Telfar Clemens: “I’m Creating Something Bigger Than Fashion”

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In the pages of our new issue, the New York-based designer talks originality, inclusivity and the importance of maintaining your artistic integrity

This article appears in the Autumn/Winter 2021 issue of AnOther Magazine:

When Telfar Clemens went to sign the contract for his new home in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, he spotted a woman walking into the house next door carrying a box-shaped, medium-sized orange shopping tote with double shoulder straps, top handles and an embossed TC logo. She looked at him, pointed at the bag and realised her new neighbour was the designer behind her Bushwick Birkin, a nickname coined by multimedia artist Xya Rachel for the faux-leather Bloomingdale’s-inspired shopping bag. “It’s everywhere, I see it on people all day,” says Clemens. “Whenever we meet someone with it, we’re immediately connected because they get us,” adds Babak Radboy, the artistic director of Clemens’s label Telfar. “That’s what makes our customers so special.”

Radboy has known Clemens, now 36, since the two were teenagers. “We don’t know where we met because we were just in the same spaces with the same friends, as kids in New York who look like us are,” says Radboy, who was born in the Iranian capital, Tehran, in the midst of the country’s revolution in 1978. Like Clemens, who was born and raised in LeFrak City, Queens, Radboy spent his adolescent years in New York, where they crossed paths while growing up. But it wasn’t until 2013, when he started dating Telfar stylist Avena Gallagher (now his partner and the mother of their six-year-old son, Malcolm Rae), that Radboy – who is also known for his creative direction on Kanye West’s video for Power, the Middle East-focused arts publication Bidoun and the art and fashion line Shanzhai Biennial – officially began working with Clemens. “When Avena and I moved in together, Telfar would always be having fittings at our house and I just slowly started to get involved in the business. I’d always wanted to work with him but I also needed to pay my rent,” he says with a laugh. “So I got a big job in 2013, designing stuff for a video game and, after that, I decided to take three months out and work with Telfar, and I just got hooked. Out of all the people I knew, I saw what he was doing as the most forward-thinking.”

Despite its popular moniker, the Telfar shopping bag is worlds apart from the rarefied, much-fetishised Birkin by Hermès – its leather is fake, its price point markedly accessible and its availability egalitarian, shattering traditional expectations of cult items and It bags. When Clemens won the CFDA award for American Accessories Designer of the Year in 2020, he used his prize fund to scale up production, offering an unlimited number of bags available for pre-order over a 24-hour period. The now-signature staple had gone viral a year earlier – everyone from Oprah to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to people travelling to and from work on the streets of Brooklyn had it, each new drop selling out almost before its arrival had been announced. Perception of Clemens’s namesake label, already successful and acclaimed, changed palpably.

That bag is big – actually, it comes in three sizes – but Telfar is about far more. Since its inception in 2005, the brand has spearheaded the celebration of gender fluidity and inclusivity. Its debut at Paris Fashion Week for Spring/Summer 2020 was inspired by the archetype of a newly arrived immigrant in the western world, known in the West African diasporic community as Johnny Just Come. Described by Clemens as “you’ve-just-come-to this-country kind of style”, the looks combined new and second-hand clothes in the form of running shorts over fishnets, hoodies with starched collars underneath and his most recognisable design to date: a sporty tank top with straps askew. Clemens hybridises unexpected fabrics and cuts – his cargo-blended jean shorts are a prime example – to not only subvert traditional clothing but also ideas of sexuality, reimagining Americana and celebrating Black queerness. Catering to all is what Telfar is about.

“I’m creating something bigger than fashion,” he says. Moments before we talk, he is announced as the official designer of Liberia’s 2020 Olympic kit (Clemens is Liberian American, with both parents hailing from the West African country; the kit is made up of flag-print tights, unitards and thigh-split joggers, true to the Telfar touch). A few days later, he unveils a new drop for his long-standing Converse collaboration – he’s a busy man. Then there’s the alliance with Ugg, a brand Clemens dreamt of partnering with as soon as he laid eyes on the much-maligned shearling boots. Just as the Telfar bag is the must-have today, Uggs were the boot du jour of the Noughties. Kate Moss and Paris Hilton wore them regularly, as did teenage schoolgirls on the local high street. The fuzzy pieces of footwear, most popular in their chestnut shade, were adored for how ugly they were.

Clemens has designed a range of cosy loungewear-cum-underwear and shearling-trimmed accessories, seamlessly blending his own logo with Ugg’s newly retro aesthetic. “With Telfar, we don’t follow a specific fashion diet when it comes to images and inspiration,” Radboy says. “We follow a daily-life diet – when Ugg boots were a huge phenomenon, the whole thing was that they looked horrible yet we all had them. That’s the fashion dream. They were so weird and yet still the most normal thing. What’s cool is that fashion had nothing to do with dictating that.”

