Haute caffeine: would you spend £6 on a 'designer' espresso?

Haute couture coffee is taking off in the capital – but who actually eats the cake?
Haute couture coffee is taking off in the capital – but who actually eats the cake?

The world of high fashion is buzzing thanks to a new trend: haute caffeine. Flat whites, espressos and cakes to go with them are currently on offer from some of the most prestigious brands in London, with a Ralph Lauren coffee pop-up currently running in the New Bond Street shop, a Fendi cafe at Harrods, and the Prada bakery, Marchesi 1824, which opened in May.

When I visited the latter, Italians who loved the original “destination” Prada cafe in Milan peered into the glass-fronted Mayfair version, doors away from Oscar de la Renta, Nicholas Kirkwood and Christopher Kane, eagerly awaiting its opening.

"I've been waiting for this opening because it's a very famous bakery in Milan," said Renata Kostner, who had been outside since 8am. "It's on a very famous street, Santa Maria alla Porta and it's – how you say? – a destination."

Kostner was not eating the expensive slices of £8 panettone Marchesi is famous for, but two tiny £6 espressos sit between her and a friend.

“Is that Prada?” I asked, pointing at her puffer jacket.

“Yes, last season,” she answered with a smile. “I run in it.”

And, with a lot of "grazie milles", they were off, having paid a £56 bill for two coffees and some chocolates (“for a friend”).

Will high-fashion fans eat doughnuts stuffed with cream and the other elaborately saccharine products on display in Prada's glass cabinets? Possibly not. These are ambitious places designed as much for Instagram as for a hit of caffeine and a slice of cake.

Yet however beautiful the gleaming green, pink and gold venue, paying £6 for two sips of espresso does seem ridiculous (even if it is Fairtrade, organic and made from the finest Prada-approved beans). The customers I spoke to, however, don't bat at eyelid at the bill. 

Loyal to its brand's style, Ralph's Coffee (which opened last month inside the flagship store on London's New Bond Street and runs until July 21), is all green and white stripes, with green banquets lined with huge cushions framing half a dozen small marble tables for two. A counter offers bell jars of hand-sized cookies and brownie triangles made using Lauren’s grandmother’s recipe. 

The exterior of Ralph's Coffee

Coffee comes in highly Instagrammable large white mugs with the signature green swirl of the Ralph's Coffee logo, but here is less audaciously priced. In fact, you could get three £2 espressos for the price of one at Prada.

Fashionable macchiatos and lattes at Ralph's range between £3 and £3.50 (about average, in London at least) and are made using a special blend of Central, South American and African beans, all organic, roasted and decaffeinated with an “all-natural Swiss Water Process”.

Built right in the entrance of the store, it's fun sitting among the beautifully decked-out displays of Ming-style vases filled with croquet mallets and stacks of this season's collections. Mannequins oversee the room, like headless maître d's, in cuffed jeans and £140 cricket-style cotton jumpers paired with blazers and ties. If you can't afford any of the clothes, at least you can afford a cappuccino.

Two things, though, are surprising. Firstly, the reasonable pricing, and secondly the fact that the coffee is quite good. Two smartly dressed women sit next to me by the door, iPhones on the table, sipping flat whites, taking in the atmosphere and admiring the stylish waitresses, in their white Oxford shirts and green knit ties.

“Isn't it lovely,” one of them coos. “And so handy,” she adds, clearly an employee of one of New Bond Street's prestigious firms. “The coffee's actually really quite good,” the other agrees. They take pictures and eventually return, unhurriedly, to work.

The interior of Ralph's Coffee

It is interesting to observe how each fashion house tries to embody itself in cafe form. At Harrods, the Fendi Caffe is perhaps the most bling, with the brand's double “F” logo printed into the foam of each coffee (as Vivienne Westwood does at her place in Hong Kong), as well as emblazoned on the tables, crockery and walls.

The futuristic, black-and-white theme has a touch of hairdressing salon to it, but the place serves a full Italian menu of bruschettas for up to £16.50 and mains of gnocchi or chorizo meatballs for around £17.

The coffee menu almost matches Marchesi's, too, with a double espresso at £5.25 and everything else around £6. It is Harrods, so we'd expect nothing less, but again – can a coffee ever really justify a price-tag like this? 

Here, it seems that haute couture might almost have learnt something from the high-street. Wasn't Marks & Spencer one of the first to launch cafes in shops that catered for those wanting a break? These new, high-end versions pander to a social-media obsessed world but when food has become so fashionable, why wouldn't fashion take on food?