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Unzipping the Story of Fashion Cafe

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In the spring of 1995, Italian brothers/entrepreneurs Tommaso and Francesco Buti opened the first Fashion Cafe in New York City's Rockefeller Center. It was an attempt to meld two hallmarks of the 1990s: theme restaurants and supermodels. Having enlisted Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, and Elle Macpherson to be the faces of the business, the Buti brothers believed that patrons would flock to a chain of eateries celebrating haute couture design and glamour.

They also believed that customers would walk out with a souvenir from the attached gift shops, including a $28 polyester T-shirt. The Butis imagined that Fashion Cafe would mirror the success of Planet Hollywood, another celebrity-endorsed eatery, which featured sizzling nachos served next to Sylvester Stallone’s Lucite-encased boxing trunks.

Unfortunately, it took less than three years for the Cafe’s eight locations to shutter and for the Butis to be indicted for fraud, money laundering, and conspiracy. From that point on, the only runway that concerned them was the one that could get them on the next plane back to Italy.

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Tommaso Buti came to the United States in 1989 for what he described as a “fresh start” after feuding with his wealthy father. According to a 1997 profile in New York Magazine, Buti had actually left Florence, Italy in the wake of passing 51 bad checks and promissory notes.

Calling it a “financial problem,” Buti dismissed the $30,000 to $40,000 in dispute. “We’re not talking about $3 million,” he said. It was an inadvertent bit of foreshadowing.

Immediately upon Buti’s arrival in New York, he ingratiated himself into the upper classes of Manhattan's social scene. After befriending an Italian real estate magnate, Buti developed connections that would prove invaluable to his future business pursuits. One friend, Luca Orlandi, was model Naomi Campbell’s ex-boyfriend; Kevin Costner often accompanied Buti to nightclubs.

After investments in a deli and an Italian restaurant, Buti set his sights on something larger. He noted that the mass media of the 1990s was preoccupied with supermodels, the ultra-famous clothing mannequins who populated fashion shows, television commercials, magazine covers, and music videos. Models like Macpherson and Schiffer had become A-list celebrities, and Buti wanted to parlay their fame into his existing knowledge of the restaurant business.

Although he would later describe the models as “part owners,” their involvement in what would become the Fashion Cafe held virtually no risk. Buti offered Schiffer, Macpherson, and Campbell $50,000 to $100,000 for every personal appearance they’d make at a restaurant opening, plus a percentage of the chain's future profits. Turlington, who initially dismissed the concept as “tacky,” ended up agreeing to the deal as well.

Like Planet Hollywood, Fashion Cafe would be less about gastronomy and more about the “experience” of dining in a themed space. Bustiers and dresses worn by the models hung from the walls in glass cases, frozen in form-fitting poses as though they were inhabited by invisible bodies; a runway ran the length of the dining room; the front door was designed to look like a camera lens. The adjoining gift shop carried everything from those aforementioned T-shirts to $1500 leather jackets.

There was, however, an obvious disconnect with Buti’s idea: The models endorsing his business wore designer clothes, not touristy T-shirts, and the menu items named after them—Claudia’s New York Strip Steak, Naomi’s Fish and Chips—were not likely to have come from the women's personal recipe books. But Buti dismissed any incongruity. “The public is not that educated and not that interested” about the finer points of the industry, he told New York in 1995. “They want to see more the glamour and the entertainment of fashion.”

After the first Fashion Cafe opened in New York in April of 1995, other eateries popped up in a handful of locations around the globe, including New Orleans, London, and Jakarta. Thanks to the presence of the supermodels, Buti was able to entice a number of investors to fund the $30 million venture, many of them simply because they were eager to find themselves in closer proximity to the fashion world and its attractive population. Buti threw lavish parties and presented an image of wealth, influence, and success—an image that was, for the most part, an illusion.

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Not long after opening, the Fashion Cafe began to find itself in the very non-glamourous world of litigation. One of the first groups to raise concerns was Rockefeller Center, which charged that the business was six months behind on rent and utilities. Suppliers began refusing to deliver goods unless they were paid in advance. There was clearly a cash flow problem.

In 2000, The New York Times identified the source of the blockage: the Butis. According to the paper, Francesco and Tommaso were being indicted on 51 federal counts each of fraud, money laundering, and conspiracy. The Feds alleged that the brothers told investors they had sunk their own money into the venture when they had not, and that they had misappropriated the funds by diverting them into their own pockets. By that point, many of the Cafe's locations had closed. Tommaso had resigned from the business in 1998, selling his slice to a Mexican clothing firm.

