Text by Michael Bullock
Photography by TORSO
Published in InStyle, 2021
April 28, 2021: Telfar Clemens is a guest on The Wendy Williams Show. Holding a large, fuchsia vegan-leather Telfar "shopping" bag in her hands, Williams proclaims, "It's like you came out of nowhere!" To which he responds, "I've been here…for, like, forever."
Depending on where you stand, both statements are true. Urban creative communities have been part of his brand's story and evolution for over a decade, but 2020 was the year most of the world was properly introduced to the mononymous designer. "I don't have a problem with it," says Clemens. "I think it's cool that people are discovering me now. I've been doing what I've wanted to do with passion and creativity for the last 15 years, and I'm happy it's starting to move out of a fashion space to affect more people."
With his popularity on the rise, it would be easy for Clemens to forget where he came from, but his instinct is to do just the opposite. When the idea arose to fête the arrival of his upcoming collaboration, Ugg x Telfar, Clemens took the opportunity to do the shoot in Maryland, where he grew up, and asked the cast of one of his favorite shows, The Real Housewives of Potomac, to show off the new wares.
The two-day extravaganza went from day to night and included morning exercises, pole-dancing lessons, a QVC-style fashion show, a Champagne reception with emerging pop stars Carrie Stacks and Ian Isiah, and a pajama party. The occasion allowed Clemens to try his hand at something new: "I wasn't a gown designer before, but I guess I am now," he says. "I made seven couture gowns in sequins, because that is the fabric of the Real Housewives reunion episodes. I designed them to be dress-down gowns so you can wear them with T-shirts and jeans. It's a gown for doing laundry and breastfeeding. They're designed to add just a little bit of shimmer to your daily domestic life."
Clemens is adept at shifting boundaries and combining his vision with whomever he is focusing on in that moment - in this case the RHOP cast - ultimately creating a meaningful interaction for everyone involved. "I exchanged numbers with all the ladies and have seven new girlfriends," says Clemens. The love is mutual. "Telfar has the highest energy I have ever seen," says Wendy Osefo, Ph.D., who stars on the show. "He makes you feel so welcome, and it really translates to his brand. Everything that he is in person, he puts that into his clothing. It's vibrant, it's energetic, and it's completely authentic. He's everything Potomac stands for: fun, energy, a little bit of shade. He represents, and I love it." Gizelle Bryant, meanwhile, has been championing the brand for some time. "I have not one, not two, but three Telfar bags in my closet," she says. "I have been in the cut, just supporting, wanting to see him win, and he's winning!"
From the creative playgrounds of downtown New York's art and club scenes to the echelons of high fashion, Clemens's ability to straddle multiple worlds stems from his varied upbringing. Born in Queens, N.Y., he was raised in his family's home country of Liberia until he was 5, when they moved back to Queens to escape the first civil war. His formative school years were spent in Maryland's suburbia (about 30 minutes outside of Potomac). After launching a T-shirt line as a teenager, Clemens knew that he wanted to start his own brand. The label officially kicked off in 2005, when he débuted his first collection at the independently run Gen Art Fresh Faces fashion show. During this era of peak strictly gendered red-carpet frilliness, he quietly charted his own path by designing utilitarian clothing that combined the unisex ambiguity of Liberian garments with the swagger and logo-heavy branding of the '90s American sportswear he loved as a kid. "I make accelerated versions of every genre of clothes," says Clemens. "Dressing down a gown, dressing up a T-shirt. Making the wrong-right version. Everything I produce, I want it to be a new thing. A gown that doesn't cover your boobs, a polo shirt worn backward."
"His design practice reimagines things in a way that only Telfar would do it, and it's always a mash-up," says the brand's fashion director, Avena Gallagher. "It's the gala and the grocery store all at once, but there is also a form study. He loves to celebrate the most ubiquitous items of clothing. He's re-expressed the white T-shirts over and over again, exploring, redesigning, and never losing interest in it."
Gallagher's husband, Babak Radboy, had served as an informal adviser to the brand from the beginning but officially became its artistic director in 2013. "I couldn't totally understand what he was doing," says Radboy about those early days. "It was original; it looked like the future. I was attracted to that, and I joined him because I was angry that it wasn't being properly received."
