This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.
Last June, Hard Rock Cafe appointed football player Lionel Messi as their new brand ambassador, to celebrate 50 years in business. ‘Good for them,’ I thought. But also: ‘How are they still open, and how do they have enough cash to hire one of the world’s most expensive athletes?”
I was lucky enough to grow up in in a family that travelled a lot. I have mostly cloudy memories of these trips, but the Hard Rock Cafe, with its rock memorabilia, loud music and iconic T-shirts, is burned into my mind. I can’t put into words what fascinated me about the place. Maybe I was driven by the same spirit of consumerism that drives teens to McDonald's. Maybe I just thought the T-shirts were really cool.
“The classic tee with the Hard Rock Cafe logo is by far one of the best-selling clothing items in the world,” said Stefano Pandin, general manager of Hard Rock Cafe Italy and vice president of operations in Europe. While it would be impossible to verify his claim – nobody records that kind of data – the T-shirt’s ubiquity is obvious to anyone who’s ever left their house.
Hard Rock Cafe, London in the 1970s. Photo courtesy of Hard Rock Cafe
Pandin explained that the logo was designed in 1974 – three years after the original Hard Rock Cafe, near London’s Hyde Park, first opened its doors – by British illustrator and graphic designer Alan Aldridge. Although his name might not be familiar, Aldridge is behind some of the most iconic psychedelic designs of the 1960s and 70s, with clients ranging from the Beatles to Andy Warhol.
According to Pandin, the owners actually just commissioned Aldridge to create a logo for the cafe’s menu. As the story goes, the graphic T-shirts were born somewhat by accident, when founders Peter Morton and Isaac Tigrett made them for a local football club they supported and gave away the leftovers to patrons.
The tee was an instant success – pretty soon, people started showing up just to buy merch, so the pair set up a new part of the business to handle demand, with dedicated retail areas and cash registers in the restaurants.
At some point, among the people lined up at the stores’ merch-only registers, was me – and probably you and a bunch of our assorted friends and colleagues.
“In the village where I grew up, wearing a Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt meant you had travelled,” said my coworker, Vincenzo Ligresti. “It meant you could afford it, or at least that your family could. It was a sort of status symbol among teenagers.”
Ligresti said he wasn’t a big fan of the T-shirts, but when he wore one for the first time aged 17, he felt vested with an aura of coolness. “The funny thing is that that shirt [from Berlin] was a gift. I hadn’t even been on a flight yet in my whole life,” Ligresti said.
His first trip by plane was to New York, where he ended up buying a shirt at the Hard Rock Cafe’s Times Square location. “In the end, I did go to Berlin, but all I wanted at that point was to get into Berghain,” he said. “And with a Hard Rock Cafe shirt on, they wouldn’t have even looked at me at the entrance.”
The author in front of Hard Rock Cafe, Florence, Italy. Photo: Andrea Marzocchi
Today, the Hard Rock Cafe franchise counts over 180 cafes, 24 hotels and 11 casinos in its empire, which spans 75 countries.
Captivated by the question of who goes to any of those places, I visited my nearest franchise in the centre of Florence. The restaurant here opened ten years ago and mainly serves burgers, a few breakfast options and some “Asian” dishes that I’m fairly sure have never been consumed anywhere in Asia. It was 11AM and the streets of Florence were filled with tourists – although fewer than usual – but I’d say most of the cafe’s customers were Italian.
Inside, the diner-style rooms were air-conditioned, with rock music blasting from every corner. I walked around the souvenir room and felt an irresistible urge to buy a baby onesie featuring the cafe’s logo for my soon-to-be-born child. I tried to convince my partner that it would be a great first purchase for our firstborn, but – understandably – he didn’t budge.
Restless, I continued browsing the shelves, overcome by a desire to leave the place with something – anything. Finally, my partner gave in to a fridge magnet.
The onesie. Photo by the author.
The Hard Rock Cafe offered a product you could only buy on-site in the coolest cities of the world. It was a status symbol for all of us inexperienced travellers – a way to present ourselves as worldly, when we absolutely weren’t.
A friend who accompanies 17 and 18-year-olds on trips abroad for work says that they still like the Hard Rock Cafe – it’s not just a millennial thing (mind you, it’s probably only millennials shelling out over £50 for the vintage Hard Rock tees currently listed on eBay).
Back in Florence, I left the cafe clutching my €12 guitar-shaped magnet with a pleasant feeling of satisfaction. It wasn’t a onesie, but it would have to do.