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Fashion Week McDonald's
Photography Emma Davidson

Why do fashion people love to pose with McDonald’s meals at fashion week?

Fashion is ephemeral, tray posting is forever. Just make sure to get the Kiko Kostadinov Trivia bag in shot please!

The most beautiful thing about Paris is not the Louvre or the Notre Dame or the moment just after they switch on the lamps at the Pont Alexandre III, but any of the capital’s 73 McDonald’s restaurants. With its Golden Arches more famous than the Christian Cross, the fast food chain is an avatar of egalitarian dining, capable of straddling vast geographic and social borders. But its presence in culture is perhaps closer defined by opposition: McDonald’s is also a temple of greed (corporate and personal) that has sat on the fault lines of a public health crisis since the 1980s. Its 99p burgers are as much a guilty pleasure as they are a dartboard for all the anxieties that fester around class, fatness, and mass consumption.

Inelegant and down-market, McDonald’s is the antithesis of Le Cordon Bleu. It’s also one of the last venues you might expect to find magazine editors during Paris Fashion Week, but season after season these people feel compelled to broadcast their McDonald’s meals to an online audience. How unexpected! And quite transgressive? If it’s not a miserable-looking tray strewn in off-putting bits of pale lettuce and discarded burger boxes, then it’s a well-disguised OOTD post captured on the restaurant’s CCTV screens. These uploads jar against the traditional taste values (artisanal, handmade) offered up at fashion week and are almost always captioned with something anodyne like “fashion week essential” or “refuelling” or “needs must!”

Where high-end design boasts of silk charmeuse and chiffon, McDonald’s is better known for chicken beak and bum. “I haven't seen it but it sounds very Carrie Bradshaw, le filet de fish,” says Interview Magazine’s Taylore Scarabelli, referencing a scene in Sex And The City where Bradshaw gives Mr Big a Big Mac in the hopes he might want to take her to Paris. He says no and she lobs a burger in his direction, but the image of SJP clasping her McDonald’s bag is now kryptonite for people who run nostalgic mood-board accounts. And it’s an easy (if not low-hanging) double tap: if American culture is pop culture then McDonald’s must be its spiritual heartland. Posting from a Subway or an Itsu wouldn’t be as Instagrammable. “McDonald’s is the great social connector – who isn’t lovin’ it?” Hannah Tindle, fashion features director of ES says. “Except possibly Gwyneth Paltrow.” 

But it’s also very Rishi Sunak posing with a self-service machine at McDonald’s weeks after someone found footage of him admitting to not having socialised with working-class people. He, like Bradshaw, is willing to stomach the proletariat slop in order to burnish his reputation as being somehow relatable and low-maintenance. In turn, it creates a halo effect; if Sunak is choosing to eat at a McDonald’s then maybe he’s not the out-of-touch billionaire that woke leftists on Twitter are positioning him as. Right? There’s a glib comparison to be drawn between the PM and image-conscious fashion editors: both have found it glamorous to cross the tracks, but that can only ever go in one direction. The freedom to glide between the front row (or the front bench) and a McDonald’s booth is a one-way exchange reserved for those who are accustomed to fancier alternatives. 

Perhaps that’s an ungenerous reading of well-heeled people on the hunt for energy-dense stodge. “These pictures are designed to show that we’re all still human beings with an innate desire for salt, fat, and sugar,” Tindle says. “No matter which ridiculous people we happen to be rubbing shoulders with during fashion week.” Because people tend to crave McDonald’s in times of desperation (being drunk or hungover or broke or too exhausted to go elsewhere) these posts often reiterate the self-sacrifice that comes with fashion week. The expectations to work and show face are legitimately gruelling but tray posting can also be an exercise in public martyrdom: fashion week stole my smile, etc. “Keeping your blood sugar levels stable during the fashion month marathon is a must. And if that comes in the form of a Big Mac meal being inhaled in the space of three seconds in the back of a car, then so be it.”

But this isn’t a question of why people go to McDonald’s during fashion week (they are hungry, probably!) it’s the extent to which it gets aestheticised on the feed. “There's some hilarious taboo in tucking into caviar-stuffed jacket potatoes one meal and then a McFlurry the next,” says Laura Hawkins, fashion features editor of Vogue. “After all, fashion loves a high-low moment. Sure, you might love a €1 cheeseburger but you're also travelling around in a chauffeur-driven car. I think that's why people revel in posting their Maccies pics so much.” The focus of these posts, then, is less on the food itself and more on the reputation of McDonald’s, and when wedged within an IG dump (all runway videos and Barbara Sturm bathroom selfies) a humble tray post is shorthand for ‘I’m not overly concerned with the preciousness and pretension that collects around industry events’. 

The juxtaposition makes for a classic fashion image: one where Victoria’s Secret angels and Karl Lagerfeld dangle pizza and burgers into their mouths, or where high fashion models pose in low-grade diners, or where Moschino borrows from McDondald’s tomato-red and mustard-yellow uniforms. When editorialised by the very institutions that have worked so hard to maintain the distinctions around “good” and “bad” eating habits (Lagerfeld said “no one wants to see curvy women”) the right to fast food is positioned as a moral one. ‘I’m allowed to consume calories because I am thin and successful.’ Even if the people behind these IG posts oppose those attitudes, it helps that they are often slim – but does the tray post compound fashion’s fraught relationship with food? Or is it an innocuous fit pic? “I think it’s a little bit of both,” Tindle says. “But I would like to hope it was more the latter. On a practical level, you do get so hungry between shows that all ‘diet’ rules (if you’re bothering to follow any in the first place) tend to go out the window anyway.”

The spectre of your own status – clinging to job title, follower count, class, or physical appearance – is an ambient companion at fashion week. But McDonald’s (where the rich eat as badly as the poor) offers its customers a level of status anonymity. Menus might cater to local tastes but there’s a uniformity to the restaurants’ design and ambience that creates a setting as familiar as home – you can, quite literally, be anywhere in the world and inside a McDonald’s. And it can be a safe haven from all the candied figs and wax-dipped pears that nobody wants to eat at The Row. “Most people on the show circuit feel out of place and I always find an unbelievable solace in munching on my fave fast food,” Hawkins says, having found herself weeping into a bag of chicken nuggets while first covering the Haute Couture collections. “Particularly when you spend most of your day looking at things that epitomise unattainable luxury and comparing what shoes you are wearing to everyone else’s,” she adds.

Even if it’s just smoke and mirrors (or a low-slung mule and a Kiko Kostadinov bag) tray posting is only perceived as being glamorous when the person behind it has the illusion of status. But there’s also something to be said about that big ‘M’ rising from the depths of fashion season like a fluorescent steeple and spire. “My highest and lowest points at fashion week are all linked to McDonald’s,” Hawkins says. “Crying before a Vetements show in 2018; feeling giddy with joy surrounded by UK press at Malpensa airport after six never-ending days in Milan in 2019. And I've sat in the Maccies next to the Eurostar terminal countless, countless times. No matter how many fancy frites you eat, it’s those chips that always taste the best.” All this is to say: be it in New York, London, Milan, or Paris, we’ll always have McDonald’s.