What’s the McFlurry about fashion and fast food?
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Growing up in Ostrobothnia in western Finland, Jimi Vain did what lots of teens in rural areas do: he spent many nights at McDonald’s. His order was a double cheeseburger without pickles; older kids would be doing wheelies on motorbikes in the car park. “It was like a youth club,” says the 24-year old fashion designer, now based in Helsinki, who established his unisex label, Vain, in 2019. “We were so isolated… McDonald’s was the first thing I saw from overseas that showed me we were part of a connected world.”
So when Vain got an email last summer asking him to collaborate with McDonald’s, he jumped at the chance. “I heard that the M logo is more recognisable than the Christian cross,” he says of the company that has almost 40,000 outlets globally and caters to 65 million customers a day.
The fast-food inspired Vain x McDonald’s collection launched last November. “We sourced 150 McDonald’s uniforms from across Helsinki, brought them back to our atelier, cut them up and turned them into 27 pieces,” says Vain of the handmade, one-of-a-kind wares. These include a slouchy black track jacket with boxy sleeves, a button-down gingham midi skirt with an asymmetric hem, and an A-line tuxedo dress. “I wanted to create something that me and my friends would actually wear,” says Vain of the clothes, which are mostly black, not red and yellow. Even the M logo has been repurposed into a love heart. “We wanted to propose McDonald’s in a luxury, high-fashion context.”
Vain’s collaboration – which will be raffled to McDonald’s staff rather than sold, adding to its exclusivity – is the latest in the line-up of partnerships with niche brands giving the Big Mac maker a new level of street cred. In October, it launched a collection with cult LA label Cactus Plant Flea Market (CPFM) – the brainchild of Pharrell Williams’s stylist, Cynthia Lu. And last spring, sportswear designer Eric Emanuel and Adidas teamed up with McDonald’s on an exclusive collection that included high tops and camel-coloured tracksuits. But its signature motifs have long inspired fashion brands. Jeremy Scott’s SS14 collection for Moschino was an ode to McDonald’s, while Vetements held its SS20 menswear show in the Paris Champs-Élysées branch.
“Traditional advertising doesn’t cut it when you’re trying to keep a brand like McDonald’s relevant in the digital era,” says Mats Nyström, a marketing director of McDonald’s Finland, who helped spearhead the project with Vain. Much like its menu, it takes a localised approach to partnerships: young, up-and-coming names in different global regions give it an in-the-know kudos. The aim, says Nyström, is to “create popular culture… New generations want to consume our brand, not just eat our products.”
The CPFM collection (from $60) included T-shirts decorated with mascots such as the Hamburglar and Ronald McDonald, and sweatpants and hoodies with slogans like “All Are Welcome” and “I Came, I Saw, I Dipped!” But the must-have was the Happy Meal that tapped into nostalgia. Sold for around $14, it included collectable mascot toys and caused a frenzy; 14,000 McDonald’s sites across the US were inundated and boxes had to be restricted to one per customer.
Brett Turner, a 40-year old IT specialist, queued for hours in Brooklyn to get his hands on a toy. “It reminds me of being a kid, that feeling of not knowing what you’re going to get inside,” he says. “And the mascots are a bit like art.” One Colorado-based eBayer later sold his unopened Cactus Buddy, Birdie and Hamburglar toys for $10,700.
Cactus Plant Flea Market x McDonald’s sold-out hoodie . . .
... and sweatpants
“It’s testament to our work merging culture and commerce,” says Tariq Hassan, McDonald’s USA chief marketing and customer experience officer. He says brands are given free rein to reinterpret its iconography. CPFM drove the highest weekly digital transactions ever for the US business. And upon announcement, CPFM was the number one Google trend.
Of course, the “drop” format of McDonald’s launches adds to the hype. “It’s all about the scarcity aspect,” says Andrea Hernández, the founder of Snaxshot, a zeitgeisty newsletter commenting on all things food and drink. This juxtaposition of mass appeal and exclusivity – especially in the realm of luxury fashion – is extra potent for younger generations who have grown up online.
Nigo, the Japanese streetwear designer who is now artistic director of Kenzo, is reportedly doing the next collaboration: he fuelled the rumour mill last November after posting on Instagram a black-and-white video from the oldest drive-thru hamburger stand in California, which opened in 1953. But for now, Hassan’s lips are sealed. As he says: “Authenticity is our secret sauce.”