In the spring of 1995, Italian brothers/entrepreneurs Tommaso and Francesco Buti opened the first Fashion Cafe in New York City's Rockefeller Center. It was an attempt to meld two hallmarks of the 1990s: theme restaurants and supermodels. Having enlisted Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, and Elle Macpherson to be the faces of the business, the Buti brothers believed that patrons would flock to a chain of eateries celebrating haute couture design and glamour.
They also believed that customers would walk out with a souvenir from the attached gift shops, including a $28 polyester T-shirt. The Butis imagined that Fashion Cafe would mirror the success of Planet Hollywood, another celebrity-endorsed eatery, which featured sizzling nachos served next to Sylvester Stallone’s Lucite-encased boxing trunks.
Unfortunately, it took less than three years for the Cafe’s eight locations to shutter and for the Butis to be indicted for fraud, money laundering, and conspiracy. From that point on, the only runway that concerned them was the one that could get them on the next plane back to Italy.
Tommaso Buti came to the United States in 1989 for what he described as a “fresh start” after feuding with his wealthy father. According to a 1997 profile in New York Magazine, Buti had actually left Florence, Italy in the wake of passing 51 bad checks and promissory notes.
Calling it a “financial problem,” Buti dismissed the $30,000 to $40,000 in dispute. “We’re not talking about $3 million,” he said. It was an inadvertent bit of foreshadowing.
Immediately upon Buti’s arrival in New York, he ingratiated himself into the upper classes of Manhattan's social scene. After befriending an Italian real estate magnate, Buti developed connections that would prove invaluable to his future business pursuits. One friend, Luca Orlandi, was model Naomi Campbell’s ex-boyfriend; Kevin Costner often accompanied Buti to nightclubs.
After investments in a deli and an Italian restaurant, Buti set his sights on something larger. He noted that the mass media of the 1990s was preoccupied with supermodels, the ultra-famous clothing mannequins who populated fashion shows, television commercials, magazine covers, and music videos. Models like Macpherson and Schiffer had become A-list celebrities, and Buti wanted to parlay their fame into his existing knowledge of the restaurant business.
Although he would later describe the models as “part owners,” their involvement in what would become the Fashion Cafe held virtually no risk. Buti offered Schiffer, Macpherson, and Campbell $50,000 to $100,000 for every personal appearance they’d make at a restaurant opening, plus a percentage of the chain's future profits. Turlington, who initially dismissed the concept as “tacky,” ended up agreeing to the deal as well.
Like Planet Hollywood, Fashion Cafe would be less about gastronomy and more about the “experience” of dining in a themed space. Bustiers and dresses worn by the models hung from the walls in glass cases, frozen in form-fitting poses as though they were inhabited by invisible bodies; a runway ran the length of the dining room; the front door was designed to look like a camera lens. The adjoining gift shop carried everything from those aforementioned T-shirts to $1500 leather jackets.
There was, however, an obvious disconnect with Buti’s idea: The models endorsing his business wore designer clothes, not touristy T-shirts, and the menu items named after them—Claudia’s New York Strip Steak, Naomi’s Fish and Chips—were not likely to have come from the women's personal recipe books. But Buti dismissed any incongruity. “The public is not that educated and not that interested” about the finer points of the industry, he told New York in 1995. “They want to see more the glamour and the entertainment of fashion.”
After the first Fashion Cafe opened in New York in April of 1995, other eateries popped up in a handful of locations around the globe, including New Orleans, London, and Jakarta. Thanks to the presence of the supermodels, Buti was able to entice a number of investors to fund the $30 million venture, many of them simply because they were eager to find themselves in closer proximity to the fashion world and its attractive population. Buti threw lavish parties and presented an image of wealth, influence, and success—an image that was, for the most part, an illusion.
Not long after opening, the Fashion Cafe began to find itself in the very non-glamourous world of litigation. One of the first groups to raise concerns was Rockefeller Center, which charged that the business was six months behind on rent and utilities. Suppliers began refusing to deliver goods unless they were paid in advance. There was clearly a cash flow problem.
In 2000, The New York Times identified the source of the blockage: the Butis. According to the paper, Francesco and Tommaso were being indicted on 51 federal counts each of fraud, money laundering, and conspiracy. The Feds alleged that the brothers told investors they had sunk their own money into the venture when they had not, and that they had misappropriated the funds by diverting them into their own pockets. By that point, many of the Cafe's locations had closed. Tommaso had resigned from the business in 1998, selling his slice to a Mexican clothing firm.
At the time of the indictment, Francesco was already considered a fugitive, having fled back to Italy. Although Tommaso was arrested in Milan, neither man wound up coming back to America to face their charges. Before the federal indictment was handed down, Tommaso told New York that he “never took anything from the company.”
Fashion Cafe is now a footnote in the ‘90s theme restaurant craze—one that also gave us Hulk Hogan’s Pastamania. But Buti was right about one thing: People did leave with T-shirts. The Cafe sold 28,000 of them in their first four months of operation.