The year of Telfar

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The year of Telfar
The designer Telfar Clemens, center, in the crowd at the Telfar show at Irving Plaza in New York, Feb. 7, 2019. The queer Liberian-American designer became the success story of the pandemic — now he wants to smash the old fashion system to bits. Nina Westervelt/The New York Times.

by Vanessa Friedman

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- In January, around the time word first began to leak of COVID-19 in China, Telfar Clemens, the queer Liberian American designer who has been preaching the gospel of inclusivity for 15 years, had a wine-drenched banquet and sleepover for more than 40 of his closest creative collaborators and friends at the Pitti Palace, a former home of the Medicis in Florence, Italy.

They dined and danced and reveled in his new collection courtesy of Pitti Uomo, the menswear organization that had invited Clemens to be the guest star of the season (despite the fact that his clothes are unisex). The next day, amid the detritus, he let critics and retailers in to see what they had missed.

“It was so elegant,” said Terence Nance, a filmmaker who was there, along with Solange Knowles, Kelela and Michele Lamy. “The master’s tools and money were being used to destroy the master’s house — or at least throw paint at it that he can’t get off.”

It was also the first salvo in a conscious disengagement from the fashion system that Clemens and Babak Radboy, his artistic director and de facto business guru, had been planning for the year.

It would include ignoring the show calendar, refusing invitations to establishment events like the Met Gala, and ending their wholesale business so that they controlled all of their own sales. At the time, rejecting the edifice on which the industry was built seemed kind of “insane,” as Clemens said, but it turned out to be the smartest thing they could have done.

“It was a current that pushed us in the right direction,” Clemens said. “So when COVID came” — when stores canceled orders and runway shows disappeared and events didn’t happen — “rather than knocking us down like everyone else, we just rode that wave.”

In 2020, the year that McKinsey projected that the fashion industry would lose 90% of its profit, Clemens’ business has had, the designer said (and he is wincingly aware of how this may sound, but professionally, it is a fact), “the best year.”

Oprah Winfrey chose the Telfar vegan leather shopping bag as one of her “favorite things.” Issa Rae carried the mini version on “Insecure,” and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gave it a shoutout on Instagram Stories. According to Lyst, the global search platform, the bag was the third most wanted item of the year, and searches for the brand have grown 270% week on week since August.

Clemens, 35, won a Council of Fashion Designers of America Award for best accessories designer and a Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for fashion design, was named the GQ designer of the year, and received the PETA award for Most Wanted for the handbags (even though he is a meat eater and says he “loves plastic bags”).

The bags from an upcoming collaboration with Ugg were the subject of a much-hyped presale in early December, even though they will not be available until next year. Clemens has three more collaborations with major sports brands coming out in 2021 and is mulling over two other offers.

Everything he has always stood for — financial, racial and gender inclusivity; community — is everything that the fashion establishment, in the midst of economic upheaval and a long-overdue racial reckoning, is now desperate to embrace. After years of disenfranchisement because of his background, the color of his skin and his belief system, the industry gatekeepers are practically throwing the keys to their kingdom at Clemens.

But he doesn’t want them. He’s building a kingdom of his own.

The Months of No
“We spent the year saying ‘no,’” Clemens said. He was sitting on a roller office chair in an empty loft space two floors above an identical office with a view of the Manhattan skyline. He recently doubled his headquarters, and leased a 10,000-square-foot warehouse in New Jersey to do his own fulfillment. He was wearing black track pants, a black sweater, black ankle-length Telfar Uggs, a black Telfar knit beanie, a black puffer coat that had been sent to him as a gift (the new space wasn’t heated yet) and a blue medical mask.

Radboy, 37, with owlish wire-rimmed glasses and a scruffy beard, sat in a chair nearby. The only other objects in the space were an old exercise bike Clemens hopped on and pedaled a while, a vintage white wicker peacock chair that had featured in an Instagram video they made to promote the Ugg collaboration, and a big metal Telfar logo: a T cuddled inside a C.

Clemens and Radboy had just returned from Mexico, where they had spent a lot of the summer and early fall, along with Radboy’s wife, stylist Avena Gallagher, and their young son. Radboy and Clemens were both amused and a little wary of their sudden Most Popular status after 15 years of being essentially rejected by fashion. They kept snorting with laughter as they recounted messages that have come in.

“I’m not going to be fooled into thinking I have a place in this thing where I’ve been told I have no place,” Clemens said, rolling around on his chair. “Suddenly this person you never talked to in the entire history of your career is calling.”

Clemens, who grew up in New York and Maryland, got interested in fashion in high school. He started his line in 2005 after graduating from Pace University with a degree in accounting. He lived with his aunt in an apartment in the LeFrak City development in Queens, supporting himself as a model and DJ.

His clothes were unisex from the start, at a time when that word wasn’t really part of the fashion vocabulary. His aesthetic, which could be called “mutant basic,” essentially takes the building blocks of the American wardrobe — jeans, track pants, tank tops, hoodies — grinds them up and reimagines them for an alternate utopia. Denim transmogrifies into chaps, leather morphs into cable knit flares, and sports tops become slinky halter necks.

“He was a one-man show,” said Gallagher, who has been working with Clemens pretty much from the start. “He’d ride his bike into the city with essentially his whole collection on his back in every kind of weather, then ride to midtown to where the patternmakers were, back to Queens to get his CDs, back downtown to the clubs to DJ. In the beginning, he was fueled by this very bouncy-happy energy, but at some points he got really tired. We got really close to calling it quits.”

