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Chef Alex McCrery wanted clothing that was tough enough to stand up in the kitchen yet looked good enough to wear in his day-to-day life. The New Orleans native had moved to New York in 2005 to work in the restaurant industry, putting in stints at Aureole and Antonucci before ending up as Jerry Seinfeld's private chef. The problem of unwearable workwear never went away, however, so in the early 2010s, McCrery learned to sew while his wife, Jenny Goodman, got her MBA. Then they started a business.
He tells this story in the makeshift sitting area of a one-room office in Chinatown, the home base of Tilit, which he and Goodman founded in late 2012. The company, which now has 14 employees, makes a full line of workwear: everything from aprons and pants to work shirts and blazers. The brand produces seasonal lines while also designing custom clothing for places as diverse as The Today Show, Soho House, and Prime Meats. McCrery and Goodman say that business is strong, and growing mostly via word of mouth in the tight-knit restaurant community. "Chefs are nomadic, anyway, especially in New York, so they’re all hopping around," McCrery says.
As chefs grow ever more visible in restaurants — open kitchens everywhere! — it's only natural that they are moving away from the pajama pants of the past to a more modern look, like a pair of $85 tactical pants adorned with "pockets, crotch vents, key loop and reinforced knees."
Tilit isn't the only company hoping to capitalize on the trend. Jones of Boerum Hill has its headquarters in a one-room office above an art gallery on the other side of the Manhattan Bridge from Tilit HQ. The industrial space is crammed with samples, product, equipment, and, for some reason, a heavy punching bag. Husband-and-wife team Iestyn and Deirdra Jones founded it in 2012. The latter, previously a technical designer at Steven Alan, focused on the pattern-making and fitting, while the former does the leather work for the popular apron line, focuses on sales, and dreams up new designs. While the Joneses weren't in the restaurant world, they came to the idea for JoBH through an observation similar to that of the Tilit crew. "I see so many restaurants that spent an absolute fortune, like $500,000, on the inside, and the staff is wearing $4 plain black aprons and a $5 shirt." Their first client was Bubby's, and they now work with restaurants including Eataly and Dough to create custom items in addition to the line that's available online. About 150 restaurants worldwide buy from JoBH, with bulk orders getting a 30 percent discount. The minimum wholesale order starts at five units, and Jones says the average initial order is 25 units.
Both the Joneses and Tilit benefit from their ability to reach the entire world from small workspaces in New York City. "Facebook has been huge for us," McCrery said. Goodman, who oversees the sales team, added that the social network allows them to target very specific populations, like front and back of house managers, and they've seen impressive return on investment doing so. Yes, this is vaguely terrifying, but also effective. Deirdra Jones admits that she and her husband are terrible at marketing, but "if you Google 'Brooklyn workwear' or 'Brooklyn apron,' we're, like, the first one that comes up." (The benefits of Brooklyn the Brand...)
As a result, the workwear finds its way to surprising places. Matt Lambert, a friend and customer who owns Manhattan's Musket Room, was home in New Zealand and out to dinner at Roots Restaurant in Lyttelton, which is south of Christchurch. When he went back to the kitchen, he found the entire staff outfitted in Tilit. "That was a nice moment," Jenny Goodman says. "We really are on the other side of the world."
Iestyn has his own version of this story. One day, he was working in the shop when the doorbell rang. He went downstairs and found a busload of Japanese tourists who wanted to buy Jones of Boerum Hill apparel. "They spent two hours in the studio," he said. "They had to try out everything."
Despite the international sales, both Tilit and JoBH have a distinctly “Made in New York” feel. Tilit uses a factory on 36th Street and Eighth Avenue in the Garment District for most of its orders — it produces about 750 aprons a month — but also has a few sewing machines in its office and space in the basement for fast-turnaround orders. The week before I spoke to them, a large catering company called on a Thursday requesting 50 aprons by noon the next day. They went into overdrive and filled the order. JoBH also uses a factory in the Garment District for all its aprons, while a factory outside Porto, Portugal, produces the work shirts. Both companies source materials from all over the world: denim from Cone Mills and Japan, wax from the UK, chambray from Italy, fabric originally destined for Band of Outsiders before that company's untimely demise.
The future for the two workwear companies calls for expanding one-off online sales but also growing the custom business. McCrery and Goodman say that they didn't even consider the custom business until the crew at Contra came calling. "Those guys had worked at several different restaurants, and friends had chatted about us," McCrery says. The custom business now makes up about 50 percent of the company's revenue, with a 55/45 split between e-commerce sales and wholesale to restaurants, hotels, and a few specialty retail stores.
For the Joneses, that figure is lower — roughly 20 to 30 percent of the bottom line — but it's increasing. There's a delicate balance with custom orders, however, as designing something so fresh and so clean requires an intense amount of time. When JoBH was first getting off the ground, it'd take on any project in the interest of building a name. Now that the brand is more established, however, the policy has changed. "We used to do small orders," Deirdra said. "Now they have to order at least 50 units."
It's also time to push beyond the chef and server world. "We get lots of orders from professors," Deirdra says. "I guess it's a good look for a professor." Tilit, meanwhile, is breaking into the hospitality industry, customizing the entire look of the Soho House staff. "What Carhartt did for blue-collar workwear, we'd love to see happen for hospitality workwear," McCrery said. "It's not only what you'd wear to work, but also what you'd wear on the street, maybe even crossing over into mass market."
How far these brands can push into the mainstream is an open question. Does the average home chef need a $115 apron? Probably not, but it's easy to see a certain segment of the population buying one. They last forever and look pretty sweet. At the very least, there's a market as a high-end gift for your favorite friend or relative who fancies themselves a serious cook. The shirts and pants feel nearly indestructible, yet are fashionable enough to wear in public, especially in the current lumberjack-adjacent fashion moment. But neither Tilit nor JoBH are particularly concerned about needing to find new customers outside of the hospitality industry. There are 14 million restaurant workers in the US alone, and a fraction of that number is more than enough to support a business consisting of two people in Brooklyn or 14 in Chinatown.
For now, they'll keep expanding in the restaurant world, building out the custom business, and trying to attract what mass market they can. In a way, the founders are their own best advertisements. McCrery looked comfortable, casual, and cool in a pair of Tilit pants. "Alex is a uniform guy," Goodman says. And he finally has something he wants to wear to work.