Ladies Who Wear Lunch

Rachel Antonoff's Obsession With Baking the *Perfect* Key Lime Pie Inspired Her Latest Designs

This designer’s fashion is infused with a heavy dose of niche food nostalgia.

April  5, 2023
Photo by Rachel Antonoff

This article is part of an interview series called Ladies Who (Wear) Lunch, an exploration of the intersection of food and fashion.

When I think of my favorite food memories, my mind goes a million different directions at once. There’s the green Shrek-themed ketchup that my sister begged my dad to buy on one of our family shopping trips. I was maybe 9, she was maybe 6, and whenever we were at his house for the week, he’d let us pick out one junk food item each. It was thrilling to say the least. (My sister ate that ketchup exactly one time and then it was banished to the back of the fridge for entirely too long.) There’s the unparalleled experience of eating a fresh batch of Fisher’s Popcorn after spending a morning playing in the waves in Rehoboth Beach, Del., fingers pruny and salted from the ocean, mind at ease because summer vacation was in full swing. There’s my grandma’s potato salad that she made whenever we had a crab boil, birthday, or other family gathering, forever insisting on Helman’s over Duke’s. There’s the beautifully charred, impossibly flavorful flank steak my mom would grill and serve alongside a too-big salad and plenty of other fixin’s when the weather was nice and she had time to cook dinner after a full day in her catering kitchen. These memories are a blend of low-brow and (occasional) high-brow foods that make up the whole of my gustatory past—a thrilling culinary joy ride, if you will.

Even more thrilling? Discovering that one of your core food memories is shared by an acquaintance, maybe a coworker, or a classmate, or the guy you met on Tinder six years ago and then ended up marrying (happy anniversary, Nick). Slap those memorable dishes on an article of clothing and you’ve basically got a walking billboard for food nostalgia—that’s Rachel Antonoff’s latest line of edible-themed garments in a nutshell. Rachel founded her eponymous fashion brand in 2008, releasing her first line a year later. Over the decade plus since the brand has been around, there have been a few constants: inclusive sizing, ethical production, garments that are actually comfortable to wear, and irreverent prints that either perplex or delight (or both) and often feature food. From an internet-breaking pasta puffer to a key lime pie print created from Rachel’s latest baking obsession, I sat down with the designer to talk all things food, fashion, and inspiring trips to Florida.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Photo by Rachel Antonoff

MADISON TRAPKIN: ​​Can you describe your ideal lunch date? Where are you going? What are you eating, and what are you wearing?

RACHEL ANTONOFF: Can I be anywhere? And can I be a bummer?

MT: Yes and yes.

RA: So, there are a few versions. My mind immediately goes to Paris because it's just my favorite place to eat. I'd probably be having roast chicken with french fries with a lot of mustard to dip both in. I don't know exactly where, but I feel like that's one of the things about chicken in Paris—you can sit down almost anywhere and it's going to be great. The bummer is, I was thinking the first person I'd want to have lunch with would be my sister. She's dead, but it would be really fun to see her. I'm so sorry.

MT: Don’t apologize! I think that’s really beautiful.

RA: Actually, I want to revise that because I feel like it would be so great to see her that it would be too distracting. I guess then the next person would be my brother because we both love food and there's zero pressure to maintain a conversation. My friend Fred is my current favorite eating buddy. We were actually just in Paris at the same time, and so I know for a fact that he's just a perfect eating friend.

MT: And he's down to eat a chicken with you anywhere.

RA: He's down to eat anything anywhere. With Fred, we'd be in Long Beach Island, New Jersey at the Holiday Snack Bar. It's a single, circular counter in this very small house. They have burgers and grilled cheese, and then right in the middle of the counter is this table filled with the most beautiful cakes you've ever seen. Not even fancy beautiful, just like a chocolate cake with white icing, a vanilla cake with chocolate icing. Like a Bruce Bogtrotter in Matilda situation.

Photo by Isimo and Jauntise

MT: Basically the most picture-perfect chocolate cake you've ever seen in your life. What are you wearing to this lunch date?

RA: Well, I can tell you what I'm not wearing, which is anything with an even remotely fitted waist. I can't stand discomfort in general. Eating is so fun and important to me. It's not just something that I do for sustenance, although that is a wonderful byproduct, it's a hobby. And so I always want to make sure when I'm going to dinner—and we really take this into account when we're designing—is like, are you going to be able to really go for it in this outfit? And if not, I don't want to wear it, and I don't really want to put it out there either.

MT: It’s important to be prepared for all things, especially eating.

RA: So, what am I wearing? I'm wearing a loose, tent-y dress, one that hovers around you but almost never even touches you, and a slide of some sort that took no effort to put on.

MT: And you can take a post-meal nap very easily.

RA: Exactly.

MT: Have you always known that food would find its way into your designs?

RA: I always wished it would. We've had a strange journey as a company because we spent a really, really long time dealing with the stuff that we wanted to design versus the stuff that we were being told people wanted from us. The collections used to be heavily divided between what we would call press pieces and sales pieces, and the press pieces were the shit that we were actually excited to make. We figured that no one would actually buy the press pieces, and the sales pieces were basically what we thought department stores wanted to buy. Then the pandemic happened, and we were fully prepared to go out of business. But that’s when something just changed, there was a major attitude shift happening with regard to dressing. People started buying the press pieces, so we pushed the line further and further with things like our seafood tower dress. That was one that we were like, this is going to be very insider baseball, this is just for us. Now it's a best-seller.

Photo by Rachel Antonoff

MT: It is! I’m on the edge of my seat waiting for the extended sizing to drop because that dress is my most coveted item.