A Club of Their Own
Clemens may not have had much when he started, but he knew what his clothes were about: “Not for you, for everyone.” He also had that logo (it had been created by a childhood schoolteacher, as a form of his initials) and an unwillingness to compromise.

When Radboy joined full time in 2013, Clemens found a partner (intellectual, not financial; Clemens owns 100% of the business) who could create a structure that made his ideas concrete.

Though Radboy has been compared to Marc Jacobs’ former business partner Robert Duffy, or Yves Saint Laurent’s Pierre Bergé, the two men don’t fit neatly into that mold. Instead of a business brain cosseting the creative genius in his ivory tower, Radboy is more like a wavelength sparring partner, helping to construct a permeable scaffolding for their world.

So for their fall 2019 show, held at Irving Plaza in Manhattan, they enlisted playwright Jeremy O. Harris, who was absorbed into Clemens’ creative community pretty much immediately, to write and perform a monologue.

The idea was to reappropriate the colonial experience so that it was Telfar who was colonizing New York Fashion Week, putting a stake in the ground before he departed to do the same around the world (the next season he was showing in Paris), as the audience writhed in a mosh pit and denizens of Telfar-land dove in.

“It wasn’t malicious,” Harris said. It was to propose the idea that “America lives inside the Black queer brain of an immigrant.”

Since the pandemic began, Clemens and Radboy have been making lots of minifilms with their friends, Instagram shorts that redefine the idea of “show.” They’re like Warholian experiments — push the button and see what comes out — some of which have been part of the Ugg promotion. One featured Clemens dancing around in a backyard in his underwear with classic Ugg boots on his hands.

“That was a bit of a surprise,” said Andrea O’Donnell, the president of Ugg. “But he is who he is.”

O’Donnell said their shared belief that democracy and ubiquity could be aspirational was what drew Ugg to Telfar — an idea almost antithetical to traditional fashion. Which is, Harris said, “predicated on the exclusive and the expensive.” Telfar clothes offer a different option, one where the price of admission isn’t calculated in dollars but in attitude.

“Being a queerdo on the A train in a halter and the sickest pants ever — wearing a silhouette I was socialized to stay away from as a little boy — really excites me,” Harris said. “It’s like saying to those people, ‘I’m part of a club that is so exclusive you’ll never get in, because you’re not brave enough.’ That it won’t break the bank makes it even better.”

Designing the Future
Clemens is largely known for his bags, which were created in 2014, come in three sizes, cost $150 to $257 and have been called “the Bushwick Birkin.” But he and Radboy are planning to make 2021 the year of clothes.

In August they created what they call the “bag security program,” in which bags are sold via preorder on the website. On a specific day of the month, the list opens up, and if you get your name on it and put your money down before the production run (usually 3,000 to 7,000 bags) is spoken for, you are safe in the knowledge that you will get what you want.

At the same time, Clemens and Radboy are secure in the knowledge that they have sidestepped the fashion practice that requires designers to fund their own production, and then pay themselves back after sales.

The bags have become so successful that they plan to use the same strategy for the 30 shows’ worth of samples, many of them never produced, that Clemens has designed over the years. Get ready for the denim security program! The sweater program! The jewelry program!

“Honestly, it’s so miraculous,” said Gallagher, who started being paid only after Clemens won the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award in 2017. (Clemens took his first vacation in 2019.) “There’s this massive body of work that was made and then rarely seen or available and now is more relevant than perhaps ever before, because it is so pure,” she said.

But, Radboy said, the clothes “have to act like the bag."

"They have to be real," he added. "Often a fashion collection is not that. It’s a fantasy world. A $800 tracksuit is not a tracksuit. A $1,000 denim jacket is not a denim jacket. They are tuxedos in different forms. They have nothing to do with any normal person we would hang out with.”

He and Clemens are always asking themselves: “What is this thing? Who is it for? How much could they spend on it?”

Clemens also wants to make a fragrance that smells of “cocoa butter, weed and sweat.” He wants to open a store. “I miss shopping in general,” he said. “Maybe in New Jersey! Queens. American Dream mall. Brooklyn. I would love to ignore Manhattan.” And travel, perhaps taking his show to Liberia or India, places outside the established fashion show circuit.

He and Radboy are thinking about what it would mean to create their own technology platform so they wouldn’t be dependent on, say, Instagram. And they are buying plots of land in a “sleepy town” in a country they won’t reveal, where they plan to build a creative community insulated from the preconceptions of the outside world where friends and families can come to “make stuff.” Clemens is also going to buy himself and his family a house in Queens, close to his roots, which will be the first house they have owned.

“In 2020, everyone no longer knows what’s going to happen, so we get to make up what’s going to happen,” Radboy said. “The disarray makes us feel like so many more things are possible. For years we were treated like the sideshow to the actual industry.” Now, he said, their stance is, “No, we are the actual industry.”

The one thing Clemens says he doesn’t want is investment — or to work for anyone else. He once said he wanted to be Michael Kors, but he now says that was a joke because it speaks to the model that existed, and he wants to be something else. If he has a company in mind, it’s Apple, because it disrupted the way we think about what we need to live now.

The goal, Clemens said, will be: “That guy is wearing that and that girl is wearing that and every single person is wearing that and that’s how people actually look all over the world, which is how I’ve been imagining the world in my head my whole life.”

Harris added: “He has been a kind of prophet in fashion, seeing where the world is headed before anyone else had any idea. There’s a type of fanaticism that happens around people of strong, unadulterated beliefs, and that’s what has happened with him. Telfar World is going to be a place every kid wants to go. I don’t think Telfar is global. I think it’s intergalactic.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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