashionable outfits, some with designer labels. The clothing doesn't so much denote service as convey the mood of the establishment, whether it's high-voltage trendiness or relaxed chic.

"People go to a restaurant for more than just to eat and to a hotel for more than just to sleep," said Ian Schrager, whose Mondrian Hotel has become a magnet for star gadabouts and fashion hounds. "It's part of a visceral, emotional, entertainment experience. And the look of the staff is just as important as every other thing that goes into creating a hotel."

Schrager, in collaboration with stylist Freddie Leiba, created the uniforms to reflect "both the relaxed casualness and formality of Los Angeles." The result: slim, four-button beige suits with white T-shirts, worn with brown shoes.

In contrast, the uniforms at the hotel's outdoor SkyBar, which surrounds the pool, run to tropical-colored sarongs from Bali paired with midriff-baring white T-shirts, for both waiters and waitresses.

"The whole point was to break the rules," Leiba said. "I took a nod from observing how, in St. Bart's, models would go out at night in sarongs and T-shirts, with glossy wet hair and little makeup. The bar is built around the pool, so the look is appropriate."

At Chez Es Saada, an intimate restaurant whose arched doorways, throw cushions and tiled floors strewn with rose petals evoke the moody romance of Rick's Cafe in "Casablanca," Mark Badgley and James Mischka were asked to design uniforms that were more glamorous than traditional.

"We're known for beaded dresses, but that wouldn't work for people serving dinner," Mischka said.

Instead, the designers chose wrinkle-free jersey, in faded florals shot with metallic gold, for the long, body-skimming dresses worn by hostesses and the shorter ones worn by waitresses. A tiny matching shoulder bag was designed to carry change. For waiters, they created jewel-toned raw silk shirts, and for bartenders, Old World-style pinstriped waistcoat / shirts. (It is not unknown for some staffers to take their "uniform" with them when they quit.)

"What we wanted was a combination of fantasy from the past and something au courant," said Michael James O'Brien, one of Chez Es Saada's partners. "A conventional uniform just wouldn't do it."

Nor would it work for the wait staff at Border Grill, a festive Mexican restaurant in Santa Monica, owned by Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger.

"The uniform of your servers and your host is a great arena to subtly communicate to your clients what your restaurant is all about," Milliken said. "So we wanted a uniform that made a bold statement, was more modern than old-fashioned and a touch irreverent."

They settled on guayaberas, traditional Mexican shirts, dyed and embroidered to their specifications. They had the shirts done in black.

"The restaurant is filled with colorful murals, so they really stand out," Milliken added.

*

Ethnic restaurants aren't the only ones serving up eye-catching uniforms.

At the just-opened Cafeteria, an all-night coffee shop in New York's trendy Chelsea district, where art students in Doc Martens, models and stockbrokers wolf down burgers and mashed potatoes, the waiters and waitresses wear outfits that take a cue from UPS uniforms.

Brown cotton short-sleeved or sleeveless shirts embroidered with the Cafeteria logo are paired with long skirts or loose pants. They were created by designer Victor Alfaro, a co-owner of the restaurant.

"It's hard to find ready-made uniforms to fit the style of your restaurant or the people you want to go there," he said. "We're geared to a hip, young clientele. We didn't want stuffy uniforms or anything too costumey or too fashionable. Our uniforms are very practical, but with a little hipness to them."

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