Directly beneath shoe designer Patrick Cox’s London patisserie, which opened last week, is a sex shop. “A full-on proper Soho sex shop,” he grins, “in the basement. We’re completely separate from them but it is right there.” In fact, the patisserie itself was a sex shop before Cox took it over, and the slinky fittings remain more boudoir than bakery – glittering black marble floors, black tiles, a mirrored ceiling and heaps of neon, including an artwork by Tracey Emin that spells out “I kept wanting you”. This is no chintzy teashop.
The cakes on sale aren’t exactly traditional, either. Instead of flowers and bows, Cox’s cakes feature skull and crossbones, huge red lips and miniature renderings of Andy Warhol’s image of Marilyn Monroe.
“We want to make things a bit more masculine but there won’t be anything in the shop which would stop you coming in and buying cakes for your kids,” he says.
You’d expect nothing less from a man who made his name with avant-garde creations for Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano. Cox set up his eponymous fashion business in 1985, producing shoes and accessories for celebrities from Madonna to Paul Weller and David Beckham. But at the same time, he always wanted to open a cake shop.
“I didn’t have time to do both before, we were too busy, but it was always in my mind,” he says, as he shows me photos of sample cakes on his BlackBerry. So in May, he teamed up with award-winning master pâtissier Eric Lanlard via their mutual friend Elizabeth Hurley (Lanlard made her wedding cake). He refined Cox’s recipes, given to him by his mother, who has sent him care packages of baked goods four times a year ever since he moved here from Canada in 1983. “Her recipes were very white-trash Americana, though, and used loads of corn syrup, and Eric got rid of all that. The cakes are so light – he did kind of blow her recipes out of the water.”
British desserts leave Cox cold. “Elizabeth wanted me to sell treacle sponge and spotted dick but I hate them.” Instead, they are selling American and Canadian specialities such as chocolate- and cream-filled Nanaimo bars, named after a town on Vancouver Island, compote-filled cupcakes and freshly baked, squidgy cookies.
The move from fashion to catering might seem bizarre but, in fact, Cox is far from alone. For years, designers have collaborated with food companies or restaurants on individual branded items – the Anya Hindmarch bag-shaped biscuits served as part of the Berkeley Hotel’s fashion-themed “Prêt à Pour Tea”, for example, or Christian Louboutin’s shoe-shaped champagne flute for Piper-Heidsieck – but until recently few designers would put their own money into a foodie enterprise.
That has all changed now: in April Ralph Lauren opened Ralph’s, a clubby American restaurant, on boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris, the same street that boasts famous classic brasseries such as Café de Flore, where he serves beef that he ships in from his own Colorado ranch. The Missoni family have a hotel in Edinburgh (and another about to open in Kuwait), and the pleasantly understated Italian food served in the hotel restaurant, Cucina Missoni, has proved popular despite relatively high prices. Agnes b sells decent French dishes from its branches in Hong Kong and has several standalone restaurants there. Fatima Lopes, a well-known designer in Portugal, has just opened her own bar and restaurant in Lisbon, Unique, with chef Joao Simões, and Colombian Silvia Tcherassi has Tcherassi, her hotel and Italian restaurant in Cartegena, Spain.
The list goes on – Nicole Farhi has restaurants within her Bond Street and New York stores; Giorgio Armani has a café above his London shop, while his Armani Hotel in Burj Khalifa, Dubai, has eight restaurants plus Armani Dolci, his very own sweet shop. Among competitors of Cox’s new venture is Serena Rees, co-founder of Agent Provocateur, the lingerie chain. Last year she set up Cocomaya, a small group of London-based chocolate and patisserie shops.
There have, of course, been fashionable places to eat ever since there have been fashionable clothes to wear to them – it’s just that until now, fashion people weren’t actually serving the food. Perhaps the most surprising news – and evidence that despite years of being accused of promoting anorexia, the fashion industry is no longer afraid of being associated with food – is that the fashion bible Vogue is to roll out a chain of cafés worldwide. Condé Nast, its publisher, already has a Vogue Café, GQ Bar and Tatler Club open under licence in Moscow, and has announced plans to roll them out internationally, opening five restaurants a year from 2011.
But is this move as strange as it seems? According to a survey by the CBI, the British employers’ organisation, the UK’s best performing retail sectors are food and clothing, while Mintel market researchers say the fashion industry was one of the few sectors that showed real-term sales growth in the past year. Since both industries are doing comparatively well, perhaps it makes financial sense to team up.
Moreover, mixing food and fashion is an instant way to extend a brand’s reach, without cheapening the core product. You no longer have to buy that £450 pair of shoes to be part of a particular designer’s world; depending on your budget, you can splurge £3.50 on a cupcake or £50 on dinner while still buying into a luxury brand. “Restaurants are a natural way to extend our brand values and to reach our customers,” says Jonathan Newhouse, chairman of Condé Nast. Or, as Cox says, “Small treats are little luxuries.”
A cake shop and bakery might seem an utterly frivolous proposition but there is business acumen behind the frilly icing. Opening a shop is far cheaper than a restaurant – a central London restaurant can easily swallow £500,000 in start-up costs (though Cox won’t be drawn on precisely what his shop set him back) – while mark-ups are still high enough to promise a profit. Better still, you can also extend your brand without needing lots of new premises – Cox is already in talks with department store food halls and delicatessens to sell his products. “And we don’t want to just be sold in the food hall, we want them to imagine a fashion brand is moving into the food hall, so we can give the whole experience.”
His name and its association with luxurious high fashion is key. “I knew that if I didn’t put my head above the parapet and my name in the title, it would just be another cake shop. Fashion designers can do well with food because we’re into 360º, total 100 per cent saturation experiences. It’s not enough that it tastes good.”
Cox, Cookies and Cake, 13 Brewer Street, London W1, tel: +44 (0)20 7351 2227, www.coxcookiesandcake.com