The changing nature of office life over the past decade or so—from open floor plans to shared spaces, and then to remote working policies—has meant that the only sure personal space the average American worker has is the bowl. The bowl is the fast casual food vessel of choice: round and compact, it serves as both utensil, serving platter, and millennial white collar symbol. Every bite became a curatorial experience—three vegetables intermingling in three different sauces!—and a brief daily distraction from our miserable desk-bound existence, with global flavors suggesting the vacations we lived for. The plate, a dusty Ikea specimen untouched at home as we lived out of takeout containers, was merely a garbage language term—you might say you had too much on yours, for example, to run those numbers for your boss.
Now that working life has changed for this moment and forever, the bowl’s dominion has abruptly ended. In its place, the plate takes on a new philosophical importance—and a sly new role as a status symbol in the world of men’s fashion.
Like sweatpants and crying, the new cult of the plate predates the pandemic. I trace it to February 2018, when Juergen Teller, the droll, absurdist image-maker for fashion’s coolest brands, shot the Spring 2018 lookbook for Palace. In several of the images, models clutched clean white plates: one with a pair under his feet like skis, others brandishing them in their hands like malfunctioning tambourines, and Blondey McCoy, bearing an uncanny resemblance to Rodney Dangerfield, holding a precariously high pile of food’s flattest ceramic. (Even a Dangerfield lookalike can’t get no respect!) The plates were a jokey nod to Teller, whose name is German for “plate”—but they soon bubbled up as a bizarre pseudo-trend. Supreme used a microwave dinner on a thick ceramic diner plate as a motif in their Spring 2018 drop. Ceramics artists like Daphne Leon and Luke Edward Hall became fashion world regulars, as Leon created the plates for Jacquemus’s Paris cafe in 2019, and Hall’s playful illustrated flatware appeared at fashion retailers like Matches.
Plate fever continued apace. Late last year, the Antwerp Six legend Ann Demeulemeester, who left her inky, romantic eponymous label in 2013, announced a return to the world of creative industry with a line of flatware. Her broad, flat ceramics, hand-painted with the intense blues, reds, and purples favored by tortured 19th-century poets, are more demanding, aesthetically and functionally, returning the plate from a mere decorative streetwear objet to an actual…plate. (About $124 for two dinner plates.) Buying a Demeulemeester plate is a bit like asking a supermodel over for dinner: what could you cook that could ever be worthy of this beauty? But Demeulemeester has always been a whole-world kind of designer, so the target customer for her ceramics likely already has a dog-eared leather-bound book filled with recipes for silky slabs of salmon and a gathering of mushrooms. (You could also just order sushi delivery and relocate it from its little plastic grass to here and it would look hot.)
Of course, eating on-brand has long been a part of the ethos at European luxury brands like Hermes and Gucci, which produce luxurious flatware sets that answer their house codes in porcelain. Same goes for Dior, with its Maison subsidiary interpreting the operatic passions of Monsieur Christian Dior. But it seems that some new menswear energy is bubbling up around these haute designer plates: earlier this summer, Dior Maison creative director Cordelia de Castene collaborated with menswear artistic director Kim Jones and his Pre-Fall 2020 partner-in-crime, surf streetwear legend Shawn Stussy, on a set of plates and mugs. De Castene turned Stussy’s quirky signature stencil into a cartoonish riff on Monsieur Dior’s love for flowers. Unlike Demeulemeester’s plates, these are a little bit more generous. (Though not in price: they’re Limoges porcelain, and priced at $110 per.) Their playful line means they would be a great place to eat a simple pasta, schmancy takeout, or, you know, a post-surf burrito. Good luck copping one, though: the whole collection, released in late June, sold out almost immediately, though a few have appeared on StockX with the usual healthy markup.
The irreversible changes in office life mean we may never eat from bowls with the same intensity or regularity again. But what else does the new cult of the plate tell us about now? Jacquemus’s Spring 2021 collection brings it full circle. (Haha.) Staged in a wheatfield plowed through with a rambling runway, the show took outdoor picnicking as its theme—one suit was festooned with little leather forks and knives—and several models carried, in place of a handbag, a leather harness…with just one plate. It seems like an even less logical use of the plate than Teller’s Palace shoot, but the outdoor picnic has indeed become one of the few safe ways to socialize, and, like so many other trends of the pandemic, is likely to codify into a kind of ritual. If BYO Plate is the new rule, why not bring a harness for your single fine porcelain specimen?