At the time of the indictment, Francesco was already considered a fugitive, having fled back to Italy. Although Tommaso was arrested in Milan, neither man wound up coming back to America to face their charges. Before the federal indictment was handed down, Tommaso told New York that he “never took anything from the company.”

Fashion Cafe is now a footnote in the ‘90s theme restaurant craze—one that also gave us Hulk Hogan’s Pastamania. But Buti was right about one thing: People did leave with T-shirts. The Cafe sold 28,000 of them in their first four months of operation.

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The Truth Is In Here: Unlocking Mysteries of the Unknown
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In the pre-internet Stone Age of the 20th century, knowledge-seekers had only a few options when they had a burning question that needed to be answered. They could head to their local library, ask a smarter relative, or embrace the sales pitch of Time-Life Books, the book publishing arm of Time Inc. that marketed massive, multi-volume subscription series on a variety of topics. There were books on home repair, World War II, the Old West, and others—an analog Wikipedia that charged a monthly fee to keep the information flowing.

Most of these were successful, though none seemed to capture the public’s attention quite like the 1987 debut of Mysteries of the Unknown, a series of slim volumes that promised to explore and expose sensational topics like alien encounters, crop circles, psychics, and near-death experiences.

While the books themselves were well-researched and often stopped short of confirming the existence of probing extraterrestrials, what really cemented their moment in popular culture was a series of television commercials that looked and felt like Mulder and Scully could drop in at any moment.

Airing in the late 1980s, the spots drew on cryptic teases and moody visuals to sell consumers on the idea that they, too, could come to understand some of life's great mysteries, thanks to rigorous investigation into paranormal phenomena by Time-Life’s crack team of researchers. Often, one actor would express skepticism (“Aliens? Come on!”) while another would implore them to “Read the book!” Inside the volumes were scrupulously-detailed entries about everything from the Bermuda Triangle to Egyptian gods.

Inside a volume of 'Mysteries of the Unknown'
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Mysteries of the Unknown grew out of an earlier Time-Life series titled The Enchanted World that detailed some of the fanciful creatures of folklore: elves, fairies, and witches. Memorably pitched on TV by Vincent Price, The Enchanted World was a departure from the publisher’s more conventional volumes on faucet repair, and successful enough that the product team decided to pursue a follow-up.

At first, Mysteries of the Unknown seemed to be a non-starter. Then, according to a 2015 Atlas Obscura interview with former Time-Life product manager Tom Corry, a global meditation event dubbed the "Harmonic Convergence" took place in August 1987 in conjunction with an alleged Mayan prophecy of planetary alignment. The Convergence ignited huge interest in New Age concepts that couldn’t be easily explained by science. Calls flooded Time-Life’s phone operators, and Mysteries of the Unknown became one of the company’s biggest hits.

"The orders are at least double and the profits are twice that of the next most successful series,'' Corry told The New York Times in 1988.

Time-Life shipped 700,000 copies of the first volume in a planned 20-book series that eventually grew to 33 volumes. The ads segued from onscreen skeptics to directly challenging the viewer ("How would you explain this?") to confront alien abductions and premonitions.

Mysteries of the Unknown held on through 1991, at which point both sales and topics had been exhausted. Time-Life remained in the book business through 2003, when it was sold to Ripplewood Holdings and ZelnickMedia and began to focus exclusively on DVD and CD sales.

Thanks to cable and streaming programming, anyone interested in cryptic phenomena can now fire up Ancient Aliens. But for a generation of people who were intrigued by the late-night ads and methodically added the volumes to their bookshelves, Mysteries of the Unknown was the best way to try and explain the unexplainable.

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Sally Died of Dysentery: A History of The Oregon Trail
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MECC

The eighth grade students sat and watched as Don Rawitsch dragged an enormous device into their classroom. It was December 3, 1971, and Rawitsch—a student teacher at Carleton College outside of Minneapolis who taught history at a local grade school—was ready to show off what his roommates, Paul Dillenberger and Bill Heinemann, had managed to create in only two weeks of programming and with limited, amateur coding skills: a game called The Oregon Trail.

There was no screen to focus on. The computer’s interface was a teletype machine, which spat out instructions and the consequences of a player’s actions on sheets of paper. Adopting the well-worn shoes of settlers migrating from Missouri to Oregon in 1848, the students debated how best to spend their money, when to stop and rest, and how to deal with the sudden and unexpected illnesses that plagued their game counterparts. Rawitsch even supplied them with a map of the journey so they could visualize the perils ahead.

The students loved it: The Oregon Trail would eventually morph from a part-time experiment in guided learning to a staple of classrooms across the country. Kids who had never before heard of diphtheria or cholera would bemoan such cruel fates; tens of thousands of people would (virtually) drown trying to cross rivers; more than 65 million copies would be sold.

