Fast-food fashion hits full bloom with Panera swimsuits, Rao’s handbags

Picture the following: It’s a bright summer Sunday, and the air is fresh and warm. You decide to go to the pool. You grab your towel, your sunglasses, your Pizza Hut-branded bucket hat and your Arby’s Beefy Aloha swimsuit, stamped with a Hawaiian shirt pattern and images of the fast-food chain’s beef and cheddar sandwich. Your Taco Bell x Crocs slides are waiting for you at the door, along with your Rao’s Homemade sauce jar-shaped luxury purse. Later, you’ll switch it out for your sandwich-size BAGuette bag from Panera for a night out on the town.

Taco Bell and Pizza Hut might not scream fashion-forward. But these products — most of which premiered this spring and summer — represent a growing trend among fast-food franchises and other food brands attempting to market their products to a consumer base moved by the kinds of flashy fashion gimmicks that are primed for potential internet virality.

“These kinds of products, as ridiculous as they seem, are probably coalescing a bunch of things that are going on in culture right now,” said Monica Sklar, a fashion, pop culture and merchandising expert at the University of Georgia. These include an overwhelming commitment to fandom in pop culture, a desire for frivolity amid compounding global crises and a growing obsession with all things camp, a trend jump-started by the 2019 Met Gala.

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Though the trend among franchises selling unexpected merchandise has been strong for several years now — Arby’s began giving away sweats printed with high-definition images of its sandwich meats in 2017, for example — it has only gotten stronger in the pandemic era, as food brands attempted to become a part of their customers’ new daily routines.

“I’m wondering if part of the strategy is: ‘Okay, if people are not interacting from locations, what would it mean for them to wear our products elsewhere?’ People do not take these things lightly when they plan them,” said Marcia Chatelain, a professor at Georgetown University and the author of “Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America.”

More so than serving as a testament to the quality of food sold by chain restaurants, the popularity of these products — many of which sell out in days or hours — speaks to the kinds of relationships people form with their beloved food franchises and brands.

“The thing that’s interesting about fast food is that so much of its appeal to consumers is about everything but the food: It’s the advertising. It’s the experiences that are tied to it,” Chatelain said.

Restaurants such as Panera, which cater their branding to convey an image of homestyle comfort, recognize this. The brand’s Swim Soups line, which features mix-and-match bathing suits inspired by Panera soup flavors, was borne out of the belief that true Panera lovers and “soup mavens” — those who love warm soup even in summer — would want to broadcast their affinity for the restaurant on their bodies, too. “We were thinking about how to connect even deeper in our guests’ lives and sort of recognize the love they have for the brand and for some of our experiences and products,” said Drayton Martin, Panera’s senior vice president of brand building.

Representatives for Arby’s cited a similar philosophy. Last year, the restaurant released a smoked bourbon that Arby’s brand president, Rita Patel, said “was a great way to bring the brand to life through not just our food products, but to also be ingrained in culture in a way that allows Arby’s to step outside its comfort zone … where we can make a connection back to the brand.” In recent years, Arby’s has also launched french fry vodka, meat-scented clothing and a 10-gallon felt hat.

This is hardly the first time that food brands have cut their teeth on fashion. One need look no further than the Campbell’s soup can dress of the mid-1960s. The “Souper” dress, eventually mass-produced by Campbell’s Soup, originally required people to buy dozens of cans of soup to make their trendy paper dress in the style of Andy Warhol paintings at home. Sklar said it’s possible to draw a “direct beeline” from the Souper to the sandwich-printed swimsuits of today.

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Chatelain also referenced the Coca-Cola-branded sweatshirts of the ’80s. “Boutique-y” and “high-endish,” these limited-edition garments became their own classic. “I think that what we’re seeing now is just a larger catalogue of those items,” she said. “And I think that, because of the distribution channels that are now available to us, more people can do it. More companies can do it with lower overhead costs.

In a way, the extent of this trend’s reach — garnering participation from brands as diverse as the everyman’s Arby’s to the city socialite’s Rao’s Homemade — could only be possible in the internet age.

The rise of the social media influencer economy has meant that brands can leverage individuals’ online presence to do their advertising work for them. All food brands have to do is sell a product that social media users are excited enough to buy and flaunt to their followers. “This is not any different than when product placement got really common in sitcoms and all of that,” Sklar said. “We are the TV show now, instead of ‘Friends’ being the TV show. We’re doing product placement for all of them, and yet we’re paying for it instead of being paid. It’s gross, but it’s understandable. It’s not new.”

That kind of advertising finds power in its sheer visibility. “All of this stuff is super visual. All of it is recognizable in a thumb scroll,” Sklar added. “People have about a microsecond of attention, and they scroll past, and you need to be able to have an advertisement that [works] fast.”

But the internet has also facilitated the kinds of communities that this food franchise merchandising thrives on. Platforms such as Twitter and TikTok encourage debates about the best french fry or the best pasta sauce, allowing online communities to coalesce around their interests as a marker of identity. Entire fandoms can form around the Arby’s 10-gallon hat, and those fandoms can move offline through branded merchandise.

The internet also drives virality in other ways. Take the example of Panera’s BAGuette: Released in January, the bag catered to a community of fashion fans on TikTok whose interests fell somewhere between camp absurdity and archival Y2K fashion. Modeled after the Fendi baguette bags of the early aughts, Panera’s foray into Gen Z fashion sold out the three times it was stocked. The second time, it sold out in 90 seconds, according to Martin. The third time, it took mere hours.

Speaking of a product like the Arby’s Beefy Aloha swimsuit, Sklar said, “it’s ridiculous, but also a conversation starter. It’s campy and light and fandom and silly, and that’s part of fashion merchandising is reflecting the cultural mood.”

“Society is polarized,” she added. “It is dark, it’s so tragic that this is almost a pendulum swing the other way for people to have something, some frivolity.”

But while frivolity might be enticing consumers, apparel’s role as a form of marketing for the companies is clear: “We’re not trying to become an apparel brand, or a fashion brand. We’re happy to have that be a complement to us, but our bread and butter is literally bread and butter,” Panera’s Martin said, citing the ways the recently minted Panera Shop brings welcome attention to the franchise.

And in a fashion environment attempting to reckon with the environmental concerns of fast fashion, of trendy products consumed for the mere sake of consumption, a marketing strategy that relies on restaurant loyalists and non-loyalists alike buying limited-edition novelty items might not be a sustainable one.

“My personal opinion is it’s probably a lot of the cultural things, whether it’s the fandom or the camp or we’re trying to get away from the darkness of Trump life and pandemic and everything, but I do think we’re just being fed more products,” Sklar said. “It’s just … marketing campaigns, using TikTok, using influencers, just like everything. It’s just more crap.”

correction

A previous version of this story misidentified Arby’s brand president Rita Patel as the company’s chief marketing officer.

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