Hospobilia: how repping your local’s merch became a fashion hit

Fashion has become a vital ‘side hustle’ for Australian bars and restaurants struggling through lockdown, as punters buy into the hyperlocal look

Joey Kellock’s journey from hometown dreamer to lasagne baron was already storied by the time I ran into him while shopping for oregano at Piedimonte’s supermarket in Melbourne in 2019.

Dressed in a white fleece crew neck bearing his enterprise’s name, when I asked him how business was, he told me, bemused: “I’m selling more trackies than lasagne.”

La la la la, shouted his sleeves, while a skateboarding chef – designed by original Mambo artist and renowned counterculture creative Paul McNeil – invited me to call “1800 Lasagne” from his breast.

The streets don’t lie: the tracksuits were hot – the perfect tongue-in-cheek chic to launch an empire.

As lockdowns descended across the world the following year, Kellock wasn’t the only venue owner who found themselves commanding a bustling trade in merchandise.

Restrictions have forced the hospitality industry into survival mode, which gives wearing your local joint on your sleeve – or your bag or head – a certain poignance. It’s not just about limited runs or a clever design; these items say you care about your city.

WGSN, one of the world’s largest trend forecasters, who have been tracking a hyperlocal consumer focus since before the pandemic, says there’s no doubt a simmering consumer preference for authenticity and nostalgia is now at a rolling boil.

Kraggy, a mononymous prints and graphics strategist at WGSN, explains: “Souvenir T-shirts have a greater meaning to consumers now. There is a mutual understanding of helping neighbourhood hangouts and the unspoken clout in wearing restaurant merch.”

In New York it was dubbed “Zizmorcore”, for a colourful and widely visible dermatologist, and covered a broad spectrum of local gear – from vintage municipal uniforms to stylish locally screen-printed totes from your nearby fishmonger – all denoting a genuine allegiance to the city.

Kraggy also points out: “The bold and brash branding of shop signs, discount stickers, restaurant menus and personified food illustrations are translating with ease on to graphic tees and printed youth styles.”

It’s a concept designer and souvenir T-shirt enthusiast Todd Vanneste grapples with daily at work. His business Weekdays Design Studio, a branding agency, found itself at the accidental avant-garde of what we might now call “hospobilia” in Australia.

Prior to Covid, Vanneste had already noticed an increase in apparel requests from his clients (“We weren’t just ordering 20 T-shirts, we were starting to order hundreds”) and those requests are still ticking up.

  • Left: Samantha Rose Andison wears a hoodie from Stitch Coffee in Sydney. “Love the design and the collab they did with Evi Studio.” Right: Sam Payne says: “[One of] my favourite lockdown merch buys was this long-sleeved T-shirt from Re bar. If only I looked as cool as Matt Whiley when I went on my government-mandated walks in the neighbourhood.”

Vanneste believes the most successful venue merch speaks “in a nostalgic tone”. He says Smith & Daughters, part of Melbourne chef Shannon Martinez’s vegan empire, was the first run that saw big numbers.

Smith & Daughters channeled 90s skate culture to hit the spot. Other venues hark further back, to a time before jobs like Vanneste’s even existed, when “your sign writer was actually the graphic designer”.

In Melbourne, local business ecosystems are blossoming around the merch boom.

Saul’s Sandwiches opened three venues across Melbourne’s east in short order last year and recently backed that up with a successful collaboration with local streetwear brand Ichpig. The collection sold out within two weeks.

Kraggy points out that beyond professional branding, “indie brands, fashion labels and illustrators are collaborating with local businesses to create genuine networks across industries with the mutual aim of serving a community.”

Saul’s co-founder Nathan Orton says economically their collaboration is a “side hustle” that works by cultivating mutual exposure in one another’s customer bases. “It’s just so good for the brand, it’s so important to stay relevant … stay fresh.”

  • Left: Rico, a staff member at Smith & Daughters, wears the T-shirt that has become a hit among customers. Centre: Eric, Harriet and Dan at a picnic. Right: James wears an A1 Bakery T-shirt, which he bought to support the Brunswick business during lockdown.

These burgeoning marketing strategies make easy sense in a hypebeast world. Orton thinks food giveaways “can get tacky” and a material item, especially if it’s a limited run, can be much more effective at generating hype.

Merchandise doesn’t just create buzz, it’s the lifeblood of businesses such as Melbourne print house Killer Merch. Ten years ago, Josh Lennard, Killer Merch’s founder, was making band tees for his friends in the garage – now his business is going gangbusters. Lennard says since the pandemic began, he’s experienced an estimated 30% rise in revenue.

Lennard’s clients are mostly hospitality venues and tattoo parlours who have had to diversify their income streams to combat disruptive lockdowns. Killer Merch has had to buy a bigger printer and hire more staff just to keep up with demand.

Meanwhile in Sydney, an online marketplace – Hospo Threads – launched in April 2020, selling merch from nearby bars. That site has now expanded to include venues in Brisbane, Adelaide and Melbourne.

  • Mat Garthwaite has been collecting hospobilia from all over the world for more than a decade. He says restaurant merchandise is just getting better, and seeing others wearing it inspires him to seek out those venues.

Kraggy sums up the win-win scenario: “Local establishments played an integral role in community-building throughout the pandemic. Now, culinary collaboration and localist merchandise are quickly becoming ways to give back, as well as sought-after items in their own right.”

Kellock describes it as “common ground” – perhaps something like a secret handshake or an in-joke.

I ask if wearing lasagne activewear is a way of saying you don’t take life too seriously, “Yeah!” he muses. “But it says you take your lasagne seriously.”


Doosie Morris

The GuardianTramp

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