RA: It's coming soon!

MT: I agree that there’s been a shift in the way we dress in the past few years, more of a mentality of dressing however the f*** you want. I'm really curious to know where the ideas come from for the various food items, like your key lime pie dress. Can you tell me about your process?

RA: Well, I'm a truly heinous cook, but a prolific baker. My brother described my cooking perfectly, which is that the best thing I made is something that you would still at least consider sending back at a restaurant.

MT: Hell yeah, so nice of him.

RA: That's what it is though! So I don't even really bother cooking, but I love to bake. It's a true hobby, and it brings me joy. A lot of our design ideas come from whatever I'm baking at the time, but the key lime pie print was the first print where we actually took pictures of a bunch of my pies and used those photos to make the print. I feel really proud because those are actual pies on the dress.

MT: What an incredible transformation! The pie goes from being a physical thing to a photo on a screen and then back into a physical thing that someone can wear. It's pretty special.

RA: And then you can eat a pie in it!

MT: Pie-ception!

RA: My key lime pie obsession has been going on for over a year, so there aren't really that many new things to take from my baking because… we're still on pie.

MT: That’s kind of a good problem, right?

RA: Actually, my friends and family are legitimately annoyed. I’ve told them they can say no, that they don't have to taste the pie anymore, but my immediate family still tastes it. My mom’s cholesterol is bad now, which she’s credited to the baking.

MT: What inspired the key lime, specifically?

RA: My friend and I went to Florida to visit his parents, which is where I discovered and fell in love with key lime pie. I mean, I always liked it, but I started making them a year ago when we did that. Now that I’ve started making them for myself—this is hideous to say—but I actually think I like mine better.

MT: I think that means you’re a pastry chef now?

RA: I’ll be quoting you on that.

MT: Speaking of pastry chefs, I feel like you have so many special connections with people in food. How do you relate to the food industry as a whole?

RA: I think the best parts of fashion are the bits that overlap with everything good about food, which is silliness and fun and sharing and community. Whenever I meet someone who actually works in food, it's so cool and exciting to me, I'm just such a fan. Like one of my friends, this guy Alex Hong. He has a restaurant in San Francisco called Sorrel and they just got a Michelin star. It's the sort of food where I don’t even understand the sum of whatever the parts were that came to make it, his cooking is so wildly impressive. Otherwise, I'm just a fan of food people, like Caroline Schiff and Nicole Rucker, I’m in awe of their abilities. And yeah, it does inspire me in terms of design. Caroline and I have been talking about doing a baked Alaska piece of some sort.

MT: A Baked Alaska collab with Caroline would be so perfect.

RA: She also had this great idea of hosting a Seder dinner together.

MT: That would be so beautiful! How do cultural traditions like those influence your designs?

RA: I think another thing clothes and food have in common is a deep connection to nostalgia. I've noticed that with the stuff we make, there are certain niche foods that are sort of zeitgeisty because they're so nostalgic. Like, we all like french fries, we all like pizza. But there's something about a rainbow cookie that feels like your grandmother's house or a comforting shiva.

MT: It's a specificity of time place with foods like the rainbow cookie, while pizza and French fries are really anywhere and everywhere.

RA: Exactly. And yeah, we've all come together and decided we like french fries. We know. We get it. But no one's making french fries their personality, whereas I feel like it is very comforting in a lonely world to find that connection point of like, "Oh, I too love that specific food that is maybe specific to both of our cultures."

MT: Yeah, absolutely. I think the boom of your wackiest, ultra-specific food designs during COVID, a time when we were all searching for that sort of connectivity, makes so much sense. If we could wear those designs at the same time even though we couldn’t physically be together, it was almost like we were still in community with each other in that way. Do you think you’ll keep designing food-centric pieces?

Photo by Rachel Antonoff
Photo by Rachel Antonoff

RA: Definitely, I think those are here to stay for us. I feel like I never know how to predict trends, but I do think that food and animals (as they relate to fashion) are probably never really going anywhere. They’re both shared identity things that I think we love to be able to identify in another person, like I'm a cat person, or you’re a dog person. That connects us.

MT: It’s almost like you know so much about a person from their favorite food immediately. Like, you love seafood towers? I know exactly what it would be like to hang out with you. What’s your favorite food? And you can't say key lime pie.

RA: I couldn't possibly not break it down into categories. I really love a great pancake and I love to push for pancakes for the table, especially when I know that not everyone's going to really want them.

MT: You'll eat them mostly.

RA: Yeah, I'm absolutely doing that, but if that's not a thing, I will just order the pancakes. It's so fun to be able to go back and forth with different bites of different dishes.

MT: To have both the sweet and the savory!

RA: Exactly. I've realized as I've gotten older and continue to be single and therefore often exploring this world on my own, I really refuse to not taste all the dishes I want just because I'm eating alone. Granted, this is a very privileged approach, but I got a reservation at Lilia a few weeks ago where it's impossible to even get in the first place, so I wasn’t going to go in order and just order one pasta.

MT: No, you have to order a lot of things, and you will probably take them home and enjoy the leftovers for a long time.

RA: That’s exactly what I did. I had leftovers for days and it was thrilling. Expensive? Yes. But I don't want to just have the pancakes, metaphorically and literally.

What's your favorite food memory? Tell us in the comments below!
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  • Smaug
Madison Trapkin

Written by: Madison Trapkin

Former Associate Editor, Food52


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Smaug April 5, 2023
A proper key lime pie isn't baked. True, few people make them that way anymore- most give them at least a perfunctory oven time- but still, the title jars a little.