Telfar Clemens has always been a fashion designer. In fact, he’s never had another job. “I was a daycare assistant once, but I don’t know what I would be doing right now if I wasn’t a designer. I like music. Or maybe I would just marry rich,” he ponders. “The fallback, thanks to your good looks,” laughs Babak Radboy, finishing his sentence. This happens a lot. One starts a sentence, and the other finishes, operating in a sort of separate togetherness that works in perfect harmony. Clemens, 35, brings unfiltered creativity to the brand. His designs are born of his experience — his upbringing in Liberia and Lefrak City, Queens and early New York life as a daytime accounting student in the Financial District and downtown DJ by night —and appeal to a cohort of like-minded fans across the world. Radboy, so astutely tuned in to the world at large, operates as the brand’s creative director, though no one title could really sum up his omniscient influence. Radboy helped Telfar tap into the structural idiosyncrasies of the fashion industry, only to subvert them, benefit, then tap out again.
The community who started with the brand are still loyal to it to this day — a small niche of people on the Lower East Side or in parts of Brooklyn who appreciate, at its core, what Telfar is about. “It’s a bunch of people from all different walks of life. I’ve always understood the proximity between community and conspiracy,” explains Babak. “Community is an easy shorthand word that is understood by journalists and brands, but when a community is put under pressure, its contours change. When you have a community, you ask yourself, how do you create? How do you actually plan to be on the right side of that? How do you nurture the bond and lines of communication so you don’t sound wrong in this context or that context?”
This cover and feature, made up of images. tweets, and Instagram comments of the global Telfar community (selected by Clemens, Radboy and CR’s creative team) — are a hodgepodge of selfies from the stirring to downright absurd — and feels like something that no other brand would do. It’s a democratization of sorts, a tribute to the community that is so critical to what Telfar is doing that they gladly eschew celebrities and models in their branding (and even Clemens himself, who once served as a wild-eyed face of the brand) choosing to put these selfies on a magazine cover instead. They are both the catalyst and the customer — it’s powerful stuff. “It’s one of the best things for me. I’d rather let other people just be on stuff. I’m like, you look great,” Clemens says with a laugh. “And having all those people on the cover of a magazine because they’re supporting us is like everything coming full circle.”
Telfar, you’re someone who kind of thrives on human interaction. I’d be very interested to understand how you’ve been using your time and what you’ve been doing?
Telfar Clemens: “When quarantine started, we had already kind of planned to take a break from the fashion cycle to focus on the business, to assess how we are set up and how we want to continue to build. We had two shows right before the world ended. So after those two shows, it was just really reflecting on the experiences that we had — what we’d like to do, and how to do that more.”
Babak Radboy: “We were weirdly prepared because we had just decided that 2020 was the year that everything was going to change, and that we were going to pull ourselves out of the industry. By the time the lockdown happened, from a work perspective, we were just doing everything exactly on schedule, so there wasn’t an interruption to that. But at the same time, that year before had been such a crazy sprint. We made this film, did a show in New York, and then a show in Paris. And then three months later — did our show in Florence.”
BR: “We had to make our biggest collection ever, faster than we ever did it. Did our most ambitious three shows right in a row. And we were so ready for a vacation.”
TC: “Yeah. It feels like an accomplishment because we definitely did exactly what we planned to do.”
BR: “January to March we did all that, and our sales on the bag were just exponentially growing until the product totally sold out, which was a combination of the sales growing and our factories shutting down because of COVID in China. So when that stuff finally dropped — it was crazy. We didn’t know people were going to be buying bags right now. And we had our biggest sales day in the middle of the lockdown, like at the height of it!”
TC: “And it continued to do that three or four times after that. It keeps growing and growing.”
BR: “So it felt like it all made a lot of sense. In lockdown, I would be looking online at everybody’s Instagrams. Fashion really struggled because, first of all, people were shooting their ads three, four, or five months in advance. And so all of a sudden they didn’t even look like they’re from reality anymore. Or they just ran out of content because of how they shoot stuff. Our shit was just coming out every day looking like that day. It was like the New York Post every day, and I noticed that was not what was happening with other people. We were prepared for it in this weird way because people wanted [to see] things to be how they were and our content is already that.”
Do you read every single comment, tweet, mention, photo? Do you actually go through every single one?
TC: “I used to. In the morning I would look at Twitter and read everything and be able to get through it. I think I was probably the only person doing that. We check Twitter — we don’t use it. I look at it like once a day, maximum.”
