Ralph Lauren, Urban Outfitters, and Lululemon all have cafes, too. What gives?
On the surface, there is nothing immediately wrong about a coffee shop existing inside a clothing store, a trend that has become increasingly common in recent years—particularly in New York, where nothing seems to happen in isolation. There is, for instance, the UO Cafe (formerly an Intelligentsia before it was booted from its Herald Square space last year) in Urban Outfitters, which also sells inordinately priced “composed salads”; Ralph’s Coffee in Ralph Lauren’s Fifth Avenue flagship location; TOMS coffee alongside TOMS shoes; and, of course, Lululemon espressos alongside Lululemon yoga pants. So when I read about a new coffee shop that opened inside Brooks Brothers’ Flatiron store last week—it’s called the Red Fleece Café, and its cups are decorated with patterns such as houndstooth, ret tartan and stripes—it didn’t immediately register to me how strange this whole coffee-and-clothing alliance really is.
But it deserves to be scrutinized a bit, because there is, as far as I can tell, really no good reason why coffee and bourgeois apparel need to exist side by side. Why do anodyne clothing stores feel compelled to open coffee shops? For one, I think, it clearly helps soften their corporate image, which probably appeals to younger consumers—those mysterious millennials!—at least those who have enough money to drop a couple hundred dollars on a sweater. Also, these places aren’t partnering with Starbucks, as Barnes & Noble does, giving them some hipster cred. The aesthetic at a number of clothing store cafés embodies the kind of Brooklyn chic (rustic, minimalist, industrial) that has become so common over the past decade or so you almost don’t even notice it, unless you leave the city for a few days and experience a healthy reality check.
To their credit, these cafés aren’t all style and no substance. They aren’t just popping pods into a Nespresso machine; they’re actually putting a not indecent amount of care and attention into their coffee preparation—Red Fleece, for instance, uses a Modbar pour-over system. And that should come as an embarrassment to a number of fine-dining restaurants in New York, which don’t pay nearly enough attention to making palatable coffee for their high-paying customers. (When Brooks Brothers gives more thought to its coffee than Aldea or Nobu 57, which both use Nespresso pods, something has gone terribly wrong.)
But back to the unholy alliance of coffee and clothing. I’m not saying food and drink don’t belong in these kinds of stores. I think IKEA’s meatballs are ingenious—and pretty good, too (though IKEA, of course, isn’t on the same level as Ralph Lauren). But the combination, to me, symbolizes the apotheosis of coffee as a lifestyle product, a luxury, a consumerist posture, rather than a drink that perks you up in the morning and tastes pretty good if prepared right. As a coffee drinker who enjoys a French press as much as a cup from the corner bodega, that annoys me. It homogenizes coffee as an identity marker when it’s so much more than that and also so much less. With that in mind, I dread the day a café opens inside the Gap.