McDonald's Corp. is planning to hire celebrity designers -- perhaps names as big as Tommy Hilfiger or P. Diddy's Sean John -- to remake the work wear for its 600,000 U.S. employees.
Negotiations are in the early stages, and no deals have been inked, said Steve Stoute, a brand consultant who pairs celebrities with Fortune 500 companies. He is working with McDonald's to arrange for designer input, and after he made overtures to some big names in the business, designers have been calling him. Besides Tommy Hilfiger and Sean John, he said he is talking to designers such as Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani, retail chain Abercrombie & Fitch, and rapper Jay-Z's Rocawear line.
McDonald's is shooting for clothes so hip that employees will want to wear them outside of work. The goal, said McDonald's spokesman Bill Whitman, is to "capture that spirit of being forever young." Others involved in developing the program say the new look will likely have a retro feel that takes its cues from the era when McDonald's was first expanding, in the 1960s.
It's an effort to update the fast-food giant's image and connect with young employees and customers. It's unclear if the new look will sell more burgers, but experts say cool clothes could help its mass-market image and make its entry-level jobs a little more attractive. If the fashion is good, employees will probably see getting the clothes as a good reason to take the job, said Rick Levine, publisher of Made To Measure, a uniform industry trade publication.
"My first job as a freshman in high school was at Long John Silver's, back when they had those little pirate hats and a fake earring," Levine said. "Try to get a kid today to wear that. No way. Now they've all got golf shirts."
Designers are working in the airline industry, as some companies attempt to distinguish themselves from the pack. Last year, Delta Air Lines' low-cost subsidiary Song launched uniforms designed by handbag maven Kate Spade. Air France flight attendants have been dressed by Christian Dior. And pilot uniforms for United Airlines and JetBlue Airways got some help from New York designer Stan Herman.
McDonald's will probably hire more than one designer so the company's look can change frequently, both with the seasons and with fashion, Stoute said.
Introducing modern fashion to the fast-food industry is a natural progression for McDonald's, which already places its brand in the worlds of music and film through promotional tie-ins, Stoute said. The next step is having the company's young workforce look more hip and therefore more in tune with the young customers walking through the door to order a cheeseburger and fries.
"Brands that want to get closer in proximity to popular culture have to start taking steps internally to get there," Stoute said, adding that he is expecting other quick-service restaurants to follow suit.
"You can't just manage your relationship to pop culture through 30-second spots," he said.
Experts say a McDonald's fashion statement could cause a ripple effect in the restaurant and uniform industries, as others jump to emulate the chain's hip looks.
"They're firing the first salvo with a new uniform," said Harry Balzer, food industry analyst for market research firm NPD Foodworld. "The restaurant industry is very much a 'me too' world. When you find someone who's done something successful, you find a way to bring it into your business, too."
One caveat that uniform experts offer is the possibility that a brand might suffer if employees really do wear the clothes outside of work. Rather than identifying and differentiating employees, the look may blend so seamlessly into modern fashion that the stores will no longer project a unique look.
But that is clearly a gamble McDonald's is willing to take and one that industry observers say is not surprising, given how intent McDonald's is on updating its image. It regularly tweaks its uniforms, with the most recent reworking last year.
The chain has rolled out more modern menu fare at its 13,700 U.S. locations, such as its recent fruit and walnut salad, and has updated its decor. Its new advertising campaign is built around the jingle, "I'm lovin' it," which is an attempt to refocus the chain on its core, youthful market. To that customer, fashion is essential.
"I'm surprised they haven't done it already," said Ron Paul, a restaurant industry consultant with Technomic in Chicago. "It's part of the marketing of the brand."