I want to bring up social media because, inadvertently or not, it’s become as much of the discourse and conversation around Telfar as any one product. It is almost a product of the brand. I want to know how much that was engineered or how much social media is part of the strategy, if there even is a strategy, which I understand there might not be.
TC: “I think we started to build things just based on the viewer, and the viewer is actually making all the content. We just basically give them a platform to express themselves and see what people that are interested in the product are doing. I think it really started from us just reposting what people posted.”
BR: “Yeah, reposting the bag was definitely on purpose. We were definitely the first people in fashion doing that. What I would say about social media is that it’s just the visible part of something. You look at what we’ve been doing the last few years, it’s a social practice project; the way we do our shows, the way we treat people — it’s a social practice thing every day. And then you have the visible part of that that gets delivered as a visual, fixed product.”
TC: “I remember when Instagram first started; we would post something and it was just such a disconnect, even though it’s exactly kind of the same thing that we’re posting right now. People grew at the same time that we were learning how to interact with the platform. You got likes if you had really big tits, or it was like, oh you have a dog or like, a cookie on a plate.”
BR: “A dog — 10,000 likes.”
TC: “And I didn’t know if I connected with it. Then we started seeing the customer that I actually didn’t see, that person I missed on the street. And if that person and another person had this bag, it starts to build this community of people.”
BR: “And that’s a rare thing. We built it over years, and we built it from an actual core of social practice — there’s a sense of unity in the customer and a sense of community in the customer. The way that this exploded on Twitter was like, Telfar customers battling with resellers. Because there’s actually two different camps of people at the end of the day, and they couldn’t stand each other.”
You’ve got to be the only brand that’s growing in COVID. You’ve really been able to bond people together. I think on the back end in fashion recently, we’ve seen this reactionary embracing of people. You have just remained completely consistent the entire time, which is why you’ll have people coming out getting into like full-on Twitter wars on social media for you. People are going to task like you’re their family.
BR: “Or they’re doing customer support for us. Like if someone asked a question about shipping, there’s 20 people answering. Telfar has always not fit into the world and that is because needed the world to move. And what we’ve seen in the last six months is the world moving fast as fuck. Its shape and direction is falling apart. Every time that happens, that benefits us, because the goalposts, milestones and gatekeepers are not for us. The global pandemic will hurt a bunch of established brands, and we’ll make it obvious — we’ll cut the noise to make it obvious what we’re already doing.”
I know you had plans to turn your show and your show concept into more of a traveling tour. I feel like you have never been scared of this hypercommercialization of the brand. Those huge plans have probably changed since COVID. But what were those plans?
TC: “I think that we want to now be able to have an entertainment sector that goes along with the clothes.”
BR: “It’s culture and entertainment that is going to be properly owned inside of the community. When we did our shows, we were collaborating with musicians, artists, filmmakers, and we could understand the way that their respective industries siloed them, turned whatever was inside them into a career, separated them from each other, never giving them ownership of their work. Musicians are in a fucked-up position. With filmmakers it’s like, ‘oh, it’s so cool that he got to make that movie,’ but they don’t own it, you know? We were making clothes and also not owning the clothes. We were giving everything to someone else. So I think that part of that concern has been, how do we work together to create these expressive forms and deliver them to the people who actually care about them without all of this management and exploitation in the center of it? That’s the core idea. To create a space where people can be creative and communicate.”
“We’ve also learned more about the entertainment industry. Like don’t we already have a TV show? There are more people on our online shop than are watching a show the night it comes out. So, do I need you? Do I need an investor? Do I need a platform? These questions are bubbling. And we’re just trying to work organically from the relationships with the people we want to work with, the idea being that we know that we need to make our own cultural space to appear. Because we’re always at a disadvantage — the same way we’re at a disadvantage appearing in a store when that’s not our customer. They’re actually filtering out our customers. It’s the same with anywhere else.”
Whereas traditional brands have always had brand faces and brand ambassadors, you’ve always had a community of people that have circled your ecosystem, and they’ve been ambassadors without the word — and I’m sure without the big paycheck, and without the contractual obligations. Your brand faces look a lot different. A brand face could be someone who works a nine-to-five but has a Telfar bag and within their horrible office job that they hate, they are an ambassador because they represent something different within that traditional ecosystem. Or it could be an Oyinda, or a Kelela. I think your idea of ambassadorship has so much ability to be able to move and transfer and I want to understand if that was conscious or not.