But Rawitsch was oblivious to the cultural touchstone The Oregon Trail would become. He didn't foresee the simple game having much of a shelf life beyond the semester, so at the end of the year, he deleted it.

 
 

As low-tech as it was, the first version of The Oregon Trail was still miles ahead of anything Rawitsch could have imagined when he set about trying to engage his students. As a 21-year-old history major, Rawitsch was young enough to realize that his teenaged students needed something more provocative than dry textbooks. In the fall of 1971, he decided to create a board game based on the precarious movement of 19th-century travelers looking to head west to improve their living conditions.

On a large piece of butcher’s paper, he drew a map that provided a rough outline of the 2000-mile journey from Independence, Missouri to Willamette Valley, Oregon. Along the way, players would have to contend with a morbid series of obstacles: fire, inclement weather, lack of food, outdated sicknesses, and, frequently, death. Every decision played a part in whether or not they'd make it to the end without keeling over.

A screen shot from 'The Oregon Trail'
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Rawitsch showed his idea for the board game to Dillenberger and Heinemann, two other seniors from Carleton, who both had experience coding using the BASIC computer language. They suggested Rawitsch’s game would be perfect for a text-based adventure using teletype. A player could, for example, type “BANG” in order to shoot oxen or deer, and the computer would identify how fast and how accurately the typist finished the command—the quicker they were, the better chance they had of securing dinner.

Rawitsch liked the idea, but he was due to start teaching westward expansion in just a couple weeks, so there was no time to waste. Heinemann and Dillenberger worked after-hours for two weeks to get The Oregon Trail ready. When it made its debut that December day in 1971, Rawitsch knew he had a hit—albeit a transient one. Like a teacher who had supervised a special crafts project for a specific classroom, Rawitsch didn’t see a need to retain The Oregon Trail for the future and promptly deleted it from the school’s mainframe system.

Dillenberger and Heinemann took permanent teaching jobs after graduation; Rawitsch found his number called up in the draft. He declared himself a conscientious objector and as part of that found work at the newly-formed Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), a state-sponsored program that sought to modernize public schools with computing supplies. It was 1974, and Rawitsch believed he had the perfect software to go along with their initiative: The Oregon Trail. Even though he had deleted the game, Rawitsch had kept a printout of the code.

Typing it in line by line, Rawitsch had the game back up and running and available to students across Minnesota. This time, he consulted actual journal entries of settlers to see when and where danger might strike and programmed the game to intervene at the appropriate places along the path. If a real traveler had endured a 20 percent chance of running out of water, so would the player.

Rawitsch got permission from Dillenberger and Heinemann to repurpose the game for MECC. It’s unlikely any one of the three of them realized just how much of an institution the game would become, or how MECC's business partner, Apple—then an upstart computer corporation—would revolutionize the industry.

By 1978, MECC was partnering with the hardware company to sell Apple IIs and learning software to school districts around the country. Rather than being a regional hit, The Oregon Trail—now sporting primitive screen graphics—was becoming a national fixture in classrooms.

 
 

For much of the 1980s and 1990s, school computer classes across America devoted at least some portion of their allotted time to the game. The covered wagon and its misadventures offered something that vaguely resembled the hypnotic, pixely worlds waiting for students on their Nintendo consoles at home. In that respect, The Oregon Trail felt a little less like learning and a lot more like entertainment—although completing the journey in one piece was an unusual occurrence. More often, players would be defeated by malnutrition or drowning in attempts to cross a river. They'd also be confounded by the idea they could hunt and kill a 2000-pound animal but were able to take only a fraction of it back to their wagon. (Confronted with this during a Reddit Ask Me Anything in 2016, Rawitsch noted that "the concept represented there is supposed to be that the meal will spoil, not that it's too heavy," and suggested incorporating a "fridge with a 2000-mile extension cord.")

A screen shot from 'The Oregon Trail'
MECC

An updated version, Oregon Trail II, debuted on CD-ROM in 1995. MECC would change hands a few times, being acquired by venture capitalists and then by the Learning Company, and was even owned for a period of time by Mattel. Attempts to update it with flashy graphics felt contrary to the spirit of the game; like the settlers it depicted, The Oregon Trail seemed to belong to another era.

Today, both Dillenberger and Heinemann are retired; Rawitsch is a tech consultant. None of them received any profit participation for the software. Their joint effort was inducted into the World Video Game Hall of Fame in 2016 and was adapted into a card game that same year. Today, players of the popular role-playing game Minecraft can access a virtual Oregon Trail world; the original game is also playable in browsers. Technology may have advanced, but you can still die of dysentery as often as you like.

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