Radboy brought a new level of care and dedication to how the brand was communicated. He invented the cheeky catchphrase that easily captures the company ethos: "It's not for you, it's for everyone." In 2014, Telfar released a breakthrough accessory that delivered on this promise of inclusion. Inspired by how good he thought shoppers look while carrying a Bloomingdale's bag, Clemens designed a utilitarian vegan-leather version of it with his circular TC logo embossed in the center on one side. It also featured handles and straps that allowed for versatile styling and carrying options. He priced it comfortably at $250 (which at the time was his fee for a night of deejaying). Now nicknamed the Bushwick Birkin, it has acquired a litany of bold-faced fans, including Selena Gomez, Dua Lipa, Chloë Sevigny, playwright Jeremy O. Harris, and, famously, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who was photographed carrying a cherry red version on the steps of the Capitol and even tweeted about Clemens in a swell of cross-borough support. At the time, Clemens wasn't familiar with the congresswoman. "I didn't know who she was before she tweeted at me, but when I found out what she was about, I was proud," Clemens says. "For me, she's the most relatable person in government. She doesn't come from wealth, and she uses her voice to make things better, not just for the rich but for all of us. She bought a bag. Anyone who supports me, I'm into, but she is actually cool."
The Telfar shopping bag's true power comes from its status as a democratic symbol. Take one look at the company's Instagram stories and that's immediately understood. Here you'll find an endless stream of reposts from a diverse cross section of people carrying the bag with pride. For Clemens, his customers are the stars, and in return they help to further his narrative on their own feeds. They understand the enormous conviction, perseverance, self-confidence, and strength that was required for him to force his way into a system that was indifferent to him. The audacity it took him to make a place for himself alongside the icons of American design. Reflecting on it now, Clemens sums up his attitude about the early years with one word: stressed. While many of his peers received support to present at official Fashion Week venues for editors and buyers, Clemens relied on art galleries and other astutely sourced spaces to show to a small but dedicated group of admirers.
"I never got the types of sponsorship that helped support independent women's brands, so we had to come up with unconventional solutions," says Clemens. "It led to things like selling clothes at art galleries and early experimentation communicating directly with our customers. All of this allowed us to evolve as a cultural brand instead of a traditional fashion brand."
In 2017, Telfar became the first Black-owned company to win the game-changing CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award. He invested the majority of the $400,000 prize money into refining the production and distribution of the bags and expanding the offering to three sizes with new color ranges. The payoff was incredible. For the first time, the company was finally able to meet demand, and it continued to grow slowly and steadily. Along the way there were unexpected, successful collaborations with American institutions like White Castle, Budweiser, Converse, and now Ugg. Then the pandemic hit, and the social justice movement took hold across the country. Global fashion sales dropped by 50 percent, but Clemens, who authentically exemplified real diversity and inclusion at every level of his business, found himself with a wealth of new customers.
Suddenly, Clemens was no longer viewed by the industry as an anomaly, and his lack of adherence to the fashion system's outdated rules was now clearly working in his favor. He had already stopped delivering on a seasonal schedule and utilized Instagram for product drops that continue to sell out within minutes.
By the end of the 2020, Oprah Winfrey had included the Bushwick Birkin in her Favorite Things holiday list. As a result of this unprecedented trajectory, Clemens landed on the cover of Time's Most Influential People issue, and the corresponding text, written by singer Solange Knowles, referenced his ability to lead by example: "Telfar's approach to business and art is an affirmation of how we can fully and confidently show up in the world while uplifting those who have made us who we are."
Does it comfort the designer that the world has finally embraced his ideas? "It can be a double-edged sword," he says. "I was doing what I was doing because this is who I am, and if the world changes back after this moment, I'm not going to change with it. Our practices have always been our values. It's not some new call for social justice. I'm into the world sharing in these ideas, but I'm also just into being me."
Or perhaps, as RHOP star Candiace Dillard Bassett so eloquently puts it, "It's the vibe he gives off - be who you're going to be. Wearing Telfar gives you that edge. [During our shoot] I felt artistic, I felt free, I felt colorful, I felt moisturized."