BR: “In general, we’ve been really interested in what we have that no one else has, especially at times where we didn’t have money. We had to think about what we could do that nobody else could do. I’m also looking for that person, when they post a picture of themselves in the bag. We thought to ourselves, none of you other brands have that person. And that’s why we focus on that person. Our bag was an example of reverse influence. Celebrities bought it because regular people had it, 100 percent. And when we would even post a picture of a celebrity with it, nobody was interested.”
I almost feel the bag is another take on you being called emerging for ten years. I read so many articles calling the bag ‘new’ when the bag was designed in 2014. There’s this laziness. I don’t know whether it’s laziness of the press, I don’t know whether it’s laziness of mind. I don’t know what it is. The party’s always been open — if you never showed up that’s on you. And I find it frustrating, so I know that you must find it annoying tenfold. I want to know how you feel about this adoption of these bags. Are you into the fact that everyone is so into them? Or are you more like, I’ve got 20 million things up my sleeve, it’s cool.
TC: “I guess it’s a bit of both. I love to see millions of people with the same thing, because that’s why I made that thing. I want those designs to perform like that. But then at the same time, we’ve been making all these really cool clothes the entire time we’ve been around. I think now it’s my responsibility to actually make those things that you believe in and make them available. It’s like, I’ve always created the world for them—I have 15, 16, 20 years worth of clothes, and now I just need to make those things available in the real world, instead of walking down a runway.”
And is that part of the strategy moving forward? Because I do want to talk about the clothes, about this being a fully realized brand. Of course it’s incredible, and I’m sure it’s really affirming to have a generation of people who respond to this brand and want to be a part of it. But it also must be quite confusing that they might only know you for one thing or one product. How do you transfer the way they love this bag and say hey, we have jeans that represent you too. We’ve had a tank top that represents you. I think that original Telfar tank top is actually really, for me, idealistic of a certain person. There’s everything about the way it’s constructed: the price point, what it’s made off, the fact the strap falls down. It’s all the embodiment of a person with a certain mentality. Age, size, race aside. So I wonder how you’re going to get that thinking on that bag to other areas?
BR: “That’s just purely a question of a business plan. Because all of those clothes were available, just through this broken system. It was a system where we couldn’t make any money on anything, and our customer had to pay crazy prices. Like, if I’m gonna make a tank top for someone I’m interested in, it’s not going to be 0. That’s stupid. So it’s all about us. The one thing we’re doing is figuring out not how many bags do we need to make, but how many bags we want to make? How many bags do we need to make sure that the customer also connects with all these other things and that we continue to grow the categories of what you can get from us. But that means developing a product; there’s a difference between an object and a product. The product has everything built into it, the entire supply chain. It shows up to your house the day after you order it. And you didn’t have to pay too much, and we made enough, you know? That takes time to develop, and that takes capital to develop. And the bag is allowing us to do that for all the other categories. We just teased the durag yesterday, it’s coming out in a couple days. That’s gonna sell out. That’s another category. The jewelry is sold out.”
TC: “Each time we introduce a product, I realize that it’s actually sold out. So I just want to be the same way with the clothing that we’ve been making because some of the best things that you do want to make, and you do want to sell, don’t make it out.”
BR: “If I asked anybody in fashion in the industry what the result of the Bag Security program would be, they would guess something at least ten times less than what it was. And what that made us realize is that all these people’s opinions conspire to limit material reality. They create your limits. They’re the ones who make you ’emerging’ or not. I like bypassing them and asking directly to our customer, ‘How many of you want to be counted? How many of you are out there?’ We just totally broke out of the hole of the entire industry. That was the same thing that’s happening every time we design a collection. It’s like, okay, so what does this store think they can sell to their customer? But it had nothing to do with us — we were fitting into them.”
TC: “It seems like where we are right now is just a result of just us practicing a certain way of doing things and knowing which way is gonna work. And the way that’s not working is the way that the fashion industry works. When we had our showroom at Century 21, people were able to pick what they wanted to get, and we got in our minds to tell the stores what to buy. And still, the stores really didn’t listen to that.”
And have all those retailers now circumnavigated and come back to you saying, ‘Actually, now we want a part. You guys have figured out that your supply can be infinite. Oh, can we have some of that infinity?’ I’m sure you’re high on retailers’ list to get back. I’m interested in this because everyone probably thinks you’re rich now.
TC: “I’m just trying to get rid of that rumor. I don’t want any of that attachment that comes with it. I’m rich in life and love and happiness.”
