There are plenty of fast food chains that are close to our hearts, but only one that has ever felt “sub-cultural:” White Castle. There’s the weed association, of course (Harold and Kumar, duh), but here in New York, White Castle evokes warm and inclusive feelings amongst artists and club kids alike. With locations scattered across the outer boroughs of the city, White Castle seemingly never closes. It’s the place you go after dancing all night in an unmarked warehouse, sniffing and smoking various chemicals, after trekking an hour plus on a never-working mass transit system. There it is, its blue gothic font logo shining calling to you like a beacon, offering you good (okay, decent) quality, affordable sliders to soak up whatever is in your stomach.
Recently, White Castle’s cultural cred has only grown, most notably by serving as a prominent location films by indie superstars the Safdie brothers. In Heaven Knows What, the junkie lead Arielle Holmes would often eat her one and only meal of the day at White Castle alongside her low-level criminal friends. In their new film, Good Time, Robert Pattinson makes a White Castle stop before embarking on a long journey to retrieve a vial of liquid LSD from a creepy carnival. The Safdie brothers have discerned that White Castle is not only a place to eat burgers, but also a where New York’s emerging (and deadbeat) artists go to interact with (and buy drugs from) the city’s hustlers. But is this cultural intrigue the reason that designer Telfar Clemens, of beloved New York conceptual fashion label Telfar, decided to design new, genderless uniforms for the tried and true fast food giant? Not exactly. In fact, it was much simpler than that: “Most nights it’s the only thing open when I’m coming home FROM my cultural intrigues,” says Clemens. “I live in the apartment where I was born in Lefrak Queens and there’s one just downstairs I’ve been going to all my life.”
White Castle caught wind of Telfar three years ago when the brand staged its post-NYFW party at the chain’s Times Square location. When that party went viral, the savvy marketers over at White Castle realized the potential of this kind of free advertising. Whereas other fashion labels, most notably Vetements, have had “down market” collaborations, White Castle’s collab with Telfar differs in that the result exists in White Castle’s arena rather than on a runway or on a rack in Dover Street Market. This is simply Clemens, as well as Telfar creative director Babak Radboy, wanting to give something beautiful and of lasting value to a fast food chain they love.
It’s kind of mind-blowing that the oldest fast food chain in the country is psyched about their new avant-garde uniforms, which goes to show that White Castle understands that change can be good. Meanwhile, change, not to mention progress, are what Telfar is all about. In an odd way, there’s a synergy between this burger chain and this boundary-breaking fashion label. “We reached out to them like any other sponsor but they didn’t act like any other sponsor,” says Clemens. “Their VP Jamie Richardson is truly a special person. It’s just not a transactional thing — they ask us what we need — we think of stuff that will integrate with them because we actually like them.”
To up the ante, Telfar tapped the reclusive interdisciplinary artist and photographer Jayson Keeling to shoot a look book for the uniform. Best known for his portraits of Lauryn Hill and the late Aaliyah in magazines like Fader, Keeling’s extensive practice also uses painting, drawing, and sculpture to critique contemporary male masculinity and mass media. But what Telfar loved most about Keeling was his artful contributions to the underground gay porn magazine, LaMancha. “I used to travel from Maryland to New York JUST TO BUY THAT MAGAZINE at the deli by my aunt’s apartment!” says Clemens. “That magazine is probably one of the first appearances anywhere of that whole ‘homo-thug aesthetic.’ It’s the source. I figured if you can get something real in a mag like that then you can take these uniform pics without making them look like marketing.”
Using White Castle employees that were both scouted by Telfar and sent to the brand by White Castle, Keeling followed numerous employees wearing the Telfar-designed uniforms both at work and in their real lives. Though the photographs are staged, they evoke the intimate documentary portraiture of the likes of Robert Frank. Though the campaign certainly works as an advertising campaign for White Castle, it also sheds light on subjects not previously seen in either corporate or artistic imagery. The White Castle employee becomes a character in these images, forcing the viewer to acknowledge the existence of human beings we often absent-mindedly dismiss. This notion unquestionably places this project in the context of contemporary art. This blurring of advertising, fashion design and contemporary art is Telfar’s “M.O.” according to Clemens.
The shape of the uniform is based on a runway look from Telfar Fall-Winter 2016, which was also used as the uniforms for the employees at the DIS Magazine-curated Berlin Biennale last year. This should prove that this isn’t a frivolous, clickbait project on part of Clemens and Radboy. White Castle means something to New York, and it means something to sub-cultures at large. To Clemens, the chain is representative of the outer boroughs and areas of upper Manhattan that have given us Jay-Z and Nas but rarely ask for anything in return. With this project, Clemens is both shouting out and giving back to his outer borough. “People have strong feelings about [White Castle],” says Clemens. “If you have childhood memories eating at White Castle chances are you grew up in the Bronx, Harlem, Flatbush, East New York — out at my place in Queens.. I think there’s too much of a one-way relationship between culture and these neighborhoods.”
Clemens will further explore this concept of White Castle as emblematic of outer borough sub-culture with his upcoming streetwear collection in October. Telfar will stage its party that month at a White Castle location somewhere outside the cultural hub of northwest Brooklyn and Manhattan. The party itself will actually be based on the zip codes of New York White Castle locations. “So if Hypebeast kids want to cop it they have to go out TO THAT White Castle and get it!”