Prioritising this sense of punter power fits Telfar’s direct-to-consumer business model and the brand’s slogan “Not For You – For Everyone”. Culture and accessibility have been key from the start. Clemens launched his label while studying at Pace University, when his designs were worn by like-minded friends and an intimate cohort of queer people of colour immersed in the New York party scene. Inspired by the visual and cultural essences of local neighbourhoods in the city, and combined with his genderless objective and attainable price points, Clemens’s clothes offered something new. “We’ve always been very much about the real world,” he says. “You’re going to see it around you in your day-to-day life before it gets in the magazines. We’re turned on by entertainment, TV and what’s actually going on in the culture sphere globally, on a mass level where every single person sees it, not just a select few who are part of an exclusive group.”

For both Clemens and Radboy, following their own vision is of utmost importance – a vision that has, ironically, inspired numerous imitators. Some of these have caused outrage on social media, stirring up conversations about copycat culture and the notion of major fashion companies ‘borrowing’ ideas from smaller, independent and Black-owned brands. “What I’ve been making, I’ve been making since the early 2000s. People ‘borrow’ that constantly and then forget where it came from,” says Clemens. “If you’re making a thing and you’re known for it, keep making it. How many people are trying to make a version of our bag? But it doesn’t come with me in it, so it won’t ever work.” As for those claiming that they’re merely paying homage, he has one question: “Aren’t you a little embarrassed? Just make your own thing instead of trying to pay homage to someone who is literally still here doing theirs.”

Genderless garments and viral bags aside, Telfar’s ‘thing’ is giving back. The brand uses fashion as a social act, most notably through its collaboration with American fast-food chain White Castle. Their relationship began in 2015, when the chain agreed to sponsor the Telfar Spring/ Summer 2016 show. He has recently designed unisex uniforms for White Castle’s 100th anniversary – royal blue and black logo-printed T-shirts, wide-collared polos, aprons, visors and durags, in the label’s typical slouchy-slinky shapes – and has made pieces available as a limited edition collection for his clientele. Proceeds from this range are being donated to Robert F Kennedy Human Rights, an organisation whose work has included contributing to bail funds to help those who are unable to pay bail themselves. Similarly, Telfar’s partnership with the Liberian Olympics team marks another move with significance: in the biggest external investment the company has made, it also paid for the team, plus its officials and sports staff, to attend the Games. Clemens himself was even invited to travel to Tokyo with the Liberian delegation. “It’s really funny because my entire life, I hated the idea of a uniform. I purposely failed any entry exam for high schools where you had to wear a uniform because the only freedom I had in my childhood was how I was able to dress,” Clemens says. “The idea of making uniforms now and dressing everybody has a sense of ubiquity, but it’s also about having a thing that’s new and that you remember from that year.”

Clemens built his reputation in the New York City creative scene when he was a teenager, doubling as a DJ and designer. He created a circle of friends in the same space, including Hood By Air designer Shayne Oliver, who became his partner in crime on the New York nightlife scene. Together they were regulars at underground events such as GHE20G0TH1K and hosted the kind of fashion week after-parties that catapulted them into socialite status. This fun-loving nature is reflected in Telfar’s campaigns – a recent Ugg campaign featured cast members of Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Potomac, with the statement “Fuck the Police” at the end of it. Why? Because they can. “It’s who we are. We do what we want, when we want,” Clemens says. Adds Radboy: “One of our rules when collaborating with brands is that they get no say in what we decide to do with our campaigns. They’re not even invited to the shoot.” This principle of freedom will no doubt be its recipe for a long-standing legacy. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years, not for anyone else but for myself and the people around me,” Clemens says. “Right now, that number is growing and it’s great. But one thing I’ll never do is seek validation from anyone. I’m just trying to keep things as me as possible.”

Benjamin Muller at MA and Talent using DYSON. Make-up: Vassilis Theotokis at MA and Talent using BYREDO. Model: Michelle Laff at Next. Casting: Noah Shelley at Streeters. Movement director: Ryan Chappell. Set design: César Sebastien at Swan Management. Manicure: Béatrice Eni at Saint Germain using BYREDO. Digital tech: Daniele Sedda at Sheriff Project. Photographic assistants: Clément Dauvent, Aurélien Hatt and Jeanne Le Louarn. Styling assistants: Nicola Neri and Sara Maria Perilli. Hair assistant: Alexandra Adams. Make-up assistant: Clara Barban-Dangerfield. Set-design assistant: Enzo Selvatici. Production: Kitten Paris

This article appears in the Autumn/Winter 2021 issue of AnOther Magazine which will is on sale internationally now. Head here to purchase a copy.