Very good. Very good answer.
TC: “I’ll leave the bank account out of it.”
What about the post-popularization of the brand. Have you thought about if demand kind of settles down? Do you guys think about it? Do you worry about it? Do you not care about it?
TC: “I think about it. But I think that we’re making so much new stuff. We’re aware of how much that product is in demand, and we have other, equally great products too.”
BR: “We’re not passive in this. We were there every step of the way, communicating, creating new programs, and getting the other products in line, putting them out in a plan with the bag releases. And they’re hitting. Those products are working, too. If we were a company that only had one bag, then I think we would be in a greater risk of that ending. And if we lose a bunch of hype people who don’t have the patience to even understand what we do anyway, that’s not a loss.”
TC: “There’s also this other thing that’s going on. It’s like, will supporting Black business still be in by the time I get this bag in January, you know? It’s like, you can go. This isn’t a trend. I make things with the intention of you wearing that forever. I’m owning this period of what someone looks like, just like a Birkin bag or Chanel. Just how they’re around, I plan to be around. I’m building this based off of my life, and my life is not a trend.”
BR: “And we also have a high amount of reciprocity with our customer. We like this person. This person is our person, overwhelmingly, and unusually. We could basically hang out with most people who have the bag. Especially as we expand, we realize, do we want a million more followers if those million followers become our police? Who is it and why are they there, is the question.”
TC: “It’s like you could have a million people that are following your brand and just get a bunch of bullshit. People perceive fashion and people in fashion to be always trying to take advantage of someone, or profit off of someone, which is true. But it doesn’t have to be. You’re invited into a place to exert your individualism in a condition of unfreedom.”
And dare you not conform, then you’re considered to be unfashionable or ugly.
BR: “In that context, the coolest thing you could do is be a troll, because at least then you’re showing some kind of resistance. On social media, 50 percent of our activity is in the U.S., and 10 percent of that is in New York. We’re now in every little town in the country. It used to be like, you could get that [rare bag] and make your girlfriend feel bad. But with the creation of something like Bag Security, we’re creating the possibility that [exclusivity] is not what [fashion] is about. Because for us, if we were feeding into that old system, then we’re its slaves.”
TC: “It’s like, ‘oh, you get the new bag.’ But I carry the dustiest one, even though I made it!
I remember I came into school when I was like 7, and my book was all tattered and torn. I cried, and my school teacher said, ‘that means you love that book. And you read it and you slept on it and you actually read your books.’ And I’ll never forget it. She said, ‘never be ashamed that your book is tattered and torn.’
TC: “There’s a certain way about fashion where people keep things and they have nice things. I just basically — I don’t know. Like, I’m gonna keep my entire day’s, week’s, month’s, year’s look.”
BR: “It’s a real thing. Like if you meet somebody and they’re wearing something, and then you see them the next day and they’re wearing the same thing, I’m like, damn, yes, that’s a real person.”
TC: “It’s like, that’s their look.”
Let’s talk about the durags, which for me feel really culturally important. They’re specifically significant because I can’t think really of one accessory that defines an African-American sartorial moment as much as the durag. Tell me why you chose to make one?
TC: “I’ve basically been calling it the cornerstone of Black hair care. We’ve been talking about it for almost five years, to create a thing that I really use and need and survive off of. And then also I guess it’s like our first step into this direction of beauty. It’s another accessory that also speaks specifically to me and most people that buy into the brand.”
How would you feel if a white person was wearing a Telfar durag?
TC: “I’d say to them, you could do whatever you want to do. You know what it’s for. And you know, what is that doing for you? You want to lay your hair down, you can lay your hair down. We’re in 2020. I’m not policing anything that people can buy themselves. That’s not the point of fashion. I literally have lived in New York, down South, East Coast, you know—I’ve seen white people in durags. It’s not a new thing. You even clock them and be like, ‘damn, you actually try that.’ But I don’t find that insulting. This whole thing of policing what you can and can’t do makes me want to do something more.”
BR: “That’s not our job. But I think that was also in the category of shit that other people can’t do. And it makes so much sense [to sell] direct-to-consumer, because that can’t be in a fashion store. You know what I mean? Because it literally will give you the wrong idea. Like it’s actually for people who need it, and they’re ordering it from a place that’s worth it.”
And what else? What other products, categories would you love to get into or are you planning to get into, if you can share them?
TC: “Definitely our denim line. A line of underwear. Accessories. There’s shoes.”
