Telfar Clemens’ New Direction for American Fashion

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Telfar A/W19 fall 2019 collection new york fashion week
Telfar A/W19Photography by Chandler Kennedy

Telfar is reformatting the traditional New York Fashion Week catwalk show into an entirely different experience

“It’s great for those who present that way, we just like to do our shows differently,” says Telfar founder Telfar Clemens of the traditional runway presentation format – one which the New York-based brand eschewed for a third season in favour of an immersive experience. For A/W18, Clemens (fresh from winning the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award) presented what he described as a “mini rock concert”; last season, the designer invited musicians Moses Sumney, Oyinda and Butch Dawson to perform at the show as models wearing the S/S19 collection. And this time around, for his A/W19 presentation, Oyinda and Dawson performed yet again, alongside Ho99o9 and Na-Kel Smith, in what he says is “a continuation of our Telfar world tour show model”.

This season, however, audience participation became the real focus, with the usually hallowed and untouchable front row becoming the catwalk itself in a literal hands-on approach choreographed by artist Xavier Cha. Models, dressed in Telfar’s latest offering, fell into the outstretched arms of attendees forming a mosh pit at New York’s Irving Plaza, a ballroom concert venue founded in 1978, and were carried across the crowd. “The location Irving Plaza is iconic – it’s very ‘NYC concert chick’,” says Clemens. “We thought it would be a beautiful setting for the crowd-surfing and for the live performance.”

It was – the packed room reverberated with a soundtrack by Total Freedom and words by playwright Jeremy O. Harris, who penned a monologue in response to the show’s title, COUNTRY. Telfar also partnered with streetwear platform Slam Jam, which was founded in 1989 as a similarly multidisciplinary venture, and the collection was created in celebration of Black Future(s) Month, an initiative of Black Lives Matter that takes place in February each year. 

Telfar A/W19 solidified the brand’s raison d’être: the blurring of performance art, music, politics and fashion. “From the beginning, we wanted to do something to the audience’s bodies – to change this relationship between performer and spectator,” Telfar told AnOther in August 2018 after staging project Not For You, For Everyone, at The Serpentine, a democratic sentiment which echoes in COUNTRY.

“What we do is an ongoing narrative which is a way of processing where we find ourselves in the moment,” says Telfar’s creative director Babak Radboy, who has known Clemens since he was 17. “From when I met him, Telfar was the person pushing back against the aesthetics of authenticity and examining what the present actually looks like.”