BR: “We’re doing it all, to be honest. It’s just a matter of time. But what we’re kind of in the process of unpacking the collection. We also loved collections in the tradition of European fashion, because we saw them and we admired them. But I think, over time, we’ve started to realize what the problems are with this tradition, the first and foremost being that we started to understand that it’s almost like a kind of protectionist racket, similar to burgundy wine, or regional cheeses. They want to continue cultural dominance in an idea of beauty. And what we’re starting to understand is that we’ve always made types of clothes, and there have always been Telfar departments. We’re trying to unpack that into, how do we come out with clothes in a way that’s new, that’s for the future? We’re essentially bringing everything back, but just launching it in a way that actually makes sense. That isn’t just a performance where you’re losing money on everything from marketing or some kind of nonsensical thing. So the answer is everything — all the categories of clothes you’ve seen from us have been consistent since forever.”
TC: “I go through the archive, from the first collection to the most recent one, and pick out literally everything that makes us and then edit from there.”
And that’s your formula for the collection each time, to look back?
TC: “It’s really annoying. Literally I’ll bring a mood board and it only has our collections on it. Nothing else. It’ll be from 2006 or 2005. It’s really about going back to what we were doing and actually perfecting that.”
I feel like you have a career’s worth of ideas already stored up there.
TC: “I just find myself going back to them so much because the world is shifting toward what I was already thinking that I wanted the world to be, and the way I wanted people to act within the world.”
BR: “It’s really crazy: When we pull something out from like, 2006 to 2009, it just looks so new. It looks like, oh shit, people will buy that today. It looks newer than what we just did.”
You know, a friend said this to me yesterday, but Viagra was originally made to be heart medicine. It was meant to keep you alive. They realized in the testing that it obviously gets your dick hard, and used it and marketed it as that. And I thought it was a metaphor for Telfar. It was created to be essential. It’s an essential part of your life, but I think through no marketing and thinking of your own — through the buzz and the getting-off of everybody else — you created Viagra. If there ever was a strategy to your mass market success, it’s to create something essential, to have other people freak out over it, but you don’t say it or do anything.
TC: “I’m still unpacking it in my head.”
BR: “What you said is obviously true, because it sounds so good. But I would say that there’s two answers to it, and they don’t come from me or come from Telfar. I would say that it feels like we’re not behind it, we’re in front of it. What we’re interested in is security. What we’re interested in is being able to create control over time and space for ourselves, and to share it with other people. And that’s the secret behind the brand. And all the commercial things come from us believing that that is actually true. We want to do every single thing differently down to its core fundamental structure. So in a way it doesn’t seem like we’re saying anything, because we’re doing things.”
TC: “I think we’re just owning the shit that we’re doing. Every season, you’re gonna see a thing that represents what we’re about. And it’s not losing the message.”
I was thinking about you being the heir apparent to Calvin and Ralph and Tommy and all of these one-man name brands that were kind of able to crack the code on American dressing. I want to understand your relationship to fame and notoriety, because with all of this kind of success, people love to see the face of it. And actually, I always think you have taken that code and again subverted it. Because at the beginning of your career, you were doing the clapping avatar of yourself and that stuff.
BR: “That wasn’t the beginning, by the way. At the beginning of his career, people thought he was a Japanese designer. And they didn’t believe that he was Telfer when they would meet him.”
TC: “I would tell someone that I made something and they’d be like, ‘Yeah, right.’ When me and Babak started working together, he encouraged me to actually be very present —”
BR: “I kind of forced him. But my rationale for it was, you’re going to be fabricated and perpetrated. You need to get ahead of it and put a decoy in front of yourself. Everything about you is going to pass through your skin and through how people perceive you, so put that out there now. Make that action have to happen in public, and let’s go from there. So we went for literally that kind of celebrity designer — aesthetic as a provocation — at that time. I came on in 2014, by the time it was the CFDA Awards in 2017, it was one year to the day after the election. And that was a different era. Now, we’ve moved into tokenization from marginalization. The industry had a plan in place [for Telfar], and they were gonna stick us in the slot. None of these things came from the people they’re addressing. In fact, they’re not addressing those people at all. It’s people addressing each other, using us. So that changed our strategy, and then that turned into business practices. It’s like, no, we’re gonna run our business like this. I would say that those resistances helped define us — we couldn’t choose our context. We happen in this world, and there’s a kind of subjection that totally precedes us. And we’re just trying to find a way out. And it’s not a conversation, it’s a line of flight.”
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